Martin Margiela talks about his career in fashion and his enigmatic art

Last fall, posters began popping up around Paris — on shop windows, in subways and on street corners — with an off-brand deodorant stick. Both banal and enigmatic, this everyday image of a supermarket toiletries served as an invitation to an art exhibition. The artist was already well known to most Parisians; in fact, more than a few could have worn it at the time. His name was Martin Margiela.

Few up-and-coming artists have as much creative cachet as this radical Belgian who almost single-handedly revolutionized the fashion landscape when he launched his label in 1988. When Margiela burst onto the scene with her deconstructed look at the ‘upside-down, oversized -how-it-made, process-over-product approach, the fashion industry was a constant purveyor of high-end glamor that never dared to put a stitch in its place. But the philosophy of the crafty young art school graduate, previously apprenticed to Jean Paul Gaultier, fits perfectly with the fin de siècle spirit of overturning the refined aesthetic and challenging the institutions that create a soporific flow of goods. . for consumption. Margiela appreciated the unfinished, the raw, the “faux”, the revulsion of beauty as much as its allure and the ambiguity of intermediate states.

Even the man himself resisted the usual mythology of the genius designer, refusing to salute at the end of his parades, to be photographed or interviewed. It is therefore not surprising that during the 1990s and 2000s, his clothes became the uniform of rigor of the art world, a way of dressing in fashion while being in tune with the codes and the constraints of fashion as a value system. The brand’s four white stitching marks on the back of the garments functioned as a VIP card for conceptual minds. By wearing Martin Margiela, you could be the height of chic while claiming outsider status.

When Margiela officially stepped away from fashion in 2008, it was the end of an era. His brand would continue without him – as Maison Margiela – but the ghost had left the machine. Likewise, Margiela, the man, would go on without his mark. It turns out that his mode of departure was less an abandonment of a frenetic creative activity than a renewal of it, allowing him to reposition his vision. “I’m still the same person with the same tastes, ideas and obsessions,” Margiela says, over email, of her overall approach to work. (He still refuses to be photographed or conduct in-person interviews.)

Work in progress at the workshop.

Hair portraits, 2015–2019.

Last October, as posters on the streets of Paris promised, the Lafayette Anticipations museum opened Margiela’s first public art exhibition. It was hardly a modest entry. The exhibition, consisting of nearly 40 separate pieces, filled the space designed by Rem Koolhaas. They ranged from painting to film, sculpture to performance, collage to installation, summarizing the artist’s last 13 years of experimentation with material, concept and form. The visual brain had not lost its talent for upsetting expectations and established norms. Many of the themes covered in his most iconic collections have resurfaced in his neo-surrealist pop productions. Even the deodorant poster was reminiscent of his early years of unorthodox parade announcements – an invitation that was advertised in a daily newspaper’s classifieds immediately comes to mind. “The relationship between my fashion and my art remains clear and sincere”, explains Margiela. “The boundaries between the fashion system and the art world have also become more and more permeable, the transitions more and more fluid.”

It would be a mistake to treat Margiela’s fashion as her profession, and her art as a retirement hobby or some kind of minor refresher. “In fashion, you only design for the human body; in art, you have complete freedom to express yourself in two or three dimensions, with any technique or medium,” he says. The truth is that Margiela has always practiced the art; he studied it, trained in drawing and painting, and refined his art throughout his first career. The problem was that this career, with its ever-increasing demands for expansion, left little chance for development. “Fashion takes a long time,” he says. “There was almost no time left to do anything else. But in the last years as a fashion designer, I have already renewed my interest in making art objects. I took part in an exhibition in 2009 organized by Helmut Lang, who himself had stopped making fashion in 2005. I presented a plaster cast of the first jacket I created, in 1989.” Now free to devote himself to his vocation, he maintains a workshop on the outskirts of Brussels and another in Paris, and continues to live between the Belgian and French capitals.

Hair portraits, 2015–2019.

Déodorant, 2019, a poster promoting Margiela’s show at Lafayette Anticipations, in the streets of Paris.

It is only in 2019 that Margiela will present her new work to outside eyes. This came about through his association with renowned Belgian curator and art historian Chris Dercon, who served as a sounding board and was a frequent visitor to the artist’s studio. Together they located an apartment in central Paris and turned it into a private showroom, inviting a handful of art-world locals to view the work. The show proved a success. Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, began representing Margiela soon after, and he received his solo exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations.

In a move reminiscent of Margiela’s unorthodox fashion show sets of yore, visitors to the Lafayette exhibit were forced to enter the space via the rear fire escape. Inside, the artist had created a series of low-key, labyrinthine vignettes, separated by sweeps of vertical blinds that directed the public eye. Much of the work seemed steeped in a sense of loss, the degradation of beauty, the erasure of form, and the inability to access a hidden ideal. Hair, nails and skin were a special fixation. In one piece, five head-shaped orbs were arranged in a row, their silicone “skin” covered with natural hairs dyed in a succession of tones, from childlike silky blonde to adult brown, and finally, on the fifth head, the gray of old age. Margiela has created a contemporary sculptural version of the medieval “Ages of Man” motif, but any lesson in accepting the passage of time has been subverted not only by artificial hair coloring, but by the viewer’s somewhat monstrous realization that the heads had no faces; all individuating identity was masked. Hair reappeared in a number of works throughout the show, including in a map print that attempted to diagram the natural fall of human hair on the head. In another installation, hair was glued to the faces of movie stars on the covers of vintage magazines; and in an oversized Meret Oppenheim moment, faux fur shrouded an entire life-size bus stop, transforming a forgettable in-between space into a haunted fairytale destination.

A work in progress in the studio.

Hair is, of course, tied to notions of beauty, and it was a recurring trope in Margiela’s fashion vocabulary. Early in his career, he reportedly dragged hair extensions on the floor to get them dirty before applying them to a model’s head for a runway show, and for his Spring/Summer 2009 collection, celebrating his brand’s 20th anniversary , he created jackets in shiny stage wigs. The dual spectrum of beauty and fashion is found in almost all of the works in the series. The nails, fiberglass or Nymphenburg porcelain, were coated in bright red car polish. “A lot of my works are related to the human body, but also to the environment in which the human body moves”, explains Margiela. “The works often evoke the anatomy, folds and curves of the body. I want to render as closely as possible the delicate imperfections of the epidermis, in pastel, in paint, in chalk, a body that appears to us like pieces of desire. Tactile desire is very present in my work.

This uncanny longing for the familiar and the unfamiliar culminates in a stunning series of ambiguous body-part sculptures that appeared not only at Lafayette Anticipations, but also at Zeno X Gallery’s presentation at the contemporary art fair FIAC. last fall in Paris. These mutant torso-like organisms were cast from the same material as the pedestals they sit on; the sculpture and its mode of display appeared fused together as an indivisible totem, rendered in a range of sensual flesh colors. Avoiding the reverence given to ancient marbles, the plinths have been noticeably scuffed; Margiela wanted viewers to interact with the sculptures, transforming them into haptic and tangible objects. “I find it important that people can approach and touch my work,” he says. “I want to foster the reconciliation of the worlds of experience and representation by giving permission to caress the room. Thus, the piece is always in flux, always ready to be reborn. Objects and beings come to life with each trace that proves that they exist in the world, that they interact with it and are affected by it.

Torso series, 2018–2021.

The final piece in the exhibit was a five-minute black-and-white film of a young woman, her face covered in hair, laughing like mad. The footage was periodically interrupted by YouTube-like commercial clips for the generic deodorant that advertised the show. The film could have looked like a needle stuck in the side of the art critic, reminding us not to take the meaning of the work seriously. Or, perhaps, that fit of compulsive laughter was another natural emission of the human body that Margiela turned into something both seductive and frightening. When asked if there is a childish quality to making art and if fun and play are essential ingredients of the work, he replies, “Yes, yes, yes”.

Indeed, it’s hard to look back on Margiela’s fashion shows of the late ’80s and ’90s and not see a performer’s delight in the theater of mischief. And thankfully, a lot of that puckish energy is evident as he finds his feet as an artist. The exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations proved to be such a success that Margiela is currently working on creating new pieces and other iterations of her sculptures for a museum in Beijing this summer. “The appropriation of images and objects has been one of the signatures of my work in fashion from the start,” he says. “I have always been interested in the culture of copying and a tangle of copies of all kinds: photocopies, reproductions, replicas, etc.

If the Beijing public can expect anything, it’s that Margiela’s intelligent, multifaceted, slightly deranged, always provocative touch will have its full effect. It is a testament to Margiela’s vision that he reveres copies and reproduction, but his work is still one of a kind.

Pierre Antoine, Courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, Published by Lafayette Anticipations(8); ©Martin Margiela(4).

Christopher S. Washington