Margiela: The Hermès Years

MoMU Antwerp Gives Margiela His Due in a New Exhibition

At the press preview for “Margiela: The Hermès Years” at MoMU Antwerp, Kaat Debo, the curator, immediately addressed the crowd of journalists with her own question and answered it: 

“Why [Margiela] now?”

Actually, the answer had been staring her in the face for years. Margiela’s name is omnipresent in the media (the international press declared him the “true protagonist” of Paris Fashion Week A/W 2016-2017), and his ideas are a constant reference for many designers. During the late ‘90s, he was the most influential avant-garde designer in the fashion world for already a decade. After all, eventually the avant-garde goes mainstream.

So it’s easy to see why Hermès CEO, Jean-Louis Dumas, appointed Belgian-designer Margiela as the new creative director to lead the women’s ready-to-wear collections in 1997. But Margiela didn’t stop designing under his own label. Though this museum show focuses on his Hermès collections, they are juxtaposed with the designs under his own label. Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by a color-coded dichotomy of backdrops that continues throughout the show: orange, naturally, for Hermès and white for Margiela. MoMU rationalises it in this way:

“‘Margiela: The Hermès Years’ can be perceived as a vast wardrobe, in which the two worlds of Martin Margiela can engage in dialogue with one another. What at first may seem to be irreconcilable worlds of luxury and avant-garde fashion have both proved inherent to Margiela’s creative DNA, and have now been brought together as part of a single vision, in which ideas and concepts that span collections and seasons are recaptured, rethought or even refined.”

Equally binding these two separate collections together thru seasons is a deep respect for natural, mature women—this, too, is ubiquitous in his designs and keeps reappearing. In fact, the soundscape that visitors hear (which was something the models listened to as Margiela sent them down the runway) is “Les Compliments” in which a seductive male voice speaks flattery and ends with, “Tu es vraie, vraie, vraie.” (Translation: you are real, real, real.)

And a note about casting: Margiela preferred to work with women whose ages ranged from 25-64: an untraditional gesture when the fashion world is youth obsessed. His Hermès collections focused on the comfort of the clothing and “an allure of certainty,” and he chose models who could convey this sentiment in his shows. 

The exhibit is organised into various themes: silhouette, vareuse (a very deep V-neck garment), casting, vocabulaire/vocabulary, icons such as suits and trench coats, layers, inside or outside, knitwear, heritage, sleeves, leather, retro, evening, losange (a diamond-shaped scarf in monochrome silk twill crêpe), and the end. Oftentimes, the direct comparisons mingle with each other: how he designed a garment for Hermès versus how he designed it for his own label. The twinsets, trench coats and evening wear provide stark examples. The resulting effect? Well, you’ll have to see for yourself.

Kaat Debo also had to remind the crowd—most of us were engrossed in documenting everything with our smartphones—that little is known about Margiela’s designs during the late 90s to early 2000s. This was before the digital age, and the fashion world tends to have a short memory when it comes to history. Debo smiled and said, “MoMU is here to restore that memory.” And thankfully, Margiela’s past is on display now until August 27, 2017 in Antwerp—coincidentally where he first studied fashion design.

A feel-good footnote: Margiela’s mother knitted one of the sweaters on display—the knitters he worked with at that time could not get his vision right.

Margiela: The Hermès Years opens today and runs until August 27, 2017 at MoMU Fashion Museum Antwerp