My kids occasionally play this game called Where’s Waldo? I think of this in the context of my favourite menswear designer, Martin Margiela. Let me go out on a limb here: I think Margiela is the coolest menswear designer (he designs for women too) on this planet. If any of your friends are travelling to Europe, I would urge you to beg, bribe or threaten them into procuring — in order of preference — a pair of Margiela blue jeans, any of his cotton tank tops, his wool sweater made entirely of ski gloves and, finally, if you can afford it, the pants and jackets he designed when he was at Hermes. His clothes aren’t cheap. The blue jeans I salivate over retail for about $1,450 (around Rs59,000) in New York’s Meatpacking District. That’s a lot of money for casual wear.
Cutting edge: The reclusive Margiela revels in displaying details in his clothes that the average tailor tries to hide.
I like Margiela for many reasons. He is equal parts philosopher and designer. His clothes are full of artful little metaphors about life, love and rock ‘n’ roll that are a challenge to uncover but keep your grey cells ticking all the same. He uses found and discarded items such as plastic caps, acrylic scarves and resins in his designs. Best of all, he purveys in discreet luxury. He is not a brand bombast. In other words, don’t bother buying a Margiela if you want the world to know. His logo — four little white pick stitches — is barely discernable, except by the cognoscenti. When he designed for Hermes, his menswear line was frequently lauded in what I considered excessive language. The most “perfectly cut pants on the planet”, said one fashion editor. Yet, he twiddled his nose at the fashion brigade by holding his shows at decrepit parking lots in the middle of nowhere. Imagine all those stilettoed magazine editors clambering over debris to see a fashion show.
The reason I admire Margiela is not only for his creative clothes, his thoughtful sentiments or his obvious distaste for the fashion bourgeoisie. My reason has little to do with clothes or designing. Throughout his career, which began in 1988, this Belgian has refused to be photographed or interviewed.
In the media-loving fashion world, Margiela is somewhat of an anomaly. No one knows what he looks or sounds like. Contrast this with Karl Lagerfeld’s antics with a camera, Dolce and Gabbana’s flamboyant excesses and Valentino’s dallying with Naomi, Cindy and Linda. Contrast this with the yachts, the drugs, and the drunk driving convictions. The best thing that the paparazzi can come up with about Margiela is his penchant for anonymity.
Not that journalists haven’t tried. Lots of people have tried to find and interview Margiela. He sends faxed responses to media inquiries signed “Maison Martin Margiela” as if it were some sort of socialist collective rather than a single individual.
Oddly, or perhaps fittingly, Margiela was inspired by Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, whose layered clothes for Commes des Garcons range from avant garde to just plain weird. To me, Kawakubo is the queen of wackiness and I mean that as a compliment. Her clothes are so far out of the ordinary that they speak another language. Margiela, in a way, is a more wearable Kawakubo.
Unlike fellow Belgian Ann Demeulemeester, Martin Margiela is a deconstructivist, which is simply another way of saying that he worships all those construction details that the average tailor tries to hide. Seams are on the inside, right? Wrong. Margiela’s seams are visible; his armholes sometimes appear in front; he frayed his jeans long before they were the flavour of the decade.
Not all his clothes are so...what’s the word?...far out. As he has grown in cult status and gained in confidence that comes from being worshipped by fashion editors, he concentrates on cut. His latest clothes are all about cut and assemblage. He will take two vintage T-shirts and assemble them so that they appear made for each other. In terms of structure, his clothes look like what Einstein said about Mozart’s music: They look like they were always there. In other words, although they are startlingly original, they reek of the obvious, as in, “Hell, why didn’t I think of putting my clothes together in this fashion?”
Perfect cut is both a cliché and a myth in fashion. Everyone wants a “perfectly cut” suit, whatever that is; and most designers claim they are the masters of cut and silhouette. The bald truth, however, is that there is no one perfect cut that will fit all body types. A suit that looks fantastic on Kevin Kline, for instance, is going to look effeminate when Sly Stallone wears it. That said, there are some designers who change the paradigm; who make a chunky wool coat look like a light and flowing dress such as, say, Jean Dessès or Madame Grès. Kawakubo, even though I don’t understand or appreciate her clothes, did the opposite. She made flowing clothes appear like roughly hewn sculpture. Margiela seems like a happy medium. His pieces have the refinement of clothes but the spontaneity of art. Plus, you can wear them.
Shoba Narayan cannot afford Martin Margiela’s blue jeans. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org