Maison Martin Margiela 20

Maison Martin Margiela “20” The Exhibition
Mode Museum, Antwerp, Belgium
September 12, 2008 – February 8, 2009

To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Maison Martin Margiela, a comprehensive exhibition of the Belgian designer’s work is displayed in the city where he studied fashion. The exhibition fails to reveal the illusive man himself, but instead gives a fair insight into his working process. From the naming and display of his celebrated collections, to his choice of materials and construction techniques, Margiela provides a knowing critique of fashion. In fact it is a critique so knowing, that the outcome is only all the more fashionable.

In press material (he does not give interviews) Margiela refers only to the collection, rather than himself, in a gesture that can be seen as a critique of the cult of personality that bombards art and fashion today. The white exhibition matches the décor found (if you can find) the Maison Martin Margiela shops dotted around the fashion capitals of the world. Here the gallery walls are papered in a trompe l’oeil effect of images on the gallery walls, of the gallery walls. (This technique is also apparent in the spring/summer 1996 collection, in which each garment is printed with an image of another garment from the collection.) And then of course there are the distinctive white hand stitched labels – void of information – that signify the main women’s collection. 12 other collections identified by a simple circled number in the label. In a further critique of fashion’s obsession with fame, models are photographed with blacked out eyes as though we (or they) are under censorship.

We learn from the exhibition text that Margiela “focuses on that which fashion generally anxiously attempts to conceal.” The results are at times remarkably beautiful, elsewhere simply clever, but always outstanding in the skill and craftsmanship of execution. For example, several collections during the 1990s included adult sized doll clothing. Garments were scaled up from doll’s wardrobe to include idiosyncrasies such as an oversized zipper or dangling threads, which would have been miniscule in the original, now take on a decorative role. “Reproduction of a garment from a doll’s wardrobe. Details and disproportions are reproduced in the enlargement,” is printed on the black label inside each. An element of the uncanny is alive and well in these creations, both thoroughly familiar and unsettling at the same time. Literally at the other end of the spectrum is the XXXL collection in which standard sized clothes are blown up to enormous proportions. Visual intrigue, as always, plays a part but there is a social commentary on the quest for superficial perfection and the peculiarities such an approach reveals.

Displayed in a darkened room, the one-of-a-kind Artisanal collection is illuminated one garment at a time. The result is an awkward game of cat and mouse, much like not sitting in the front row of a fashion show. Viewers scurry from one illuminated case to the next, as often as not unwittingly blocking the view of others in their attempt to see the display. Materials range from the precious to the pedestrian with the number of hours noted beneath each garment. Again, we see a critique of the haute couture production system, but ironically perhaps yet another unintended pun on contemporary debates about craft during which “how long did this take to make?” is often viewed as crass and banished from the conversation. Next door, the birthday room screens a compilation of images from fashion shows and shoots. Some loops are long, others short with sound arriving and departing unexpectedly. Again, the viewer is teased: poised on the verge of party you might have liked an invitation to, but can only watch.

This exhibition replicates the feel of the Maison Martin Margiela stores, which suggest themselves as laboratories. But you are also aware that each space is prepared in anticipation of its visitors. And this is where the exhibition can begin to feel just a little contrived: a casual stack of paint tins in the corner or packaging materials left in the gallery provide only distractions. But in the fun Margiela pokes at fashion, you get the impression that the result – fashion itself – is far from an innocent by product. There is fine line between the clever and critical puns he plays and cliché. I suspect that too is part of the game.

Selvedge Magazine (issue 26 Nov./Dec. 2008: 90)