Stemming from the idea that Martin Margiela (Belgian, b. 1957) has always been an artist, Lafayette Anticipations in Paris is currently presenting the fashion designer’s first solo show, on view through January 2022.
There was never anything conventional about Martin Margiela. When he started his eponymous label, Maison Martin Margiela, in Paris in 1988, he altered what femininity and fashion looked like. His work rejected, deconstructed, and rebelled against everything—the structure of a garment, the cult of celebrity, the relationship to the material, the idea of luxury. A debut exhibition of his work at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris this October will cement that everything he did was provocative, and that he was always an artist. After Margiela left Hermès, where he had been Creative Director between 1997 and 2003, and stepped away from his own label in 2009, he seemed to disappear from the world. “He was completely drenched. He was becoming the slave of a system,” Lafayette Anticipations director Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel points out. He’d been taking night classes in painting throughout his career, and had quietly developed a large body of work that he shared with his close friend Chris Dercon. The pair organized a private viewing of his work in a Parisian apartment in 2018 and Martin was invited to do a solo show as a result. “He was always an artist lost in fashion,” Lamarche Vadel explains. “He has the maneuvers, gestures, and concepts that visual artists are using.” She rightly compares his renewed use of the catwalk ritual in the late 1980s with the way Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe were looking at scenography and working outside the museum in non-institutional places at the same time. Margiela was the first to take the catwalk into the streets, notoriously putting on presentations in derelict warehouses, playgrounds in immigrant neighborhoods, disused trains, and decaying houses. His presentations fought with the idea of status and hierarchy theatre—a kind of proto-relational aesthetics.
There are also elements of Tino Sehgal in his work—the resistance to documentation, a poetic take on time and experience. Privacy and anonymity were obviously a personal choice, however, it also allowed more meaning to be given to the work rather than the creator. His take on space can also be seen as an art gesture—covering his entire studio and later stores in white house paint; dressing his staff in lab coats. It’s lo-fi improvisation edging on Arte Povera. All the themes and motifs that made Margiela so fundamentally innovative and groundbreaking in fashion remain central to his work as an artist.
One of the lasting influences of Margiela on both fashion and society was his rethinking of what femininity could look like. He exposes hems, left things raw, avoided clichéd ideas of sexiness. Margiela’s models were street cast, androgynous, angular, and intelligent. The work of Raf Simons, Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski, and Demna Gvasalia would not be the same without him. Art always felt embedded in his work, and he collaborated with artists like Marina Faust, Abraham Habbah, and Anders Edström. The exhibition in Paris will take over all three floors of the building, presenting his new work in an experiential form. “He is playing with the institution,” the curator explains. “The show is about discovering, uncovering, giving dignity and attention to very small things—that we are not even able to pay attention to anymore. He’s always been trying to redirect our attention to the accidental, the ephemeral, the beauty of time passing.”
The process of creating the objects in the show was also unusual and supported by the team at Lafayette Anticipations who replicated the closeness of a Margiela studio. Research, development, and fabrication happened on-site, with Margiela inventing new techniques and testing out processes. This collaborative relationship was something Lamarche-Vadel had begun with the last show featuring Marguerite Humeau and Jean Marie Appriou. “We are really trying to work together with the artists and find crazy solutions to their crazy ideas,” she explains. Taking a pause and re-contextualizing Margiela in a new way may seem to revive his past. If he is embraced by the art world as the conceptual artist he clearly is, then the shows and pieces he made in the past may in contrast be viewed as closer to living sculptures or activated performance pieces. His work always included a multiplicity of techniques, objects, multi-sensory activations, and a sense of movement. It is just being seen from a new angle.