Maison Martin Margiela (20): The Exhibition

Cillian O’Connor visits the reknowned fashion designer’s recent exhibition in Antwerp

Having spent the last twenty years surprising, intriguing, beguiling and undoubtedly mesmerizing followers of fashion, the acclaimed Maison Martin Margiela has finally presented the public with a most unique opportunity to learn just a little more of the man, the brand and the philosophy.


The recent launch of Maison Martin Margiela (20): The Exhibition at Antwerp’s MoMu has aroused the curiosity of many. After all, exhibitionism and self-promotion are in no way characteristic of Margiela’s strong ethos of anonymity and reclusion. Indeed, the designer himself (and yes, he is, in fact, male despite the claims of many) has never permitted a photograph be taken of him and very rarely grants interviews. So, it was with overwhelming anticipation that I approached the entrance to this presentation of Margiela’s legendary work.


And what an apt entrance it is. A sprawling mesh of gleaming barbed wire stretches across the wide staircase of Antwerp’s fashion museum, and at its core an opening through which to enter – the first of many examples of Margiela’s innate fondness for deconstruction and proof more than anything of his Belgian training. Above this, his brand name of world renown is printed in stark, white plastic – you’d be forgiven for thinking he really does crave attention.

The exhibition begins by establishing just exactly what MMM is; namely a collective composed of the numerous employees working at the Paris atelier rather than a sole designer’s eponymous line. Well, at least that’s what I managed to interpret from the puzzlingly cryptic description. In other words, Margiela favours the “we” rather than “me,” doing so not only through the aforementioned profile but also through the strict staff dress-code. You can trust you’ll find no conventional check ties and pinstripe at the Paris atelier in the eleventh arrondissement. Instead, the employees traipse the former schoolhouse in unadorned, bright white lab-coats. Uniformity, Margiela claims, reinforces the emphasis on the house rather than the man.


Following this initial clarification comes the heart of the retrospective – a host of Margiela’s most innovative designs all arranged into a captivating series by curator and long-time MMM collaborator Bob Verhelst. Here, one encounters several of Margiela’s most influential collections which have radicalised fashion in countless ways. There’s the extensive display of iconic Tabi boots inspired by the traditional Japanese footwear, and a space dedicated to the memorable Trompe l’Oeil collection. The exhibition also boasts a selection of eye-catching painted garments reminiscent of silver foil and also features evidence of MMM’s first forays into menswear.


Perhaps the most interesting facet of this anniversary exhibition was a simple video installation. Projected on to a bare wall in typically minimalist fashion was a short film on loop featuring one of Margiela’s esteemed clients modelling self-styled looks consisting solely of items from her MMM-dominated wardrobe. A refreshingly new and aesthetically pure idea, much like the rest of MMM’s clothes and this undeniably stellar exhibition.


Maison Martin Margiela (20) : The Exhibition runs until 8th February 2009 at MMu, Nationalestraat 28, Antwerp.