Margiela’s Conceptualist Couture

Enigmatic Belgian house Maison Martin Margiela’s radical version of couture – “ the “Artisanal” collection – is conceptual and cerebral: its display is germane to installation art rather than luxury. His countercultural spin on one of fashion’s most venerable traditions is welcome, and it befalls an era where the ideals of “couture” are up for grabs . With that term on the cusp of artistic bankruptcy, it seems apropos – maybe even vital – for Margiela to save bespoke fashion from itself.

Haute Couture, the pinnacle of extravagant sartorial spectacle and aesthetic extremism, has suddenly emerged from primarily a spectator sport for fashion fanatics to a viable presence on the ultra-elite luxury market. The ad hoc season historically engenders wistful voyeurism, if not a spirit of inclusion. This is no longer the case: despite an ailing global economy and subsequent criticism of conspicuous consumption, couture serves as an ultra-limited albeit immensely lucrative market force. The new clientele of the couture circuit are akin to patrons of great painters: they seek out art that spins both expensive fantasy and status-clinching exclusivity. When art’s primary concern is accomodating the client, who is in charge and what is at stake? How do the handful of Couture designers respond to the new commerciality of a creative challenge? Maison Martin Margiela retorts with dark irony, irreverence, and knowing wit.

Margiela, always the dadaist, still utters blasphemy during this most holy week of fashion. His vision is alien and provocative; he is often described as the industry’s chief anarchist. Every collection continues to elicit curiosity and mimicry. He satirizes the exclusivity complex of the leisure class while capitalizing upon the arcane appeal of the joke-within-a-joke his clothes typify. He mocks consumerism yet, as a postmodernist, understands its symbiotic relationship to art. He adamantly defends his anonymity and reclusion as a designer (he hasn’t been photographed publicly, ever). He bases his clothing in abstraction and recontextualization, and loathes the ostentatious – yet he guest designed for Hermes! In other words, Margiela is a bundle of contradictions. He is the epitome of a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a vest. And an unlikely advocate of couture.

Hence, his Artisanal collection presentation coincides with couture week twice a year as a purposeful, satirical counterpoint to the establishment. As they cannot be measured by the conventional couture yardstick, do Margiela’s avant-garde ideals hold surface appeal to the average heiress/couture client? The answer is likely no. As such, MMM’s “couture” is the black sheep show of the season. It is a strictly esoteric affair, even down to its locale. It is the ambiguous, “off-Broadway” antithesis of the big budgeted events, or depending on the year, it is off the map entirely. As always, instead of indulging us, Margiela focuses on broaching push-button topics through his one-of-a-kind, meticulously designed statement pieces. Each garment for the Fall 2008 Artisanal collection has been constructed as a kind of visual cipher: a signifier of a current and culturally relevant issue. Topics this time include economic recession, recycling, and the eternal conundrum of originality vs. mimicry.

The alchemization of apparent rubbish to treasure has always been prevalent in the MMM ethos. This time around, Margiela reversed the paradigm, turning fine fabrics and raw material into trashier simulacrum. These objets d’art were worn by models in black zentai suits – a new MMM presentation technique that forces the observer to focus on the clothing exclusively (this trend toward anonymity has been echoed in other recent collections, specifically in Pilati’s space-aged ideals for YSL). The most striking ensemble is the plastic bag dress – literally plastic bags lined in silk tafetta, with defining characteristics such as the handles and bag fastenings intact; by defying expectations about fabric’s quality vs. its visual appeal, Margiela creates an ironic situation that raises frank questions about what “luxury” entails. The “rope top” is actually “eight hanks of wool twisted to create a top with openwork lining.” In keeping with his notorious deconstructivist aesthetic, Margiela spliced two trench coats to make an asymmetrical top. The most overt reference to pop culture was based in subversive nostalgia: the “scaled” dress, a small wonder comprised of 35 and 45 rpm records cut, melted, and reconfigured to fit the shape of the body. The acid comical touch – the unsettling wink that accompanies every MMM collection – came in the form of the “balloon jacket”, where 30 balloons were twisted into place on a vest.

Overall, the byzantine collection was deceptively stark, disconcerting, and reactionary. It hit in all the right places. It was Margiela one-uping the establishment and befuddling the public. In other words, it was another job well done by fashion’s top iconoclast.