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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Paris Fashion Week: Maison Martin Margiela

Haidee Findlay-Levin...

When I read the article in the Herald Tribune the morning of Martin Margiela's 20th anniversary show, that this might be his last and that he was looking for a successor, I considered my own resignation from fashion. Although my departure wouldn't be nearly as dramatic or significant, if someone as inspired and inspiring as Margiela had nothing left to say, I found it hard to imagine carrying on.

After all, how can one individual—although he only refers collectively to his Maison—come up with so many original ideas twice yearly? He is a fish that swims upstream, one of the few designers who always does things his way, whether the rest of the industry comes around to his way of thinking or not, right down to his AIDS charity T-shirt that he consistently sells even if the fight against AIDS itself has slipped out of fashion.

Even the setting of his shows have set precedents. He has shown in the back of a pub, on buses, in dilapidated buildings and on top of tables in a dance hall. Perhaps the most genius of all was the simultaneous staging of a show in several countries, requiring no travel at all as we simultaneously witnessed the same experience. His idea long preceded live internet simulcasts.

I remember my introduction to his clothes, that blank white label and its curious four white stitches. On one of my first fashion trips to Paris, I saw a series of clothes in a store—it might have been L’Eclaireur on Rue Rossier—and I loved each and every piece. But they had no name, no identity; they were completely anonymous. From that point on I not only used Margiela for styling jobs, but also consistently bought and wore that white label, even when friends had grown tired of his anti-aesthetic.

I was drawn not only to the intelligence of the clothes, but to Margiela's humor and sense of irony. I also identified with the dark side of his work, which, while often macabre, can also be witty and silly. Margiela is one of the few designers who works through a concept over two seasons, sometimes even three, until he has completely explored and developed the idea, often revisiting it at an even later date. At his 10th anniversary show he presented exact pieces from the previous decade, but re-dyed them in a single color, showing the longevity of their design and how an old idea can be repackaged as new. Despite all his influence—acknowledged by Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, Yohji Yamamoto and Marc Jacobs among others—his clothes are so ahead of the game that they remain essentially timeless.

Now looking back at two decades, this latest show began with a single large shadow cast over the runway and then opened with a singe girl in a white lab coat dress, followed by a series of looks that entered from both sides of the runway. A screen-printed scarf dress referred to his screen-printing collection, with its sequin dresses and knit sweaters that had been screened onto silk tank dresses. This time it was like a carbon rubbing on jeans and an oversized jean jacket.

Accessories were as clever as ever, including shoes that were either too large or small, with a heel falling short of the foot or the strap extended well past the ankle but held in place with elastic. A red bag evolved and eventually draped right over the bodysuit like a cape. Newest to his repertoire is fine jewelry, which appeared as an oversized link chain on a model whose head peeked out of an oversized velvet jewelry box as the rest of the body fell out of the spotlight.

As usual the models remained anonymous, in bodysuits and masks. There is nothing misogynistic here, just that the clothes should speak for themselves. Playing with this concept, sometimes he put a dark-skinned girl in a huge blonde afro and a white girl in a huge black afro, both of which completely covered the face. Margiela has always had a love for hair and wigs, creating vests and jackets out of the inside netting of wigs, as well as fur hats in the shape of mullets. This time wigs not only hid the face of the girls, but also cascaded as full capes.

All birthday parties deserve a party dress and cake, and Margiela closed his show with two enormous party dresses, taking his familiar play on oversized volumes to extremes. Then a huge screen-printed garment in the shape of a tiered cake walked down the runway with the legs of two girls peeking out. When the curtain rose, Margiela was, as usual, nowhere to be seen as large silver confetti (oversized, of course) fell from above, models took their finale walk (this time with faces exposed) with the Maison team (in their customary white lab coats) and even a brass band took to the runway.

Happy Birthday, Martin! Here's to many more.

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