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Maison Martin Margiela: Clinical precision

We enter the surreal world of fashion’s most elusive cult with an exclusive shoot and film

In the February Issue of Dazed & Confused, Maison Martin Margiela invited our fashion features editor, Dean Mayo Davies into a world of white lab coats and whispers for a surreal summit. We shot an exclusive behind the scenes film that day, which is premiered here alongside the full shoot and interview taken from the magazine...

Maison Martin Margiela’s headquarters in Paris’s 11th arrondissement lies opposite Saint-Joseph des Nations, a Catholic church. Underneath the street between the two there’s a blocked-up tunnel, harking back to the Margiela building’s earlier life as a 19th-century convent.

Now, it might be an embellishment to throw a Lennonian boast that Margiela is, to fashionheads, bigger than Jesus. But like religion, the Maison spawns disciples: you don’t dabble in Margiela, you throw yourself into its world arms open and headfirst. These are not simply clothes, but clothes with a peculiar wit – and either you get it or you don’t.

Waiting on the doorstep to be buzzed into the holding area, there’s a feeling of trepidation. The house only ever conducts interviews by secondary media (anything written down and passed on), human but untouchable. From the Maison’s inception in 1988 until the 00s, all press occurred through fax, that machine lovechild of a phone and a photocopier. Since then, email. A visit in person is almost unknown – the place is as close as fashion gets to an Area 51.

Enter a room with silver walls, a huge chandelier wrapped in fabric, a neon “Welcome” sign in jaunty font and conjoined chairs of different styles and eras covered in white cotton. A receptionist sits at an out-of-place supermarket checkout, her computer screen also covered in white cloth. Behind the heavy Haussmann doors of other labels in the city of couture – yes, Margiela is a couture house, and its Artisanal line is showing as part of the official schedule – you’ll probably find a marble hallway playing off period features against a discreet modernism. But not here.

Three members of the Maison greet us, of differing nationalities. Like the receptionist, they’re clad in blouses blanches (white lab coats), like those worn in the couture studios of yesteryear. Everyone here wears this uniform, from interns to the head designers. It’s the unifying colour that folkily taints everything around the clothes. Who is who? Who does what? Who knows?

“From a philosophical point of view, white is important to us,” says the Maison, as they and everyone else we encounter from now on shall be referred to. “It is a very fragile colour that reveals the traces of time, and a white background is a pure canvas. From the Maison’s beginning, its interiors, showrooms and stores were decorated with furniture found in flea markets. To give a homogeneity each piece was painted or covered in white cotton."

So tell us, Maison Martin Margiela, what’s it like being Maison Martin Margiela?
Exciting and creative, with beauty and concentration.

Why is teamwork important to you?
While working as a team, you push yourself forward and move outside the boundaries. It’s a great thing.

Can we join? What do you look for when recruiting?
Creativity. We have more than 18 nationalities working for the house. We’re looking to share ideas and experiences.

Contrary to what you might expect, there is no secrecy clause to be signed here. They’re too friendly for it. “We don’t belong to the CIA,” the Maison continues, smiling, one voice across many bodies. “We’re proud to share with our mothers that we work for a fashion label.”

Departed founder Martin Margiela is often described as the seventh member of the Antwerp Six, a group of designers (Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter Van Beirendonck, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee) that came to London to show their collections after graduating from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. Their highly personal expressions of fashion were a vehement antithesis to the pomp of what was contemporary at the time: Mugler and Montana. The Belgians offered new possibilities for getting dressed.

The all-for-one ethos that has defined Maison Martin Margiela from its inception in Paris, 1989, is today its biggest asset. The label is immune from the creative-director musical chairs played out in fashion over the last year. You’ll never hear someone ask the question, “Who is the star designer at Margiela?”, because Martin Margiela wasn’t even the star designer at Maison Martin Margiela. The Maison is an entity, a school of creatives, technicians and artisans that continues to propel and refine its own language.

Clever but never pretentious, witty but never a joke, strange but never ridiculous, MMM is one of the most influential womenswear labels of the last 20 years, and a quietly reverential force in menswear. It defined a new taste, which was co-opted by gallerists and the art world before spreading beyond. Deconstruction, scale, reappropriation and trompe l’oeil are among the Maison’s themes, with trousers made from cowboy boots, tops from leather gloves, sweaters from army socks, Stockman dummy bodices, bottle-top and broken-crockery waistcoats and jackets constructed of wigs among their holy grails of looks. Then there are the tabi-toed boots, which literally change the morphology of the body.

In an environment structured to give clothes the pure oxygen of fame and nothing else, does the Maison prefer to see its clothes worn by people on the street or celebrities?
Wherever we see our garments, it’s a pleasure. The feeling is the same.

Perhaps the best referencing of the label in pop culture is when Kanye West raps “What’s drugs, my dealer? / What’s that jacket, Margiela?” on “Niggas In Paris”, the megahit from his and Jay-Z’s 2011 album Watch the Throne: avant-garde fashion being namedropped in an avant-garde way. Fashion-fixated West is fully aware of the kudos in citing this special brand, which, unlike the usual suspects, is far from a household name.

When one of the most famous musicians in the world gets your name on daytime radio, via a track so massive it got ten rewinds in a row during the Watch the Throne tour’s Paris show, it probably doesn’t do any damage to broker a collaboration with H&M, as happened last winter. Probably the most extreme of the Swedish giant’s hook-ups, the entire collection consisted of killer catwalk looks, reissued as Re-Editions. The metallic candy clutch, the trompe-l’oeil bra-body and a coat disconcertingly similar to slinging a duvet over yourself and leaving home in it were instant hits that made the high-street bizarre (at long last). Warhol said in 1968 that in the future everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes, and perhaps even he would be surprised to the extent of how his prophecy is coming true.

“We were conscious about not creating a ‘commercial’ collection, instead taking iconic pieces from our 23-year history and bringing our values and principles to the wider public. A public which may or may not have heard of us. It was an exercise in democratising what we do.”

Full magazine shoot:

The Maison moved to its Rue Saint-Maur HQ eight years ago. After it was a convent, the building became an orphanage and then, from the 1920s, a private industrial-design school. By the end of the 1990s it was completely abandoned.

“When we arrived here, we found the place as it was, with papers still on the desk,” the Maison informs us. “We kept the building and interior close to when we discovered it. There is a blackboard upstairs which still carries some formulas – as they’ve been there so long, they’ve created a permanent mark. We don’t want to erase them.”

Left to our own devices while the Maison goes about its business, we wander the corridors and stumble on what is either a brilliant piece of performance art or a very pedestrian vision: a woman, roller in hand, is covering a showroom wall in fresh emulsion. Much later, while we shoot a model on the curving, bowing staircase, a man walks by in paint-splattered overalls and someone remarks, “I need those amazing trousers! Are they Margiela or is he just a decorator doing maintenance?”

"We don’t belong to the CIA. We’re proud to share with our mothers that we work for a fashion label"

That this house has so profoundly blurred ways of seeing – take that, John Berger! – is one of its greatest accolades. Everything is put through a prism and comes out altered, odd. There is a very tangible philosophy buried beneath the novel and fabulous.

The SS13 womenswear collection you see here combines strictness and abandon; maxi t-shirts, cape-dresses, long lines in block colour with unexpected sensuality through plunging shapes at the back. Plus jewelled pince-nez (the posh name for swimming clips) over the models’ noses. Only Maison Martin Margiela would take its show venue, the 18th-century Hôtel Salomon de Rothschild, and cover the entire inside in plastic sheeting. Doing so brought about a subliminal thread between clothes and environment.

“We’ve often favoured street casting and strong modelling agencies, mainly because when we create this clothing we don’t have a single person in mind,” the Maison explains of its casting, which it’s famous for. Covering or obscuring models’ faces, as Maison Martin Margiela does, is basically shrouding them in blank cotton – just like its furniture.

“The idea of street casting is really interesting because it means real people are wearing our designs, and you see how the clothes look on the people that will buy them. That has always been part of our identity, and is something we’ll continue to do.”

By creating perfumes, interiors (for Paris hotel La Maison Champs-Elysées) and objects from wine-bottle lamps to feather biros and unadorned matryoshka dolls, the house has made the thread of Margielaness so strong that it’s possible to live a Margiela lifestyle, just as you would with the biggest, most ambitious American brands.

“Each time somebody working for the Maison has a baby, the atelier creates miniature blouses-blanches, exactly like the ones we wear, with the child’s name embroidered across the front. That is our welcome-to-this-world gift,” the Maison explains. It’s a good way to start them early.

Talking of which, how do you keep your uniforms so fresh?
We send them to the laundry.

Smart, funny and not just pretty faces. Though you’ll need to take our word for it.

CREDITS

Photography Rachel Chandler
Film 
Julien Pujol
Hair 
Philippe Tholimet
Make-up
Tacine
Models
Kinga at Women, Caroline F at Oui
Styling Assistant
Emma Corbett
Second Camera Assistant
Wibke Lange
Music
Lori Schonberg