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Maison Martin Margiela 20: The Exhibition

MoMu Celebrates 20 Years of the Maison Martin Margiela organised by themes and concepts, going against the grain of a conventional retrospective.

20:15h, Sunday 14th September 2008 - Eurostar trains cancelled due to a fire in the Channel Tunnel.

I sit at the bar of Hippotamus at Charles de Gaulle, dinner voucher in hand, sipping on a glass of cold red wine, watching bull riding on a large screen TV, and wondering how I got here. It all started with a reasonably well planned overnight trip of travel from London to Antwerp to cover the 20 years of Maison Martin Margiela exhibition at the MoMu, and has not even quite ended 3 days later with a sense of utter incredulity and frustration with systems: systems of logic, systems of communication, systems of modern transportation, bureaucratic systems, the Gregorian system of measuring time, fashion systems, and all of the other modern, complex systems that seem to govern my existence with their arbitrary authority.

And it is in this moment that I gain a new and deep appreciation for the Maison Martin Margiela, whose work goes to impressive lengths to interrogate the systems with which it is engaged and to propose alternative orientations within them.

“I think that today people don’t really realise how it was,” explains Bob Verhelst, a longtime collaborator with the MMM and the curator of the 20 Years of Margiela Exhibition currently on display at MoMu in Antwerp, “After the first show (A/W 89) everybody came out and nobody spoke. They wondered if it was not finished, because Margiela had recalibrated the machines so that the overlock was not cut automatically, but was left dangling from the seams. It was so confusing because everybody knew it was strong, but they were not sure if it was good. And then we saw the next season that a lot of people changed direction immediately, and the influence was undeniable.”

This show, held at the Café de la Gare in Paris, opened with a model wearing a pair of white wide-legged trousers with frayed hems, a pair of the now iconic tabi boots covered with red paint to leave a trail of tracks in her wake, with arms baring t-shirt tan lines and tied in lengths of frayed fabric crossed over her bare chest. It was a direct subversion of the codes of dress of an era dominated by shoulder pads, slick surfaces, a prevailing sense of glamour, and a celebrity system that ruled everything from art to fashion to politics. It was a formative moment for the house, which established many of the themes and tactics which would remain important throughout 20 years of active business. It was also a moment in which fashion as a whole was irreversibly and undeniably radicalised.

“The fact that the MMM performs as a house and not as a designer makes them unique in the fashion industry,” continues Verhelst. “From the very beginning they have chosen the most unconventional way to present their work to the public, and by times it was not appreciated by journalists or buyers. Questioning all facets of fashion, artistic and commercial, is a constant in their work. With a great respect for the métier and fashion history, they are radically innovative on all levels. Still today the MMM proves to be a lively laboratoria that is constantly at work, not only with their clothes, but also in their way of presenting collections, the architecture of their shops, and their communications with the press.”