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Maison Martin Margiela Artisanal AW14
Far right, Alexandra Elizabeth (Elite) backstage at Maison Martin Margiela Artisanal AW14Photography Lea Colombo

Out of the spotlight: fashion's quiet heroes

From Rei Kawakubo's refusal to bow to Ann Demeulemeester's unnamed successor – after one of Margiela's designers is unmasked, Olivia Singer looks at those keeping it low-key

In 2013, when Ann Demeulemeester resigned from her label through a hand-written announcement, she didn’t name a successor. She explained that, “Ann Demeulemeester is an adult brand now with its own identity and legacy that is able to continue growing without me.” In fact, it was one of Maison Martin Margiela’s ex-designers, Sebastien Meunier, who has since quietly been appointed Creative Director and has asserted that, “I don’t work for my name, I work for her name. […] I speak for it and [our team] work together.” Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme de Garçons, never takes a customary post-show bow on the runway – and nor does her protégé, Junya Watanabe at his own eponymous label. What this attitude within a fashion house promotes is a unified notion of creativity and collaboration, which pays tribute to the myriad roles that go into creating a collection outside of those held in vaunted adulation by journalists, consumers and tabloid fanatics. The brand itself becomes the focus of commentary and the huge variety of jobs that go into creating and maintaining a house identity become a powerful, anonymous force.

Earlier this month, in a couture report for UK Vogue, Suzy Menkes exposed Matthieu Blazy as one of Maison Martin Margiela’s team of designers. In an industry that often thrives on the force of its public relations, one would assume that the publicity it has inspired would be warmly received. However, since Martin Margiela retired from his eponymous Maison in 2009, the house has maintained a firm silence around the identities of the design team (its ex-Communications Director, Patrick Scallon once defined the house by its “cult of impersonality”) and Suzy’s announcement disrupted a precisely orchestrated anonymity. Those outside of the house have since been asked to remember, “that the long-standing communication policy of the Maison has not changed and that MMM does not communicate on any individual member of its collective, as our work is done by a team and is credited only to this same collective.”

What these two announcements of quietly powerful figureheads have shown is that, in spite of an era of Instagram endorsements and celebrity creative directors, some houses have chosen a different direction. Ann Demeulemeester and Margiela have cemented a carefully nurtured façade of personal inscrutability; it is the clothes that they show and their brand presentation rather than the actions of a singular person that define the houses. Famously, there was only one picture of Martin Margiela in circulation (circa 1997) – now, Matthieu Blazy is featured on the Mail Online in a slideshow alongside Sarah Jessica Parker and Kimye. But in spite of the myriad conversations that Menkes’ revelation has provoked within fashion journalism, Margiela remains an ambassador for collective collaboration and an identity rooted in clothing design rather than gimmicky PR. 

Some of the most avant-garde shows of AW14 proved that the idea of fashion rooted in obvious consumerism has become passé. Immediately after Chanel’s AW14 celebration of branding (in a display that inspired mass shoplifting of Chanel marigolds from Karl’s supermarché) was Iris Van Herpen’s show. Entitled ‘Biopiracy’, van Herpen made a clear commentary on the exploitation and commercialisation of indigenous knowledge, promoting respect for original creation rather than the quiet reappropriation that so often proliferates fashion – and the world at large. Junya Watanabe’s all-black, patch-worked collection subtly defied the idea of public spectacle and, in a time of live-streaming, backstage blogging and hyper-accelerated fashion cycles, some houses seem to be making a stand through their silence.

In 2012, Rei Kawakubo said that, “I think the media has some responsibility to bear for people becoming more conservative. Many parts of the media have created the situation where uninteresting fashion can thrive.” The trend to which she refers, of a spectacle that focuses on front-row attendees and ostentatious street style, is being challenged by figures like Sebastien Meunier and Matthieu Blazy – whose quiet elusivity promotes examination of that clothes that they and their teams send down the runway rather than the pageantry that surrounds so many fashion icons. This anonymity has reminded us is that fashion doesn’t have to be about celebrity, campaign budgets, populism or front rows; it can be about craftsmanship, it can be about design and it can speak through its reservations and it isn’t defined by an undisclosed leader. And that’s a breath of fresh air.