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Margiela Documentary masked models
Masked models at Maison Martin Margiela shows in the 1990svia

Watch the new Margiela documentary here

Raf Simons, Jean Paul Gaultier and more discuss the designer’s legacy and anonymity in the Tribeca-selected short

Martin Margiela is an anomaly. In an era of fashion dominated by the cult of personality, the designer’s refusal to step into the spotlight was a potent symbol of rebellion against a tide of commercialism that threatened to drown out creativity. “Martin Margiela is different to others because he never compromised his point of view,” explains fashion curator Olivier Saillard in a new film supported by YOOX and directed by Alison Chernick, which explores the career of the mysterious Margiela. From old archive footage to current interviews with his contemporaries and collaborators, the Tribeca-selected short entitled The Artist is Absent focuses on his decision to remain anonymous. It’s something which, in the age of 24/7 Instagram streams, celebrity creative directors and live-streamed shows seems reduced to a distant possibility. Could a designer ever exist in total obscurity today? It feels unlikely. 

The film showcases rare footage of early Margiela shows, where audiences cram into tight spaces as children run onto the catwalk and models wear garments shaped from scraps of plastic, coat hangers and carrier bags. As Suzy Menkes discusses, Margiela eschewed the era of the supermodels to show his clothes on a line of marching misfits, their faces often obscured by masks, hair or paint, ensuring the attention of the audience remained firmly on the clothes. The models’ anonymity of course reflected the question mark that hovered over the designer’s own name – infamously, only one known photograph is said to exist of Margiela. But in his refusal to become the focal point of his fashion, he was iconised, transformed into a mythic figure, his sway all the more powerful – as the film’s contributors make clear.

Margiela’s departure from the house was officially announced in 2009 by Renzo Rosso (president of OTB, the company that purchased the brand) who said in a fittingly cryptic fashion, “Martin has not been there for a long time. He is here but not here.” The appointment of John Galliano, one of the most recognisable names in the industry, to lead a house cloaked in secrecy seemed a surprising choice, but after years in the harsh glare of the camera’s lens, the ex-Dior director shares in Margiela’s fondness of focusing the attention away from himself. “I want to put the spotlight back on the clothes – it’s what I'd decided I wanted to do over the last four years,” Galliano said yesterday at the Vogue Festival, where he discussed “exploiting” the DNA of the house established by Margiela. 

Undoubtedly, Martin Margiela left an indelible mark on the consciousness of fashion. And despite the fact he has receded even further off the radar over the last few years, his influence is still a vital force in the industry. “I knew that he could do something great,” says Jean Paul Gaultier in the film, with whom the designer worked as an apprentice for three years. The question that remains: will he again? Martin Margiela is out there somewhere...

The Artist is Absent is produced by Yoox Group.