He’s been described as “fashion’s invisible man” and the “Banksy of fashion.” And true to that reputation, famed designer Martin Margiela doesn’t deign to show his face in Reiner Holzemer’s laudatory documentary. Like the unseen but heard Marlene Dietrich in Maximilian Schell’s Marlene, Margiela protects his privacy while at the same time delivering an emotionally self-probing account of his life and career in Martin Margiela: In His Own Words.
Shortly after he burst onto the fashion scene in the late 1980s, Margiela decided that he wanted only his designs, and not himself, in the spotlight. He refused interviews and didn’t allow his picture to be taken, and that desire for anonymity was symbolized in his provocative shows, in which his models frequently hid their faces behind coverings and elaborate wigs.
“I don’t like the idea of being a celebrity,” Margiela says early on in the film. “I made this decision to protect myself. I could give more if I was protected.” He also says that even though his reclusiveness was perceived as a marketing gimmick, it came with a different kind of pressure.
“Your collection needs to be very strong,” he explains. “Because it’s difficult to make a name if they could not put a face on it.”
But he did indeed make a name for himself. The Belgium-born Margiela loved fashion even as a child, designing costumes and wigs for his Barbie doll collection. With the camera revealing only his arms, he shows off some of his childhood treasures, including a tiny gray flannel blazer that would have made Yves Saint Laurent proud. He was inspired by his grandmother, a dressmaker, about whom he talks with reverence.
After training at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, he made his way to Paris, where he worked as an assistant to Jean Paul Gaultier. The unconventional Gaultier was the “idol of the younger generation,” Margiela declares. In the documentary, Gaultier returns the compliment, lavishing praise on Margiela, who amusingly displays the fake badge he used to get into one of Gaultier’s shows.
Partnering with Jenny Meirens, Margiela launched his own label in 1989. It quickly became a sensation, thanks to his outlandish designs that included leather shoes featuring animal-like hooves and clothing made from reassembled items ranging from shopping bags to wigs to recycled trench coats. His runway shows were equally unique — they were staged in unusual venues including a Salvation Army location, and employed theatrical touches like the models stepping in red paint before marching on the all-white catwalks.
Margiela voluntarily walked away from his fashion career some 20 years after it began, for reasons that he only vaguely alludes to in the film. Much like his reclusiveness during his commercial heyday, his departure from the scene only added to his mystique. He certainly seems content with his decision, commenting that he currently expresses himself artistically through such means as painting and sculpting.
Featuring archival footage and generally gushing testimony by various fashion critics, designers and historians, the documentary presents a vivid, if not necessarily objective, portrait of its subject’s career. That’s mainly due to the oral testimony by Margiela himself, who displays a self-effacing modesty and love of his former profession that proves endearing. His passionate fans will no doubt thrill to the procession of his drawings, notes and memorabilia from his collection, here being unveiled for the first time.
Those not enthralled by Margiela’s wittily iconoclastic but gimmicky avant-garde designs (and I must confess to being one of them) will probably find this documentary less than compelling. Like so many fashion-themed docs, Martin Margiela: In His Own Words will play best to afficionados who will be grateful for this insightful look at its reclusive subject.
Available in virtual cinemas
Production companies: Reiner Holzemer Film, Aminata Productions
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Director/screenwriter: Reiner Holzemer
Producers: Reiner Holzemer, Aminata Sambe
Directors of photography: Reiner Holzemer, Toon Illegems
Editor: Helmar Jungmann