New Martin Margiela Documentary Chronicles Fashion's Most Elusive Designer

Courtesy Dogwoof
Director Reiner Holzemer and a still from the new documentary.

Reiner Holzemer’s 'Martin Margiela: In His Own Words' offers a comprehensive account of the highly influential, but famously private, Belgian.

Director Reiner Holzemer’s new documentary, Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, is the third film chronicling the 62-year-old Belgian designer who made his name by turning fashion’s tide from overt glamour to a dark, rough-hewn aesthetic — a gentler interpretation of the deconstructed method fashion designer Rei Kawakubo pioneered with her avant-garde brand, Comme des Garçons. That all happened back in the mid-nineties when, amidst pre-stylist Hollywood (when celebrities actually bought their own clothes), Margiela generated a genuine following. Cher, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amanda Peet and photographer-director Floria Sigismondi were among the designer’s high-profile fans, as cutting-edge Los Angeles retailers including Charles Gallay, Ron Herman and Laura Urbinati became early supporters of his work.

About six years into his two-decade tenure as designer in chief of the eponymous ready-to-wear label he co-founded (with Brussels boutique owner Jenny Meirens), in 1987, Margiela stepped back and refused to be the public face of his brand or speak on behalf of it. As the title of Holzemer’s film suggests, Margiela finally broke his vow of silence.

And while his melodious, even-tempo narration reveals his personal account of emerging as a fashion disruptor, In His Own Words also adds up to be the definitive study of this elusive, technically gifted designer who ceaselessly innovated through his brief reign at the height of fashion and remains influential. The oversize look that catapulted the cult streetwear brand Vetements to fashion fame? Margiela got there first. (One of many such examples.)

Speaking for the first time on record since he went quiet, Margiela provides answers to long open questions surrounding his career — from the rationale behind his anonymity to the circumstances prompting his abrupt 2008 departure from his brand. (The Maison Margiela label is now owned by Renzo Rosso’s holding company OTB, also an umbrella to Diesel, Marni, Viktor & Rolf and Paula Cademartori; earlier this month, the brand — now helmed by creative director John Galliano — opened a concept pop-up store in the Soho neighborhood of New York City).

Margiela states: “Anonymity, for me, was a kind of a protection — that I could work. And the work was hard. And that I had nothing on my schedule, like all the appointments one can have with press. I’m not against those appointments. But I could not cope with them. They would bring me out of my balance.”

Of finally throwing in the towel, he offers: “By the end, I became, in a certain way, an artistic director in my own company. And that bothered me, because I’m a designer. I’m really a fashion designer, and a designer who creates, and I’m not just a creative director who directs his assistants.”

Margiela’s face is entirely missing from the film. And though the subject has often been compared to the mysterious street artist Bansky, Exit Through the Gift Shop this is not. More of an ode to 2008’s Kubrick’s Boxes — through which director Jon Ronson investigates Stanley Kubrick’s exhaustive archive — In His Own Words replaces his talking head with his deft hands. Throughout the film, they are constantly at work, and periodically digging into the white boxes and files preserving his lifetime’s artwork, which proved to be the blueprints for his designs. He’s also meticulously preparing for the “Margiela/Galliera, 1989-2009” exhibit. (The mounting of this 10-year retrospective in 2018 at Paris’ Palais Galliera fashion museum bookends the film.)

That Holzemer trained his camera on the portion of the anatomy that Margiela utilized to build his brand is apropos, given that manual craftsmanship drives high fashion. Working with Margiela’s hands as navigational tools also lends intimacy to the film, as well as pace (heightened by a hypnotic soundtrack by the Belgian rock band Deus), plus an essence of humanity.

A conversation with a foursome of Margiela’s onetime runway models (whose visages typify his idealized brand of arresting glamor) testifies to his respectful tactility, and presciently so, given that the unwanted touch is a hot-button issues in our #MeToo era. “I liked his hands,” explains Kristina De Coninck. “When he [dressed] you…backstage…it [was] with finesse.” Agrees Asia Bugajska: “There was nothing rough about it —some people they have this roughness…. He [saw] that I am a person and not something to wear the clothes.”

As Holzemer harks back in time, assessing Margiela’s superlative training at Belgium’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, the designer’s teenage pinkies are powering an electric sewing machine alongside a classmate — the legendary designer Walter Van Beirendonck. Graduating in 1979, the duo emerged a year ahead of the “Antwerp Six” fashion collective who — counting Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs and Marina Yee — put their homeland on the map as a European fashion capital by staging a London Fashion Week show in 1986.

By then, Margiela was organizing a filing system that shaped up the atelier of renowned fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier, for whom he worked as an assistant for three years. “He had a freedom that I learned…and that freedom was, ‘Do with what you have,’” says Margiela. “He said: Martin you don’t realize that you have a style and a taste, and you should stick with that taste for your future.” Margiela credits Gaultier with instilling within him the confidence to trust his own vision, which eventually relied upon ripping apart and remaking vintage clothes and assembling accessories from found objects, such as champagne corks and twigs, even ice cubes.

The beauty of this film is that its subtle tone evokes the low-key elegance that became Margiela’s signature. Gaultier, for example, factors among an A-list yet unexhaustive lineup of interview subjects — including filmmaker Sandrine Dumas, trend forecaster Lidewij “Li” Edelkoort, fashion critic Cathy Horyn, stylist Carine Roitfeld and Margiela’s former press attaché, Pierre Rougier — who thoughtfully situate the designer’s place in fashion history rather than superficially riff on his greatness.

The portrayal of Margiela’s contribution to Hermès — where he worked as creative director for six years, from 1998 — is similarly dignified. The accessory which he designed as he helped to transform the iconic French brand from a fusty equestrian-themed label to the essence of modern luxuriance seductively undulates onscreen, sans narration. It is the best-selling Hermès double-tour leather bracelet watch strap. Margiela conceived it to adorn the Cape Cod watch in 1996 and now it also adorns Hermès’ iteration of the Apple Watch.

The rigor defining the work of the filmmaker and his subject also testifies that they are a perfect match. Holzemer, for example, succinctly chronicles the iconic signatures that Margiela dreamed up to define his brand, including veils shielding the faces of runway models, ankle-length skirts with “destroyed details” that outmoded eighties minis and thigh-grazers, the strictly tailored suit jacket equipped with double padded “pagoda” shoulders, and his cloven hoof “Tabi” high-heel boots.

Holzemer reveals their making in the way he depicted Van Noten’s virtuosic designs in his 2017 documentary Dries — that is, collection by collection. And all the while, the designer revealed ideas and feelings he associated with his clothes. This story-telling method proved a little plodding in Dries. Yet in Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, the designer’s thoughts are illuminated by dazzling archival footage including videos capturing the rock concert ambience of his Paris fashion shows and the black-and-white cinema verité-style short films he produced to reveal his collections. It all adds up to make this fashion documentary utterly riveting.