Less widely known and visually referenced, this pre-digital period in Margiela’s career is often overlooked or deemed less radical than the avant-garde designer’s own eponymous collections. Even MoMu’s own Margiela retrospective in 2008 skirted the Belgian designer’s Hermès stint. But for Kaat Debo, the director of MoMu and curator of the exhibition, now was the time for the museum to, ‘give fashion, which has a very short-term memory, its memory back’.
With the approval of Martin Margiela – who styled each mannequin himself – and the abundant archive that Pierre-Alexis Dumas, artistic director of Hermès, opened up for Debo to delve into, the exhibition is an incredibly insightful elucidation of the consistency in Margiela’s work – as well as the echoes that resound from his maison to the one he was given creative carte blanche for from Jean-Louis Dumas, then Hermès' CEO.
Martin Margiela’s ’Vareuse’ design for Hermès features a neckline with a deep V to prevent its wearer from damaging their hairstyle or make-up
‘The vision with which Margiela entered the world of Hermès, together with the trust and respect between him and my father, helped Hermès enter the 21st century,’ says Pierre-Alexis Dumas. ‘Margiela understood that there is no creativity without history.’
Scenography by Bob Verhelst and Thomas Van Looij evokes the thought processes Margiela developed, by placing his Maison Margiela silhouettes against white walls, shoulder to shoulder with his Hermès designs, presented against orange backdrops. ‘The avant-garde approach and the luxury approach were not separate for Martin,’ stresses Debo. ‘They were two translations of the same DNA.’
Margiela’s deep respect for women drove him to put comfort first. He observed the way women clutched their coats, for example, and designed garments with attention to how they function within a daily wardrobe. This is evinced in 'Le porte vêtement’, a coat that could be carried like a picnic blanket using leather straps.
A number of his innovative designs for Hermès – revolving around this philosophy – are shown. For instance, the 'Vareuse' is a deceptively simple but ingeniously made deep V-neck top without darts, that allows a woman to take of her sweater without messing up her hair – she can just slide it off her shoulders and tie the sleeves around her waist.
The exhibition highlights the creative compatibility between subversive and commercial design
A specifically developed black fabric that repels water and doesn’t crease is used for an 'anti-pluie' – an outer garment that protects the coat or jacket underneath in a supremely insouciant yet elegant way; while the comfortable knitwear Margiela developed for Hermès quite literally fits like a glove. The technique used was taken from the way a glove is knitted, rounded and seamless.
'Margiela: The Hermès Years' clearly shows, through juxtaposing the subtly tonal Hermès designs with the structured and conceptual Maison Margiela pieces, the surprising compatibility of what at first sight look like irreconcilable differences: the tenets of extreme avant-garde and luxury fashion. Today, those two worlds have merged, and distinctive visions are rewarded commercially. The genius of Margiela is exactly this: both his creative vision and his business acumen, originally radical, have made individualism mainstream.