In January this year, news broke that revered and reclusive designer Martin Margiela was to make a creative comeback as a visual artist after retiring from his namesake fashion house in 2008.
One of the most important designers of the last century, Belgian-born Margiela (b.1957) is worshipped for his transgressive approach to fashion, combining philosophies of both punk and minimalism, utilising postmodern artistic tropes such as bricolage and deconstructivism.
Iconic designs include a jumper constructed from stitched military socks, a waistcoat formed of broken plates attached by wire, and a top constructed from plastic grocery bags. His 1980s split-toe 'Tabi Boots', inspired by Japanese Jika-tabi working shoes, remain a sought after, cult classic accessory in the art world and beyond.
Margiela was also among the first fashion designers to combine second-hand fabric with new designs, pre-empting a sustainability-conscious approach to fashion and ecology through recycling. His radical designs are in museum collections and history books alike.
Surrounded by a cloud of mystery, Margiela has avoided revealing his face and has consciously distanced himself from the press, not wanting to overly clarify or explain his collections, instead asking viewers to take them at face value. However, in 2019, a feature-length documentary historicising his work, Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, was released to rave reviews.
Margiela is known for finding beauty in the unexpected. Although photographs of his artworks are yet to be revealed, initial press images—all grayscale—feature a plastic deodorant container, an empty Parisian advertising sign, and some street scaffolding, indicating this wabi-sabi philosophy of contingency will continue into his artistic practice.
In advance of the artist's works premiering in Paris at FIAC with Zeno X Gallery, as well as solo shows at Lafayette Anticipations, Fondation des Galeries Lafayette (20 October 2021–2 January 2022) and in Antwerp at Zeno X (Spring 2022), Ocula spoke with Frank Demaegd, founder of Margiela's representing gallery, about the artist's shift away from fashion.
How did the relationship between Martin Margiela and Zeno X Gallery begin?
I had never met Martin Margiela but had always been an admirer of the clothes that he designed. One day, Chris Dercon, a mutual friend and president of the Association of French National Museums-Grand Palais, invited me together with Herman Daled—the famous Belgian collector of Marcel Broodthaers—to go and see Martin's work.
There was a small studio presentation in Paris without the presence of the artist. Following our studio visit, we had our first meeting with Martin. Later, I visited Martin's studio to talk and see his work.
To be honest, I was blown away by the quality of his work. There was an impressive level of craftsmanship but also a unique sensitivity that he conveyed in these works, which could also be found in copies that he had made after Rembrandt and Antonello da Messina.
Martin also maintained an intense ongoing conversation with Daled and his partner Marit Stoerset, which included a visit to his private home in Brussels, built by painter, architect, and interior designer Henry Van de Velde. Sadly, Daled passed away last year.
Is Margiela's creative philosophy echoed in the practice of any other artists in your programme?
In one of our earliest conversations, Martin told me that he admired the work of Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, and Dirk Braeckman. He also remembered clearly how Anne-Mie Van Kerckhoven was a remarkable figure and personality in Antwerp while he was studying at the Fashion Academy.
I never told any of my artists about our first meetings, but I was very happy to hear that several of them really enjoyed the recent documentary film Martin Margiela: In His Own Words. They told me that he was more of an artist than a fashion designer—even without being aware that we were in contact.
Margiela is known for finding beauty in the unexpected. For instance, the poster for his upcoming exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations even manages to transform a deodorant stick into a cool, machinated element of minimalist sculpture.
Will his upcoming exhibition continue this process of transformation? Will it respond to the architecture of the space itself?
Visitors will enter Lafayette Anticipations through the emergency exit, then immerse themselves in a labyrinthine show where works appear and disappear at various vantage points along the exhibition path.
The process of metamorphosis has always been important to Martin—he believes that objects are in a continual state of transformation, and he is intrigued by the inevitable process of degeneration; the traces of time.
I understand that Margiela started making artworks in 2009, although he has been illustrating for fashion design since the 1970s. Why was now the right time to begin exhibiting?
Lafayette Anticipations offered him a solo exhibition, and, for him, it was the perfect moment to show more than 40 unseen works. He has been creating this body of work for a period of 10 years and now feels ready to present them to audiences.
What is Margiela's current relationship with the fashion business in his own name?
There is no relationship between Martin and the house he created in 1988 and left in 2008.
Have collectors already expressed interest in acquiring the works?
Yes, we received a lot of interest following the announcement of our collaboration. However, we can only release the images of the artworks after his Lafayette Anticipations exhibition has opened. —[O]
Main image: Martin Margiela, Torso I, II, III (2018–2021). Courtesy Zeno X Gallery. Photo: Studio Shapiro.