Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 13, 2020 7:02 am 
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To watch this film go to Oscilloscope's website.

Secret stylist speaks

Clothing designers are strange people, but some are stranger than others. This one chose to be the Banksy of couture, never seen, always hiding. That in a field about the look of things must be rather extraordinary. It's easier to operate this way for Banksy. He can come and produce his artworks in secret, departing disguised on the Tube. Fashion is made with assistants, models, and the branch of an industry requiring fabrics and distribution. But besides protecting him for his work, Margiela's secrecy added excitement to his name and the glamour of inaccessibility.

The first thing we see is a stunning "défilé," a designer fashion show, where all the women are masked, their heads wrapped in cloth. Another file of models come out with long wigs over their faces, so they look as if they're walking backwards. It is very surreal, and very arresting. The powerful first impression has been made. I was unfamiliar with Margiela, or as most of his fans clients and colleagues call him, Martin. If this film is true, he became a powerful figure in Paris design, a designer's designer, perhaps one of the ten most important couturiers of the century. It is evident his shows were revolutionary and attention-getting. The French Wikipedia article calls him "un des plus atypiques et les plus avant-gardistes" of his generation. He carried on the spirit of Rei Kawakubo's avant-gard Japanese fashion label Comme des Garçons in a more "deconstructed" style.

Margiela is notable for the surreal look ("a surrealistic eye" was his "first thing," and the "veiled face"), also for designs utilizing second-hand fabrics and dresses ("objets trouvés," Peter Bradshaw calls them); for cloven-toe Tabi boots with tall fat heels; for jabots; and for distinctive small shoulder pads. His artisinal, conceptual clothes rejected luxury design, focusing on garments of oversized proportions such as long arms, and with linings, seams and hems on the outside, sometimes with plastic wrapping, even tape. He made designs from fabrics on which dresses were photographically reproduced in black and white for a trompe l’oeil effect (see photo above). His label was blank, with four white stitches showing through onto the back, which eventually became an instantly recognized signature. Shoulders and shoes were his focus, he says.

Yes, he says - because the elusive Martin Margiela himself, heard but not seen, personally narrates much of this film. The result has been criticized as promotional and is certainly not neutral, but its unique value comes because Banksy, that is Margiela, comes forth, speaking in English in a pleasant, mellow voice in a sort of French accent - though Flemish may have been his native tongue. And thus while he may be invisible, we get to know him speaking about himself in his own voice and in his own words.

From 1985 to 1987 Margiela went to work for Jean Paul Gautier, one of the hippest designers in Paris fashion and "the idol of the younger generation." His own first show was held in a large old Paris cinema. Another was far out, at an abandoned children's playground in the 19e or 20e arrondissement, a poor neighborhood, and ghetto kids were encouraged to run around and play amid the parading models. A party atmosphere was created. Models, with messy hair and heavy makeup and drenched in patchouli scent, were encouraged to smile, breaking the stone cold mannequin look, to, he says, excellent effect: viewers, who included locals, had a good time, but also were challenged, given no place to sit, or chaired first-come-first-served. He used "street-casting" of models too as a general policy.

Margiela's revolutionary, provocative style as a designer was a big reason for his never giving interviews or showing himself to the public. He says that unlike Gautier, he had no gift for addressing the public, and having to explain and justify his innovations to insensitive, uncomprehending journalists would have disturbed and exhausted him and used up energy he preferred to devote to doing the work.

His eponymous fashion house, cofounded with Jenny Meirens, dates from 1988. From 1996 to 2004 Margiela was also in charge of the women's line of Hermès. In 2009 it was revealed that he hadn't been actively involved in the creative work of the House of Margiela for some time. He faded away without any formal farewells. A "faceless" team was continuing to create provocative work in his spirit, and Margiela withdrew to paint and sculpt, as he has done since. Five years later, John Galliano was appointed the head of the house, apparently with Margiela's blessing (replacing his shattered career at Dior). But some of those administrative details are omitted from Holzemer's film.

Margin Margiela was born and grew up in Louvain, Belgium and later studied design at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Art, graduating in 1979, a year before the group of important colleagues who became known as the Antwerp Six. His father was a hairdresser, his grandmother a dressmaker. He learned from both, but the grandmother was the mentor and inspiration. She helped him with his first drawings and designs when, as a boy, he made sketches and sewed clothes for his Barbie and Ken dolls.

Unusual among designer films this one shows its subject's early work, preserved by his mother (who may also have been an important influence, it's suggested in another film). Thanks to her we get to see how precocious he was: we see the Kens and Barbies, a knowingly sewn little jacket, and colored costume designs reminiscent of the gleaming gems Leon Bakst panted and drew for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russe de Monte-Carle in the thirties.

Though the film may seem to rush as well as gush, it's also exciting. Its narration in person by the mystery man and the presentation of earliest works make it stand out among films about designers. It's not as dramatic and powerful a designer film as McQUeen, about the brilliant English designer Alexander McQueen who hanged himself at the age of forty. Here, one misses the workshops with skilled seamstresses, the precise, exhaustive work of sculpting exquisite fabrics, that one sees in the films about Yves Saint Laurent and other major French couturiers of the dying breed. We do hear that Margiela had nice hands, and the models liked the gentleness, skill and respect with which he arranged clothes on their bodies.

For additional factual aspects of this film I recommend Meredith Taylor's review for Filmuforia, to which I have added a little of my own here. She notes that the rock atmosphere of some of Margiela's shows is echoed by using the Belgian rock band dEus for this film's score. When he himself isn't speaking there are various associates, friends, admirers who speak of him - as they may have done already, since this is the third Margiela film, with a twelve-minute one called The Artist Is Absent: A Short Film On Martin Margiela by Alison Chernick from 2015; Menna Laura Meijer's 99-minute We, Margiela from 2017 coming before.

Twelve years have passed since Margiela pulled away from his Paris fashion house and ready-to-wear business at the age of fifty. When another unseen voice asks him at the end if he is done with designing, however, after a pause he firmly says "No."

Martin Margiela in His Own Words, 90 mins., debuted in DOC NYC Nov. 2019. It will be released on virtual cinemas by Oscilloscope August 14, 2020. Metascore 70%. The New York Times'Jon Caramanica noted it's a "rather conventional documentary" about a fashion designer "whose creations were anything but."

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