11 June 2010

Maison Martin Margiela: 20

I recently attended the Maison Martin Margiela 20th Anniversary exhibition at Somerset House, and whilst my fantasy of being able to see an actual photograph of the legendarily elusive Margiela himself was denied, the exhibition was still a fantastic experience. Unfortunately photography was not allowed within the exhibition, however I did manage to buy the exhibition catalogue which contains images of pieces and videos from within the exhibition.

Exhibition layout from booklet provided upon entrance

The layout of the exhibition is spread across three levels. The middle level becomes the main focus, as the upper level feels rather stilted due to the adjoining rooms which do not particularly flow well together. However that is more an issue with the layout of the Embankment Gallery at Somerset House than the curatorial decisions behind the exhibition.

It was certainly interesting to see how the use of space differed from that of the SHOWstudio exhibition last year. Whilst that was busy, loud and complicated, this exhibition was typically understated and clean following the Margiela aesthetic. The white walls and clean cut white furniture did not attempt to cloud or mystify the clothing in any way, but rather present them for what they were. Indeed throughout the exhibition the immediacy of the clothing was remarkable, you truly do get to have a close up look.

Although the lower and middle level were understated and whitewashed, the upper level was more of a show. Two columns with marker pens attached allowed visitors to scrawl messages. These columns gave way to a darkened room with white and silver confetti scattered heavily over the floor, music playing and various videos playing on three walls. The most interesting for me was the personal wardrobe videos projected onto the far back wall, in which three Margiela clients display their wardrobes as styled by them. The video room splits in either direction to reveal the interior design aspects of Margiela stores and shows, flocked silhouette outfits and XXXL designs (a sweater in Italian size 78 made little old 44 me feel rather diminutive!).

Exhibition catalogue

The exhibition catalogue was priced at a reasonable £20, although a pricier hardback version was available. Whilst it is comprised mainly of photographs which build upon the themes of the exhibition, there are also two fantastic essays by Kaat Debo and Barbara Vinken which engage with Margiela's work and the exhibition at a welcome academic level.

The Margiela ciphers explained

In a rather postmodern fashion the Margiela ciphers were actually chosen at random. There is in inherent sense of implied history and chronology through the numbering of different types of collections and I think that strikes at the heart of Margiela's work. There is a dialogue with how history is perceived in fashion, as evident by the Artisanal or Replica collections, which Margiela plays with. Indeed whilst the use of 20 for the collection implies the 20th Anniversary it also raises the idea of a 20th exhibition. As with his replica work, Margiela seems to suggest he has always been here, working and exhibiting year after year.

I think his painted work is perhaps indicative of his relationship with time and history. Clothing and footwear are whitewashed, meaning that as they are worn, the paint cracks and fades to reveal the clothing and materials beneath. It is an odd sense of reverse aging in a way, revealing the actual clothing beneath whilst in the same way charting the progression of time itself. Indeed Margiela's work always places a value on craft which is often unfortunately not always apparent in high fashion. Items such as those from his Artisanal collection are even guaranteed for life.

Show invitations

The various show invites were a treat to see. From a circled advert on a newspaper sheet, to a handwritten invite on a plate, to a hospital style bracelet, to a childlike painted cardboard invite, Margiela seems to constantly question the perceived notions of fashion. Gone are the luxurious invites, to be replaced by ostensibly insignificant found objects (mirroring his Replica work, taking on overlooked articles and reworking them for the high fashion market). There is a certain critique inherent in all of Margiela's work that is amusing to behold. I do wonder whether it can often be overlooked by certain peoples, however I suppose that makes it all the more relevant.

One can look towards Margiela's labeling of clothing as an example. His mainline pieces feature a simple white box with four white tacks. No writing or name appears on the box. Similarly his other work features white boxes with the run of ciphers, from which the appropriate number is circled. On his unlined garments one notes the four white tacks prominent on the outside of the garment. For those who know Margiela those four white tacks are instantly recognizable on just about any garment as being Margiela. Whilst Margiela makes the idea of branding and logos problematic, his alternative is still exclusive and elitist in its use. Elizabeth Wilson writes in her book Adorned In Dreams that fashion acts as the hinge between the elitist and the popular. Whilst Margiela's critiques often seem to place his work outside the elitist, his work is however implicitly tied to it.

(Debbie Swallow look-a-like for those who know)I absolutely loved this sweater from the Fall '08 collection and was rather excited to see it (and recognize it!) in the exhibition.

There was a certain lack of menswear, however given the relative small portion is holds within Margiela's oeuvre such a curatorial decision is understandable. I would have liked to have seen a few examples from the men's Artisan collection or Replicas such as the now staple German Army sneakers. Yet that perhaps would have focused too greatly on recent design rather than provide a true representation of Margiela's career as a whole. Certainly the curatorial editing throughout the exhibition was remarkable. It is hard to condense the work of any designer into a single exhibition, let alone twenty years of as diverse a designer as Margiela. What I found enjoyable was the fact that when going through the exhibition it never felt as if anything was really lacking.

The lack of menswear was not at the forefront of my mind when going through the exhibition, but rather something I thought towards the end. Indeed a curator will always have to edit what to display and what not to display, and it can often be the case that by displaying one thing, one inherently highlights the absence of another. Exhibitions and display are always a set of conscious decisions and compromises, so it was nice to see that whilst the exhibition was certainly broad in its aims and coverage, it still worked well overall.

Stephen Wells writes that our understanding of an object in a museum depends on the thought constructs with which we approach it. The curator can set up a framework for the viewer through a process of choices: how the layout works, how the display is configured, what information is offered the viewer. All these choices impact how the viewer is set up to encounter the objects. I liked the fact that there were no wall labels or written information around the exhibition.

One could certainly read the booklet provided for specific information, but I would prefer visitors to ignore that at first and engage with the displays and clothing without that information. Of course I did find myself looking at items that I recognized, and in more than one instance remembered the catwalk video or shot, but it was still nice to engage with the clothing without the initial distraction of a written blurb. How much can one even convey in a wall label? There is always the danger of lulling one away from viewing, and that is particularly the case with fashion, where many will immediately try to seek the 'meaning' behind an object before actually looking and appreciating it as a garment.

I think that is what I found so alluring about the Artisan display. Garments were presented in a wall behind glass, with windows lighting up individually in succession. This meant that the viewer only really has one garment to view at a time, and this allows them to really appreciate the craft and skill that has gone into creating each piece.

Placing such objects behind glass, and lighting them one at a time, configures the way the viewer approaches them. Karl Marx wrote that touch was the most real of the senses, whilst sight was the most illusionary. Unlike the garments mounted on mannequins which one could walk up to, placed behind glass these pieces were displayed like exalted rare objects. Lighting up one at a time, when they were otherwise kept cloaked in darkness behind the glass, provided an almost sacralized atmosphere. They were provided a new meaning distinct from wearing or the experience of clothing, to be viewed rather as art produced by hours of intensive and skilled labour.

The Maison Martin Margiela 20 Exhibition runs until 5th September 2010 at Somerset House in London.

Currently playing: Hey Daddy - Usher



  1. would love to have been able to have made it to the exhibition but this super coverage with do!

  2. That exhibit sounds very interesting. Thanks for sharing :)

  3. I feel like I was at the exhibit with your fabulous coverage of this, darling DK! :) You use your words brilliantly, and have so much imagery that I really do feel like I can see exactly what you're talking about.
    Hope you're doing well, my dear.

  4. i'd love to have a look at that book (:



  5. i agree with allison. you made me feel like i was there! great coverage instead of just showcasing pictures.

  6. I've never been. However your description means I don't have to! Thanks for the tour!

  7. I would love to be able to go there.

  8. Your pictures inspire me to this song!! check out and listen. thanks :)
    I was listening to it und watching your pics.


  9. I will be visiting London again in August, so I'm quite happy that the exhibition runs until September. I've been at SHOWstudio's exhibition last year, that was awesome, so I'm super curious by now :)

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  11. Hey Syed !

    Thank you for your article about Margiela ! I'm a 5th year scenography student doing some researches for my mémoire about Margiela. I also saw the exhibition 5 years ago but I didn't buy the catalogue, I was so stupid ! It's absolutely impossible for me to find it for less than 200€. I was wondering if you could send me some pictures or scans of the essays Kaat Debo and Barbara Vinken wrote about Margiela and the exhibition. It would be so nice of you !
    Thanks !