Fake or Facsimile: Part 13: Parisian Semi Couture

The Louis Vuitton (LV) 2008 Spring Collection (a collaboration with Richard Prince) was unveiled ten years ago (in early Autumn 2007).  The then LV creative director, Marc Jacobs (MJ), repudiated suggestions, made at the time, that “appropriation” designers such as Richard Prince and Jacobs himself were producing highly derivative fashion styles.   MJ, it was argued, was in danger of producing a branded collection within the confines of “an echo chamber of existing ideas”, and that Jacobs was “foraging in the vintage closet”.[i]

MJ’s rejoinder: “It all came from our collaboration with Richard Prince, who is an artist who appropriates references within his work, which is what we do—which is fine, so long as there are three differences in everything!”[ii]  I am not able to determine whether the sacred number “three” establishes sufficient original distinctions in the world of haute couture, but it might not manage to produce a particularly successful defence against plagiarism in the academic world.  A quotation or the summary of an idea where three synonyms were swapped out for the original assertion would not be thought to constitute original work, and could lead to charges of the theft of intellectual property.

One truly trend-setting designer whom MJ explicitly mentioned as a direct influence is Martin Margiela, apparently considered as a “deconstructionist” in the world of European “appropriation” artists.  It is slightly disconcerting to hear the fashionable language of French “critical theory” applied to the necessities of modish, chic, “edgy”, convention-defying fashion trends, but then one can assert that Martin Margiela (MM) is truly someone who reads or interprets “against the grain”.

My ability to honour this creative genius is hampered by his aversion to being photographed, to appearing in public, and to being interviewed—all of which puts this “anonymous” designer at obvious and immediate odds with the fashion colleagues that we have been considering in this series.  The amazing thing about MM is the way he was, at one and the same time apparently, able to stand outside and inside the parameters of haute couture—promoting recycled “grunge”, for instance, but doing so “in an intelligent and sleek manner”.[iii]   Anyone who can manage to persuade a fashion commentator to combine the notions of “grunge” and “sleek” in the same sentence is doing something highly unusual, perhaps even admirable.

One truncated biographical extract may be enough to give readers a sense of the staggering success and complexity of this atypical Belgian designer.  MM moved to Paris in 1984 to serve “as a design assistant” for Jean-Paul Gaultier.  In 1997 MM became womenswear “creative director” at Hermès (founded Paris, 1837); when he relinquished this prestigious role in 2003, he was succeeded by …….. Jean-Paul Gaultier.  In December of 2009 Martin Margiela seemed to have left the fashion industry for good.[iv]  At the time of writing, there is a genuine celebration of his Parisian achievement entitled Margiela: The Hermès Years running until August 27th, 2017 at the ModeMuseum (Fashion Museum) Museum in Antwerp (MoMu).  In 2018 there will be a Margiela Retrospective in Paris.  MM is said to be co-operating with the staging of this exhibition.[v]

MM’s tangential relationship to the inner circle of Parisian fashion is only partially represented by the following sampling of his fashion shows—reproduced below—which have obviously become real “game changers”.  And I am sorry to say how—once you have been introduced into the Margiela planetary orbit—things can never seem quite the same; in my case, it may even have the effect of making all my other efforts look rather ordinary and stale by comparison.  To avoid a sense of personal deflation: Reader, “discretion is advised”.

St Martin Metro Station, Paris

Apparently Margiela “collections” have consciously been staged as happenings or “performance art”; they proceed according to striking conceits (e.g., models walking down the runway backwards, or with their faces covered, or accompanied by an oom-pah band).  All of MM’s assistants are identified by their wearing white “lab coats”, which adds a moment of clinical chic to each and every MM enterprise.  So, what follows can only be a sadly partial listing of MM “collections”—which have been staged in “non-posh urban venues”[vi]—and where the setting is at least as important as the content.

I highlight the following Paris “collection events”:

  • Spring 1989: for MM’s debut: “shrouded models dip their feet in red paint before stepping onto the white fabric runway.”[vii]
  • Autumn 1989: “a derelict playground on the outskirts of Paris… seating plan was first come, first served… the runway was uneven…”[viii]
  • Spring 1992: Saint-Martin Paris Metro station; abandoned since September 2nd, 1939; illuminated by 1600 candles.[ix]
  • Autumn 1992: inside a Salvation Army store “with guests perched on old furniture amid racks of second-hand clothes.”[x]
  • Spring 1993: two Margiela shows are scheduled for precisely the same 8:30pm start; however, “at opposite ends of the [Paris] Montmartre Cemetery”; at one end “the clothes and invitation were black, at the other white. Show up to the wrong show and you were denied entrance…”[xi]
  • Spring 1995: “The models sat amid the audience in the theatre that housed the show, until a bell rang and they lined up two deep across the stage to take their turn in the spotlight.”[xii]
  • Autumn 1995: “a circus tent in the Bois de Boulogne” where MM “sent his models up into the bleachers … to glide between rows of the audience.”[xiii]
  • Spring 1996: “a wine bottle-lined” runway, with the models being “urged along by pompom-wielding cheerleaders.”
  • Autumn 1997: “models were shuttled among three mini venues in the Place de la République via white buses.”
  • Spring 1998: the featured clothing is “presented on hangers”.
  • Autumn 1998: the featured clothing is modelled by “marionettes”.
  • Spring 2000: round tabletops are employed in place of a runway; featured clothing is modelled with clearly visible “price stickers and electronic security tags.”
  • Spring 2001: “models moving around a petal-strewn floor at the Louvre.”[xiv]
  • Autumn 2001: “a tunnel under Paris’s Pont Alexandre III.”
  • Autumn 2003: “models were illuminated by two men bearing panels of six strip lights.”
  • Spring 2006: models were wheeled by individual trolleys onto, as it were, a “fashion construction site”—giving a whole new meaning to the word runway; outfits “came with one side finished and the other melting off into raw fabric. A couple of dresses still had bolts of fabric attached”;[xv] models also sported construction warning tape, some indicating “Fragile” packaging: other “Caution” signs were prominently displayed, indicating a wet surface, or “Wet Paint”.[xvi]
  • Autumn 2006: Collection described as “derived from home furnishings”; as “surrealist-utiliarianism”; garments construted from “leather chairs, pieces of rug, curtains, and car seats (complete with seat belts)” and “transformed into jackets, trousers, skirts…”[xvii]
  • And then on May 23rd, 2017: In conjunction with Hermès and the MoMu in Antwerp: MM staged a runway “performance”, followed by a luncheon in a narrow atrium, with a single long “table”, and an individual server for each of the 250 invited guests![xviii]

Apart from the extraordinary circumstances in which the fashion collections were staged by Maison Martin Margiela (MMM), the commentaries I have read suggest that the clothing produced was actually worn with pleasure by those for whom it was designed.[xix]  That dual achievement firmly establishes an absolute standard: both to succeed in producing stunningly original fashion events, and then to provide garments that people actually enjoy wearing…

Part of Margiela’s insight, it seems, was to create a style that MMM labeled “semi couture”,[xx] which is to say it was something that could be received both as highly fashionable and then also practical, which explains a huge element of his success as a designer.  What MM and his Maison produced for the 20 years under his leadership has been expertly identified by the Vogue correspondent (Laird Borrelli-Persson) as “street-inflected”.[xxi]  And the same terms keep coming up wherever there are discussions of MMM fashion.  For instance, one reads the critics speaking of “street-chic”, and MM’s “edgy street vibe”.[xxii]  Which adds another interesting twist to our discussions of designer “appropriations”; so far the trajectory has all been in terms of designers appropriating from each other.  But what if there is a more original possibility: not that, as we mostly suppose, the great designers are setting the pace of fashion.  What if the designers are reflecting, rather than establishing what is being worn “on the street”.  Could there be any other explanation for the (to me incomprehensible) purchase of “stressed” jeans from shops run by world famous brands and designers.  Having made enquiries, I learned from one of these branded high-end shops that their vastly overpriced jeans were, in fact, manufactured whole, and then factory workers had to be employed using sandpaper-like materials, by a laborious process, to provide the “stress” (for the uncouth, these are simply “holes”) which the consumer prefers.  Who is setting the actual fashion here: the designers or the street-style that they are copying?

As it happens, one of the greatest Canadian fashion success stories is that of “Aldo Shoes”, founded by philanthropist Aldo Bensadoun (AB).  According to his own account, his original insight simply consisted in importing to Montreal from Italy, what fashionable young people were already doing abroad: viz. wearing wooden clogs.  So AB quickly “designed 60 pairs of clogs for the French-Canadian market” … and now with 2,000 stores (in malls everywhere) and 20,000 employees, the rest, as we say, is history…

Of course, I am exaggerating; nothing is ever quite that simple.  A more discriminating account is provided by Terry O’Reilly in his CBC Radio report[xxiii] from which I learned these details above.  But the CBC report suggests that my fundamental insight still stands.  Or to put the matter even more correctly: AB established an international business by appropriating the insight that I am now (belatedly) trying to peddle.

Here are the AB principles:

  1. “Fast Fashions sells Fast”;
  2. To exploit this fact, a successful business must bring the product “to market lightning fast”; Aldo’s business ethos is faster decision-making so as to enable a quicker “turnaround”;
  3. The CBC report also informed us: “Bensadoun is a strong believer that fashion starts on the street and mirrors the political and economic climate.”
  4. And speaking of those “stressed” jeans: “in the early 2000s, his team introduced a combat-style boot using distressed leather in reaction to the [Iraq] war coverage they were seeing on the evening news every night. It was a huge success.”
  5. AB has emphasized that the key is being “consumer-centric”; thus, “you need to analyze the behaviour of the consumer and try to follow him and make sure you offer him, whenever and wherever he wants, the product he is looking for.”[xxiv]

Speaking of “semi couture”, then: AB has perfectly, in this account, grasped the meaning of “edgy street vibe” and “street-inflected fashion”.

Another phrase that has been associated with MM’s stunning achievement, and that does seem also to apply with justification to Aldo is the concept of “upcycling”.[xxv]  No doubt a neologism, but one which has a purpose.  To upcycle: taking something fashion has abandoned or discarded; or transforming something wholly ordinary, quotidian or even contemptible, and turning it into the “must-have” commodity of the season… If this definition of “Upcycling” is given its proper due, then we might agree to see this as another instance where fashion conforms to the influence of “critical theory” and its Post-Modern expression: which is to say, admirably, here we find a history of fashion being firmly “written from below”, and not “dictated” from above.

The most extraordinary example of “upcycling” that I can offer the reader is taken from the MMM Spring 2006 Collection: simply take a deck of cards … and in their repositioning, you can recreate yourself as a living, mobile, fashion statement.  By the genius of “upcycling”, playing cards were transformed into the most original, the most attractive, and the most winsome men’s waistcoat imaginable.  During MM’s tenure as “Chef de Maison”, MMM “randomly assembled” the humble “blackjack” deck, that is to  say the designers “shuffled, dyed, frayed” the playing cards and then heated them onto their leather foundation;[xxvi] thus turning that everyday pack of cards at the bottom of your kitchen drawer into the season’s most original garment.

How do we conclude: MM’s establishment of “semi couture” is the place where art begins again to imitate life; where the fashion world appropriates the street, and where the most luxurious fashion may also be stylish, attractive, and comfortable—all at once.  It would be vain to try and improve upon the judgment of the Vogue correspondent, Laird Borrelli-Perrson, so I must allow her to have the last word:

By turning things inside out, Margiela turned the fashion world upside down and, somehow, set it right.

Next Time: Sampling: “All these things belong together”


[i] The New York Times, September 12th, 2007 (Suzy Menkes): “Marc Jacobs disappoints with a Freak Show”

[ii] Vogue (Runway), October 6th, 2007 (Sarah Mower): “Spring 2008 Ready-to-Wear: Louis Vuitton”

[iii] Vogue, October 15th, 2012 (Caroline Leaper): “Martin Margiela”

[iv] Ibid.

[v] wmagazine.com, January 10th, 2017 (Kyle Munzenrieder): “Mystery Man Martin Margiela is working on a Museum Retrospective”

[vi] Vogue, November 10th, 2015 (Sarah Mower): “Margiela, Mon Amour

[vii] departures.com, February 8th, 2012: “Most outrageous Fashion-Show …”

[viii] businessoffashion.com, February 16th, 2016 (Richard O’Mahony): “Remembered: The Game-Changing Martin Margiela Show of 1989”

[ix] thefashioncommentator.com. November 17th, 2012 (Alessandro Masetti): “Martin Margiela, the one and only”

[x] Vogue, November 9th, 2016 (Suzy Menkes): “Martin Margiela: Re-visiting the Hermès Years”

[xi] Vogue, November 10th, 2015 (Laird Borrelli-Persson): “From the Archives: 14 Shows from the Man, the Myth, the Legend Martin Margiela”

[xii] The New York Times, October 11th, 1994: (Amy M. Spindler): Style: Paris: Reviews/Fashion: “Masculine, but Oh So Softly”

[xiii] The New York Times, March 17th, 1995: (Amy M. Spindler): Style: Paris: Review/Fashion: “Beyond Sweet, Beyond Black, Beyond 2001”

[xiv] Vogue (Runway), October 10th, 2000 (Laird Borrelli-Persson): “Spring 2001 Ready-to-Wear: Maison Margiela”

[xv] Vogue (Runway), October 6th, 2005 (Sarah Mower): “Spring 2006 Ready-to-Wear: Maison Margiela”

[xvi] Vogue: “Spring 2006 Ready to Wear: Maison Margiela”: Slideshow/Collection

[xvii] Vogue (Runway), March 2nd, 2006 (Sarah Mower): “Fall 2006 Ready-to-Wear: Maison Margiela”

[xviii] Harper’s Bazaar (Singapore), May 23rd, 2017: “Martin Margiela returns to Hermès for an exclusive Launch”

[xix] Vogue, November 10th, 2015 (Sarah Mower): op. cit.

[xx] Vogue (Runway), October 2nd, 1996 (Laird Borrelli-Persson): “Spring 1997 Ready-to-Wear: Maison Margiela”

[xxi] Vogue, November 10th, 2015 (Laird Borrelli-Persson): op. cit.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] CBC Radio: Under the Influence (with Terry O’Reilly), May 11th, 2017: “Brand Envy: #CANADA150”

[xxiv] The Globe and Mail, July 10th, 2017 (Jennifer Lewington): “Aldo Shoe Empire Founder donates $25-Million to McGill”

[xxv] Vogue, January 23rd, 2013 (Mark Holgate): “Maison Martin Margiela Artisanal Spring 2013 Couture”

[xxvi] Maison Margiela, Paris: “Men’s Artisanal Playing Card” Waistcoat (Spring-Summer 2006)

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