Last fall, posters began cropping up around Paris—on storefronts, in subways, and on street corners—featuring a stick of off-brand deodorant. Simultaneously banal and enigmatic, this quotidian image of a supermarket grooming product served as an invitation to an art exhibition. The artist was already well known to most Parisians; in fact, more than a few might have been wearing him at the time. His name was Martin Margiela.
Few emerging artists come with so much creative cachet as the radical Belgian who almost single-handedly revolutionized the landscape of fashion when he started his label, in 1988. When Margiela entered the scene with his deconstructed, inside-out, oversize, show-us-how-it’s-made, process-over-product approach, the fashion industry was a steady supplier of upscale glamour that never dared to put a stitch out of place. But the philosophy of the wily young art school graduate, who had previously apprenticed under Jean Paul Gaultier, jibed perfectly with the fin-de-siècle mood to turn polished aesthetics on their head, and to question the institutions that created a soporific flow of goods for consumption. Margiela prized the unfinished, the raw, the “wrong,” the repulsion of beauty as much as its attraction, and the ambiguity of in-between states.
Even the man himself resisted the usual designer-genius mythology, refusing to take a bow at the end of his shows, or to be photographed or interviewed. It’s no surprise, then, that through the 1990s and 2000s, his clothes became the de rigueur uniform for the art world, a way to dress fashionably while being attuned to the codes and constraints of fashion as a value system. The brand’s telltale four white stitch marks on the back of the garments worked like a VIP card for the conceptually minded. By wearing Martin Margiela, you could be the height of chic and still claim outsider status.
When Margiela officially walked away from fashion, in 2008, it was the end of an era. His brand would continue without him—under the name Maison Margiela—but the ghost had left the machine. So, too, would Margiela, the man, continue without his brand. As it turns out, his leaving fashion was less an abandonment of frenetic creative activity than a renewal of it, allowing him to reposition his vision. “I am still the same person with the same taste, the same ideas, and the same obsessions,” Margiela says, by email, of his overall approach to work. (He still refuses to be photographed or to conduct in-person interviews.)
Works in progress in the studio.
© Martin Margiela.
This past October, just as the Paris street posters promised, the museum Lafayette Anticipations opened Margiela’s first public art show. It was hardly a modest entrée. The exhibition, consisting of nearly 40 distinct pieces, filled the Rem Koolhaas–designed space. They ranged from painting to film, sculpture to performance, collage to installation, encapsulating the past 13 years of the artist’s experimentations in material, concept, and form. The visual mastermind had not lost his knack for upending expectations and established norms. Many of the themes that were addressed in his most iconic collections reemerged in his neo-Surrealist Pop productions. Even the deodorant poster harked back to his early years of unorthodox runway show announcements—one invitation that ran in the classified ads of a daily newspaper comes readily to mind. “The ratio of exchange between my fashion and my art remains clear and sincere,” Margiela explains. “The borders between the fashion system and the art world have also become increasingly permeable, the transitions increasingly fluid.”
It would be an error to treat Margiela’s fashion as his métier, and his art as a retiree’s hobby or a sort of minor encore. “In fashion, you create only for the human body; in art, you have total freedom to express yourself in two or three dimensions, with whatever technique or medium,” he says. The truth is, Margiela had always practiced art; he studied it, was trained in drawing and painting, and refined his craft throughout his first career. The problem was that that career, with its ever-increasing demands for expansion, left little chance to foster development. “Fashion is very time consuming,” he says. “There was barely any time left to do anything else. But in the final years as a fashion designer, I already renewed my interest in making art objects. I took part in an exhibition in 2009 curated by Helmut Lang, who himself had stopped making fashion in 2005. I presented a plaster cast of the first jacket I created, in 1989.” Now free to devote himself to his calling, he keeps one studio on the outskirts of Brussels and another in Paris, and continues to live between the Belgian and French capitals.
Hair Portraits, 2015–2019.
Déodorant, 2019, a poster promoting Margiela’s show at Lafayette Anticipations, on the streets of Paris.
It wasn’t until 2019 that Margiela would introduce his new work to outside eyes. That came by way of his association with the noted Belgian curator and art historian Chris Dercon, who served as a sounding board and was a frequent visitor to the artist’s studio. Together they located an apartment in the center of Paris and transformed it into a private exhibition hall, inviting a handful of art world denizens for viewings of the work. The show proved a success. Zeno X Gallery, in Antwerp, began representing Margiela soon afterward, and he was given his solo exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations.
In a gesture reminiscent of Margiela’s unorthodox fashion show settings of yore, visitors to the Lafayette exhibition were made to enter the space through the back emergency exit staircase. Inside, the artist had created a series of discrete, labyrinthine vignettes, separated by sweeps of vertical blinds that steered the audience’s eye. Much of the work seemed imbued with a sense of loss, with the decay of beauty, the erasure of form, and the inability to access a hidden ideal. Hair, nails, and skin were a particular fixation. In one piece, five headlike orbs were arranged in a row, their silicone “skin” covered in natural hair dyed in a succession of tones, from a childlike silky blond to the brown of adulthood, and finally, on the fifth head, the gray of old age. Margiela created a contemporary sculptural version of the medieval “Ages of Man” motif, but any lesson about the acceptance of the passing of time was subverted not only by artificial hair coloring, but by the viewer’s somewhat monstrous realization that the heads had no faces; all individuating identity was masked. Hair reappeared in a number of works throughout the show, including in a cartographical print that attempted to diagram the natural fall of human hair on the head. In another installation, hair was collaged over the faces of movie stars on the covers of vintage magazines; and in one outsize Meret Oppenheim moment, fake fur enveloped an entire life-size bus stop, turning a forgettable intermediary space into a haunted, fairy tale destination.
A work in progress in the studio.
© Martin Margiela.
Hair is, of course, bound with notions of beauty, and it was a recurring trope in Margiela’s fashion vocabulary. Early on in his career, he reportedly dragged hair extensions on the ground to dirty them before applying them to a model’s head for a runway show, and for his spring/summer 2009 collection, celebrating his label’s 20th anniversary, he created jackets made out of glossy stage wigs. The dual specters of beauty and fashion were found in nearly every work in the show. Fingernails, made out of fiberglass or Nymphenburg porcelain, were covered in bright red car varnish. “Many of my works are related with the human body, but also the environment in which the human body moves,” Margiela says. “The works often evoke the anatomy, folds, and curves of the body. I want to render as closely as possible the delicate imperfections of the epidermis, in pastel, paint, chalk, a body that appears to us as pieces of desire. Tactile desire is very present in my work.”
That uncanny desire of the familiar and unfamiliar reaches its apogee in a stunning series of ambiguous body-part sculptures that appeared not only at Lafayette Anticipations, but also at Zeno X Gallery’s presentation at last fall’s FIAC contemporary art fair in Paris. These mutant, torsolike organisms were cast from the same material as the plinths they rest on; the sculpture and its mode of display appeared fused as an indivisible totem, rendered in a range of sensuous flesh colors. Eschewing the reverence given to ancient marbles, the plinths were noticeably scuffed; Margiela wanted spectators to interact with the sculptures, transforming them into haptic, tangible objects. “I find it important that people can approach and touch my work,” he says. “I want to encourage the reconciliation of the worlds of experience and representation by giving permission to caress the piece. This way, the piece is always in mutation, always ready for rebirth. Objects and beings come to life with each trace that proves that they exist in the world, that they interact with it and are affected by it.”
The final piece in the exhibition was a five-minute black and white film of a young woman, her face covered in hair, laughing maniacally. The footage was periodically interrupted by YouTube-like advertisement clips for the generic deodorant that announced the show. The film might have seemed like a needle jammed in the side of the art critic, as a reminder not to take the meaning of the work so seriously. Or, perhaps, this compulsive fit of laughter was another natural emission of the human body that Margiela twisted into something both enticing and frightening. When asked whether there is a childlike quality to making art, and whether fun and play are essential ingredients of the work, he answers, “Yes, yes, yes.”
Indeed, it is hard to look back on Margiela’s fashion shows of the late 1980s and ’90s and not see an artist’s delight in the theater of mischief. And thankfully, a lot of that puckish energy is evident as he finds his feet as an artist. The exhibition at Lafayette Anticipations proved such a success that Margiela is currently at work creating new pieces and further iterations of his sculptures for a museum in Beijing this summer. “The appropriation of images and objects was one of the signatures of my work in fashion from the very beginning,” he says. “I have always been interested in the culture of the copy and an entanglement of copies of all kinds: photocopies, reproductions, replicas, etc.”
If the Beijing audience can expect anything, it is that Margiela’s clever, multifaceted, slightly deranged, always provocative touch will be in full effect. It’s a testament to Margiela’s vision that he reveres copies and reproduction, but his work is always one of a kind.
Pierre Antoine, courtesy of the artist and Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp, produced by Lafayette Anticipations (8).