An industry as overtly image-based as fashion design is always going to produce instantly recognizable stars. But as proven by Reiner Holzemer’s intelligent, enjoyable if uncritical “Martin Margiela: In His Own Words,” in those cases, the figure of the designer can eclipse the design. Think of Vivienne Westwood, and we think of her Elizabeth-I-safety-pinned-to-Sid-Vicious vibe; of Tom Ford and it’s how his immaculate stubble often outguns his doubtless terrifyingly suave suit. But Martin Margiela, whose legacy, the film will convince you, is next to unparalleled, has never publicly shown his face. It gives Holzemer’s talking-head-based approach its most inspired creative limitation.
After an apprenticeship with Jean Paul Gaultier in the late ’80s, the Belgian-born Margiela co-founded his atelier, Maison Martin Margiela, in 1988 with business partner Jenny Meirens. Very quickly, their controversial shows, staged in parking lots, under bridges and in Salvation Army stores, showcasing Margiela’s brilliantly eccentric design ethos, came to prominence in a fashion world grappling with the end of the brash ’80s and the dawning of the more eco-conscious, socially aware ’90s.
“Martin’s clothes,” explains one interviewee succinctly, “put everything else out of fashion.” But just as soon, Margiela realized he was made personally uncomfortable by the spotlight, and so where a bad-boy, rock-’n’-roll persona could have evolved, instead he embraced mystery. Margiela never did press and released no photos of himself; when the fashion press wrote about him, they tended to use invisible-man imagery which, given his fondness for covering his models’ faces in veils, opaque stocking-masks or elaborate hairstyles, was in plentiful supply.
Holzemer’s film turns that absence into a virtue. We still never see Margiela’s face; instead we watch his hands (pleasantly unmanicured, capable hands) as they fiddle with a seam or paint glitter onto a mannequin. And we hear his voice, soft, wry and hesitant, telling the story of his early years and of his creative development, elegantly intercut with animated versions of his sketches, clips from his shows and an admiring Greek-chorus of interviewees, including the aforementioned Gaultier along with assistants, commentators, fashion journalists and historians. It gives us the enjoyable feel, at times, of being inside his head, wandering about within his own memories and motivations, and looking out through his eyes, albeit taking care not to walk past any mirrors.
Sure enough, as Margiela himself had intuited so early on, the very lack of his personal image means the story becomes about his clothes, here portrayed as a seemingly inexhaustible series of eclectic innovations: the tabi-style split-toe shoe; the rumpled tanks worn under sheer tops to give a “new wet look”; entire high-concept portfolios that seemed to challenge the very fundaments of garment shape giving rise to “The Flat Collection or “The Oversize Collection” or a season based on scaling up doll’s clothes to life-size, complete with uneven joins and enlarged zippers.
The film does elliptically tell the story of Margiela’s 20 years at the head of his Maison (he quit fashion, quietly and with no fanfare, after his 20th anniversary show), of the experiences that shaped his reverently irreverent philosophy, and of his time with Paris fashion house Hermès. But it is also a kind of gallery event of its own, with each new idiosyncrasy given just the barest amount of context, before moving on to the next.
The result is a portrait of a fashion career of unusual creative integrity, accompanied by Antwerp-based rock band Deus’ surprisingly apropos score, that does not, however, probe the moments of doubt, depression or division that occur along the way. Margiela vaguely attributes his abrupt retirement to the new pressures of the internet age; other commentators are quicker to point the finger at his label’s new majority owner, Diesel, and their inevitable “brand management.” Sometimes, without their wittiness truly explored, there’s just a touch of “Zoolander” to the more extreme ideas — the balloon jackets, packing-tape tailoring, and those fabulous, ridiculous ice cube earrings which drip watery dye onto the models’ clothes as they melt.
A more searching, politicized documentary would perhaps have more deeply contextualized and investigated such ideas (not to mention the subsequent appointment of post-scandal John Galliano as head of the renamed Maison Margiela in 2014). But if those omissions suggest perhaps a slight failure of nerve in a documentary about a man whose nerve, apparently, never failed him, what Holzemer loses in hard-edged critique he gains in intimacy and warmth. The grandest irony to emerge is that despite its unquestionable sincerity, soft-spoken iconoclast Martin Margiela’s insistent non-image may yet turn out to be the canniest bit of fashion image-making of all.