Friday 17 April 2020

Invisible man: "Martin Margiela: In His Own Words"

The title of Reiner Holzemer's documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words prompts two immediate questions: who is Martin Margiela, and what will we gain from heeding his words? To address the first of these, even habitués of the fashion world from which Margiela emerged would be hard-pressed to pick the Belgian out of a line-up. Unlike Jean-Paul Gaultier, the ebullient, camera-ready Frenchman who employed him as an assistant and mentored him through the haute couture scene of the 1980s, Margiela has successfully fostered a near-complete anonymity, refusing to do press and stitching blank labels into his garments where the logo would normally go; even the models he sent down the catwalk in his 1990s heyday tended to have their hair combed forwards to obscure their faces, or cloth sacks over their heads. (We can but wonder how many of them made it down the runway and back without coming a terrible cropper.) Holzemer's film, then, holds the promise of revelation, of seeing Margiela unmasked; that it never quite delivers on it - allowing its subject to remain off-camera for the most part, heard but seen only in the form of hands flipping through sketchpads and other archive materials - is down to a directorial approach that falls somewhere between awestruck and timidly incurious. We simply never get a good look at anything other than the work, eyecatching though that often is.

The film is at its most comfortable discussing the designer's methods; as a Margiela primer, it'll just about do. What's clear is that Margiela inherited from Gaultier a certain air du punk comparable with Vivienne Westwood's simultaneous endeavours in the UK: he staged major shows on wasteland and in underground car parks, sending his models out in reconstituted tea towels or the plastic wrapping in which his creations arrived from the workshop. Holzemer is good on the effects of his subject's refusal to engage with celebrity. Firstly, we learn, it kept the spotlight on the clothes; secondly, as the New York Times critic Cathy Horyn admits, the absence of someone painstakingly explaining their creative choices obliged journos to work a little harder to contextualise Margiela's output. The film is basically a chance for the now happily retired designer to offer, in one sitting, all those justifications designers typically have to come up with after each collection. As such, though browsable in the manner of the high-end made-for-TV profile it is, it proves far less iconoclastic than its subject. Holzemer's boldest choice is an unusually rocky score by famous Belgians dEUS; arguably he adds a dash more texture to his pristine, serene digital imagery by cutting in grainy Super-8 footage shot at Margiela's oddly chaotic shows, but that would seem less a choice than a narrative obligation. His editorial, unmistakably, takes this man without a face at something like face value: the third-party interviewees (employees, journalists, ex-models) are fans who smilingly side with Margiela's gripes about the modern fashion industry. A straightahead career celebration, it throws up striking creations - dresses made out of bags and balloons give the lie to Gaultier's claim Margiela was "too serious" for fashion - and leaves you admiring the designer's commitment to the invisibility bit, but non-fashionistas may find Holzemer answers the first of those initial questions rather better than he does the second.

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

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