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Abject Luxury: The Legacy Of Martin Margiela
Charlie Hardie , July 14th, 2018 09:05

Two shows in Paris dedicated to the the Belgian fashion designer reveal an artist of consistent theoretical depth

Martin Margiela, waistcoat, Spring-Summer 1990. Made from slashed posters overlaid on a cotton base. © Françoise Cochennec / Galliera / Roger-Viollet

Two current exhibitions in Paris are devoted to the Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela. One concerns his work for the eponymous label from 1989 to 2009 at the Palais Galliera, the other at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs on his collaboration from 1997–2003 with Hermès International. Displaying the work of a designer credited with creating stunning clothes within a radical practice that exceeded the boundaries of the fashion system, the exhibitions allow a review of his activities with two very different creatures. Looking beyond the critical stylistic influence he has had on his peers and employers, the two shows ask what impact he had on the politics of later contemporary designers – such as Vetements, whose recent show on 1 July at Paris Fashion Week intensified their reputation as dismantlers of the fashion system.

In 1981 Margiela emerged from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts alongside the group known as the Antwerp Six, a set of designers which included Walter van Beirendonck, Dirk Van Saene, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Marina Yee and Dirk Bikkembergs.  Immediately acknowledged for their conceptual approach, they created clothes that were both in direct dialogue with their cultural context (inheriting the confrontational aesthetic of punk, Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, et al) and in a reflexive dialogue with the fashion system within which they operated. Consequently commentators have associated them with literary theories of the time, casually migrating the Deconstructionist theories of French philosopher Jacques Derrida into their practice as well as onto all sorts of other counter-cultural activities and outputs.

Margiela’s work proved particularly accommodating to this sort of commodification of theory. For the conceptually minded, a dismantled Guernsey jumper with arms made from the lining of a tailored jacket echoed the practice of a reading and (re)writing that brought secrets to the surface, or revealed the hidden assumptions and enabling conditions through the dismantling or close reading of cultural actors and events. Margiela’s house had an agenda: his anonymity, refusal to do interviews, the universal studio uniform of white coats, the appropriation and refiguring of vintage clothing – all worked to decentre the act of creation away from a single designer-as-authority and forced comparisons with the anonymity of contemporary art, or the loose historical appropriations of the architecture of the 1980s. It’s true that only one or two photographs of the designer exist, but rather than flattening out creative hierarchies this has produced a powerful mystique around the Margiela creative process and its ownership: good marketing.

Nevertheless, Margiela’s clothes do seem to speak somehow of their location. They have the tone of revelation, as if they have their own history or a story to tell about the wearer. For the ‘Doll’s Wardrobe’ collection he presented dolls clothes that had been real clothes scaled down to dolls’ sizes, then brought back up to human proportions, retaining the outsize zips and awkward proportions. At once figured as palimpsests, the exposed and defective tailoring brought the insides of a garment out, bearing the traces of other ways of being. The vertiginous scales made them uncanny objects, creepy. Clothes like this, both beautiful and analytical, ask the question: what is it that these clothes speak about?

Despite the conspicuously skilful tailoring and luxurious materials, the inspired constructions displayed in the Galliera exhibition – like the dolls clothes – all feel shadowed or off-balance in some way. Margiela’s well known appropriation of the Japanese tabi shoe reveals what is at stake. As it migrates from an ethnic reference to a cloven hoof that leaves bloodied footprints across the floor of his shops, it demands some acknowledgement of the entanglements in fashion of beings both human and non-human. Garments clothe and protect but fashion signifies the wearer’s cultural location. Margiela’s mode parlante reveals the totemic quality of clothes, their capacity to become fetishised commodities invested with diverse sentiments.

Margiela operates less as an auteur-designer but more as kind of curator of clothes. He presents vêtements-trouvés like a surrealist’s morceau of cheese. That totems and fetish objects are traditionally animal is not lost on Margiela. His sophisticated implication of recycled luxury leather goods polished with use echoes Sigmund Freud’s ‘shine on the nose’, conjuring a glistening fetish commodity from the traces of abject body fragments. Freud’s deliciously nutty case study of fetishism analyses how a bilingual young man’s desire for shiny noses ameliorates his fear of castration as he associates the German for shine, ‘glanz’, with the English ‘glans’, and an object of fear is transformed into an object of desire. A halter top made of second hand gloves jars much in the same way the surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim’s Object in Fur (1936) might: like Freud’s ‘glanz’, it’s a pun. It is both artisanal luxury and second hand leather, and like the shine on a dog’s wet nose, it is both a sign of health and also repulsive. As it paws the wearers’ torso the animal hide doubles our own skin, forcing the wearer into an intimacy with themselves, animal others, and the acts committed to produce it.

Bulgarian psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva mobilised the concept of ‘abjection’ to describe this enmeshed skein of attraction and repulsion. Her own aesthetic pivot was the fascination with and repulsion of the skin on hot milk, a boundary between her and the animal which could “show me what I thrust aside in order to live,” she writes in the 1980 book, Powers of Horror “There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being”. The theory gets to the heart of people’s fascination with gore movies, road kill, why the repulsive can sometimes be so compelling. For Kristeva these breakdowns of separation, the shock of proximity to something not us were transcended in art where the abject is purified.

Margiela’s work draws the fashionable irresistibly towards this kind of liminal place, the border of their condition. The proximity to wealth-signalling leather – and the more luxurious, the stronger the effect – serves to confirm that the bearer will remain on the right side of death. He reveals the intimacy sought out by actors in a fashion community: a belonging created by commitment to the shared space of collective self-destruction through boundless expenditure in pursuit of continual renewal, the irresistible charge of the communal sacrifice of commodity fetish.

The strength in pairing these two exhibitions is that they support this idea: that the efficacy of commodity fetish increases with its exchange value. It might be expected that Margiela’s craft would louchely transform into couture in the house of one of the world’s most luxurious and conservative brands, that the earthy scent that trails his oeuvre would be miraculously renewed as bouquet. But it testifies to the turn of the abject that, when Margiela migrated to Hermès in 1997, the stakes were actually raised. The extreme ‘care’, tailoring, and luxury of Hermès’ aesthetic served to intensify rather than overwhelm the jarring tribal gaze of wig-like hats made from recycled fur coats. Perhaps this argues that the abject has a foundational or structural role in the fashion system, an auto-immunity built into the practice. Now it seems to have become an indispensable strategy for contemporary designers. Once you know it’s there, you see it everywhere.

Perhaps by default, much has been made of Vetements’ head conceptualiser Demna Gvasalia’s acknowledged debt to Margiela and the legacy of deconstruction, his collective approach, use of appropriation, recycling, ill-fitting flea market clothes, etc. But maybe it is the more oblique observance of low fashion that hitch him and his collaborators to Margiela, echoing the way he was entangled with the anti-fashion of punk and ‘la mode destroy’. Vetement’s appropriation of sportswear, the manufacturers’ defect, the homemade and the flatness of work clothes and commercial branding, the fetishisation of a central/eastern European stylistic ‘poverty’ that could be manifestly exploitative if it were not animated by a citizen of Georgia.

Perhaps what underpins Vetement’s huge commercial and critical success is that it still disrupts despite its now well-rehearsed precedents. The ‘mundanity’ or down-to-earth nature of the clothes that is hiding in plain sight in the super luxurious (and super expensive) mash-ups of cultural vernaculars arouses the very richest consumers and testifies to the power of that border zone between feeling comfortable and being discomforted. Maybe as the wearers reassure themselves about upcycling and their cultural fluency it is their entanglement with their own disgust that invites them to buy clothes that expose their own condition. Kristeva’s encounter with the milk’s skin demanded that she either drink the hot milk as her parents wished, or defy them and define herself. Gvasalia, likewise, can confront his creative inheritance, but chooses to consume the milk’s skin instead.

MARGIELA / GALLIERA, 1989-2009, at the at the Palais Galliera runs until 15 July. Margiela, les années Hermès at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs runs until 2 September