Margiela, The Hermès Years


Margiela, The Hermès Years

It all starts with a conversation, a thought,
a purpose, something this long overdue exhibition
claims from beginning to end.

Words: Mariana Matos / Photography: David Pico


“I absolutely love the exploration of this conception of archetypes, of what is ideal, or in this case the ultimate garment”, says Gonçalo precisely when we cross paths with a trench coat — that is also a vest and a cape.

“Margiela, The Hermès Years” is nothing short of a non-stop dialogue between the personal work of Martin Margiela and the six years of remarkable repertoire crafted for the French house of Hermès, which have so far succeeded in staying apropos and can be spotted behind the line of work of many of today’s fashion designers.

In the midst of the main dialogue connecting all of the 15 rooms in the exhibition, there are a number of short conversations, albeit less perceptible, yet vastly clear in their message; they are hidden behind every pocket, pleat or vareuse, and explain the substance and richness of these six years of work. On this side of the fence, it’s me and Gonçalo; my name’s Mariana. Former Fashion Design students. Yeah. Aficionados. Sometimes haters. Filled with good intentions. We conspicuously got into fanbase mode at this exhibition, which is still installed at the Artipelag, in Stockholm (it took off from the MoMu Antwerp and made a stopover at the MAD, in Paris), and decided to put on our thinking hats and chat away about this collection of more than 100 pieces from two distinct worlds that share the same roots. All in all, it boils down to a single vision, a single designer, yet thousands of executions that sway between progressive deconstruction and timeless luxury.

One foot inside the first room, and one promptly notices the borders that set the worlds of Maison Martin Margiela and Hermès apart: walls painted half white, half orange continuously interact throughout the rooms and halls that follow, and lay bare parallelisms between Margiela’s looks, which led to countless similar ones, now Hermès. Gonçalo is on the opposite corner of the room hovering over a pair of ‘Tabi’ shoes, and I can unequivocally hear the tough love-shaped verdict: “TABI SHOES! TOO MUCH!”

“Martin was hired to define the future of the Hermès Woman,
and honestly, he had what it took to make whatever
came next absolutely brilliant, to say the least.”

And with the recorder on my hand, I just start hastily taking notes so that this story can actually come to life:

“The consistency of Martin Margiela’s language is revealed in the time gap between his eponymous pieces and his work at Hermès: there is a concern with the exploration of typologies that were already created, where experimentation is tested to its greatest extent; blazers, shirts, and overcoats keep their sturdy frame, but unfold into calfskin and cashmere wool variations. Suddenly, we’re before a staple-filled wardrobe.”

What today is unveiled as one of the most important phases of Martin Margiela’s work could not be foreseen 20 years ago; talking about controversial, boring or less fortunate: before Hedi Slimane and Celine, Raf Simons and Calvin Klein or Alexander Wang and Balenciaga, there were Hermès and Martin Margiela; the (extreme) 90s were deep in Tom Ford and Gucci’s ready-to-wear-sex, the McQueen and Galliano drama, and Miuccia Prada’s intellect; Margiela, in turn, with his reputation settled since the 80s, now showed a language defined by deconstruction, subversion, and conceptuality; his work embraced recycling, turned tailoring inside out, and used reclaimed materials from several sources, and the media were not expecting otherwise for his debut at Hermès.

It was not common for the inside-out of a garment to be cause for esteem, which can become more beautiful than the other, supposedly proper way around.

"Margiela's legacy is still quite fresh in the codes of the Hermès woman."
“The consistency of Martin Margiela’s language is revealed in the time gap between his eponymous pieces and his work at Hermès.”

The first collection under Margiela’s purview was also the first of many question marks coming from the public and the media. Expectations fell upon a runway show bursting with concept, disruption, and all things avant-garde, when the spotlight went the opposite way onto a new reality: the anti-season collection, devoid of Birkins and horse bits, where quality, timelessness, and comfort joined hands with a leisure, sporty mood.

Let us talk of non-official heroes, too: Jean Louis Dumas, late chairman of the French house of Hermès and the person responsible for the colossal shift of the brand. Where the masses saw a house built on tradition versus a rule breaker, Dumas saw Martin’s knowledge and appreciation for tailoring, as well as a mastery like no other over materials and, above all, a long-lasting respect for the Woman. Martin was hired to define the future of the Hermès Woman, and honestly, he had what it took to make whatever came next absolutely brilliant, to say the least.

Next to it, a closed, dimly lit corner displays the icons introduced by Martin: a twist on the classic ‘Cape Cod’ watch, the diamond-shaped scarf, ‘Losange’, the calfskin ‘Clochette’ key holder, and those that would became the trademark of the Hermès/Margiela era: the ‘Hermès Paris’ label he found on a vintage leather glove and the buttons sewn on with six holes to depict the letter ‘H’.

Pardon my looking on another direction, but the choice of the vintage label leads me to the moment when Hedi Slimane became Celine’s new creative director (I know, I know… Appalling, tragic!):

“The decision on Celine’s new logo was justified with the return to the brand’s age-old values, so that a new image was revealed; by now, we have already had two shows and a defined imagery, and I still cannot seem to find the connection with whichever flourish uttered for old times’ sake… Comparing it to the Margiela/Hermès team, we are before two notorious appointments, each one with its own weight and consequences…”

The six years of work that followed were a declaration of love and respect to the Woman. Margiela designed for women of all ages and he wanted to give them everything he could; comfort was the priority allied with an elegant and edgy power dressing, where a somewhat male mood would mix with a womanly fluidity. As soon as they fell on a Woman’s body, the garments should fit her in her everyday life. Take the vareuse, a double-faced top with a plunging V-neck that lets you take it off and tie it around the waist so that make-up does not blot, and the hair stays put together; the (not as) classic camel coat, an exquisite example of drapery hiding a slit in the underarm to enable ease of movement; and the ‘Le Porte Vêtement’, an apparatus with leather straps and buckles that would carry the coat when needed. The same appreciation would extend to fashion shows, with models who would only go out with outfits they would feel comfortable and beautiful in, and before they did, they would get a compliment from Martin himself to ensure that the mood would spread.

In the meantime, we have already seen more than half of the exhibition, and one of the corners of the room invites us to sit down and listen to the Marie-Hélène Vincent-Choukroun piece, Les Compliments, in which a man’s voice lays out a string of compliments in French:

"Tu es accomplie; tu es accueillant; tu es actuelle; tu es admirable, tu es adorable, tu es adulte, tu es affable, tu es affectueuse, tu es agile, tu es allègre, tu es altruiste, tu es ambitieuse, tu es amicale, tu es amoureuse..."

And in that second, Gonçalo left me dumbstruck with these words:
“Definitely! It is interesting to put these two marriages on the table, as they represent two different types of relationships; Margiela never sought to take the brand on his own ego trip, but rather criticize and question Hermès within its own territory. In this case, a new logo or image is not revealed as a statement of violent change, but as a contribution to the Hermès heritage. Rejecting luxury icons, the tone-it-down demeanor, the pragmatism of a button that is sewn as an ‘H’, these are all signs of a deep modern sensitivity. Change is certainly inevitable, Fashion needs to grow and move, but this should be done in a more activist way, not a destructive one.”

WOW! I know… Give my best to house Celine.

Margiela’s legacy is still quite fresh in the codes of the Hermès woman. The calling pursued evolution, not revolution, and Martin knew how to do it better than anyone with seven values in mind: Comfort, Quality, Timelessness, Everlasting, Handmade, Tradition, Elegance in movement. The toughest thing to do is simplify; everyone knows how to make everything harder.

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