Martin Margiela; Arena Homme Plus.

Interview by Susannah Frankel, Text & Images; Arena Homme Plus No. 30 Winter/Spring 08/09

You have never agreed to be inteviewed or photographed. Given that you started out at the end of the designer decade and that the term ‘superstar-designer’ is now commonplace, that is quite something. What is the thinking behind it?

It was always about putting the creation first before the physical person. The brand comes first. It makes us very happy and honoured to be internationally respected in our approach. However, we have always completely understood and respected the opposite approach, as long as it stays natural and genuine-sincere.

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From very early on in your career you have chosen to cover the faces of your models- you may wrap their heads in fabric or present your collections in boxes where the body is only shown from the neck down. is this a reflection of your own Scooby Doo-style ghostliness?

It’s much more innocent than this. By erasing the face, the attention is on the body, it’s movement and the garment it wears. For our anniversary show, we wanted to come back to that idea, it remains very exciting for us to use this concept and make it evolve. 

Perhaps the years spent painting everything white also reflects a desire for invisibility- the chemises blanches that are the uniform of the house certainly appear as an attempt to underplay any recognition factor. Or, is all the whiteness a manifestation of some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder? This is not meant as an insult! Many designers seem to be quite OCD.

That’s one interpretation. When you decide to go in that direction, you have to do it 100 percent. When we started back in 1988, everything was black and grey concrete, white was non existent. And we wanted to find something that would make us different. Besides, we couldn’t afford fancy furniture, and when you have no money, you need creativity so we painted or covered all the furniture we could find and still do 20 years later.

Your original label was a blank white square- that is still the case with the women’s main line. Did you see this as an anti-marketing device in some way? Later, you numbered your different lines as they emerged. How did you fit the lines to the numbers?

Same as the above, it was a logic that extended also to our tag. Our suppliers thought we were crazy, some even refused to do it! Again, at the time the tags were following on from the sophistication that was in all the other brands were aiming at. Tags and the names on them came first, before the creation. We wanted to counterbalance that. The stitches were originally meant to be cut off! As for the numbers, we chose them randomly but with a certain logic between the women’s and men’s lines. 
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We have been told that places often inspire your work- not in a travel to India for colour kind of way! You were born and raised in Belgium though. How would you say that has informed your fashion?

At the beginning, not at all. Someone who leaves his country, like Martin did, is undeniably in search of something that he cannot find there. After 20 years, and digging through the archives for the MOMU exhibit, when you take a step back and analyse our work in the larger picture, you realise our point of view is not french. Does that make it Belgian?

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How would you say that the fashion industry has changed since you started out and how has your position changed within it?

It hasn’t changed, it’s just evolved. It seemed so hard in our times, especially compared to the Seventies when evryone was so enthusiastic and ready for chages. But it’s even harder today and it will perhaps be tomorrow. In the late Eighties, it was more naive, the stakes were present but we still believed. Today, to believe isn’t sufficient anymore. You have to combine all the parameters, the quality, delivery schedules, the press… However, it’s very promising and inspiring in a way, that regardless of these difficulties, new talents and innovative ideas still appear. Also, the internet has changed everything and when we started globalisation didn’t exist.

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What are the things that influence your work?

The unexpected.

You are frequently labeled as ‘conceptual’ and today that may have negative connotations, but isn’t a concept just an idea and isn’t any idea of value? How do you balance concept with practicality?

This is the reason why we have several lines. Not only are they a reflection of the various ways we choose to express our creativity, but they also speak to different people. Some will recognise themselves in one just as other will feel comfortable in all of them.

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You have always chosen to work more with to work more with real people than professional models. What qualities in a man do you most (and least) admire and how does that reflect the way you dress men?

We have nothing against professional models. We have just been more touched by natural side,  the lightly vulnerable and fragile aspects of the regular men we choose for our presentations . And we dress them with a mix of timeless garments with a Margiela twist.

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