The Philosopher King: Arch-Radical Martin Margiela’s Tenure at Hermès 1997-2003

In March 1998, an article in The New Yorker describes a visit to the Hermès museum on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. There, admidst the troves of spurs and whips and coachman jackets, the musuem’s curator Ménéhould de Bazelaire reached for an apothecary bottle labelled “L’huile de pied de boeuf.” Holding the murky glass of Victorian-era saddle polish, she observed: “Very Martin Margiela.”

While the pharmacist aesthetic of this bottle was a token of Margiela’s own house, its contents were a nod to his new gig. Weeks earlier, the Belgian iconoclast’s first collection for Hermès had effectively polished the world’s most expensive saddle, the luxury house known for its equestrian history. Yet Margiela’s first collection at Hermès was somewhat of a cool- down compared to the buzz that surrounded his appointment. In 1994, Tom Ford’s arrival at Gucci set off a wave of young designers helming large European houses, a revolving door that continues to turn today. After Ford, John Galliano took the reins at Christian Dior, followed by Alexander McQueen at Givenchy. Yet none of these appointments stirred more curiosity than when Martin Margiela was announced as the head designer of Hermès, a presumed match-made-in-hell between fashion’s biggest iconoclast and the world’s most established luxury house. Headlines with the word “anti-fashion” proliferated, but at the time, Hermès CEO and heir Jean-Louis Dumas saw the designer’s arrival as the coronation of a lucid philosopher king: “I think Martin Margiela has a good idea of who we are. He sees through us better than ourselves.”

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Maison Martin Margiela A/W 2000-2001, Photo: Marina Faust
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Maison Martin Margiela S/S 1996, Photo: Marina Faust
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Maison Martin Margiela A/W 1992-1993, Photo: Marina Faust Hermès A/W 2002-2003 Tunic pullover in cashmere, pants in cashmere flannel, scarf in lambskin, ankle boots and gloves in leather, Photo: Stany Dederen Maison Martin Margiela H/W 1992-1993, Foto: Marina Faust
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Hermès A/W 2001-2002 Coats worn two by two in kidskin, high-neck tunic pullover in cashmere, pants in cashmere flannel, riding boots and gloves in leather. Photo: Stany Dederen Maison Martin Margiela A/W 1997-1998, Photo: Marina Faust
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Maison Martin Margiela A/W 1991-1992, Photo: Marina Faust
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Maison Martin Margiela S/S 1996 'Trompe l’oeuil’ silhouet Hermès A/W 1999-2000, Long double coat, sleeveless high-neck pullover  and gloves in cashmere Photo: Stany Dederen
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Maison Martin Margiela A/W 1996-1997, Photo: Anders Erdström Hermès A/W 1998-1999, Photo: Studio des Fleurs
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Maison Martin Margiela, A/W 1994-1995, Photo: Marina Faust Hermès A/W 1999-2000 Shawl collar cardigan and sleeveless tunic pullover in cashmere, 'Portraits de femme en Hermès', Le Monde d’Hermès, Model: Marie-Anne Van der Plaetsen, Photo: Joanna Van Mulder
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Maison Martin Margiela A/W 1991-1992, Photo: Marina Faust Hermès A/W 2002-2003 ‘Les Gestuelles’, Photo: Marina Faust

As a moment in the history of fashion, Margiela’s tenure at Hermès can best be seen in contrast to the time Marc Jacobs spent at Louis Vuitton, an appointment that occurred in the same year. While Jacobs’s logo-maniacal adventure at Vuitton brought luxury into a pop cultural stratosphere that it had never reached before, Margiela’s work at Hermès was a process of radical distillation. Prints were abolished. Silk scarves were locked in storage. And colors were replaced by “tones,” wherein the designer conducted a luxurious symphony of blacks, browns, beiges, and grays. In lieu of logos, he created a six-hole button that would shape its thread into an almost invisible “H,” a scarily succinct union of brand and function. During his time at Hermès, Margiela operated under a three-pronged mantra of “quality,” “comfort,” and “timelessness,” the second of which was perhaps the most surprising in the ever-stilettoed context of designer fashion. All told, his designs for the house were a devastatingly chic vision of coziness, created for a woman so well-to-do that she travels with her entire living room. As Cathy Horyn cited in a review of his first presentation at the house, their effect was a subtle invasion into the hyper-luxury milieu: “[O]ne way to appreciate his clothes is to think of them as the sorbet course in a heavy French meal. After a jolt of sex, a blast of color, you need something plain to cool you down: a shirt- waist dress in crisp black cotton, a slightly oversize poplin jacket worn with buff suede trousers, or maybe a halter-style cardigan over a bare-backed shirt. Coming from Mr. Margiela, who immoderately keeps things covered up, this could almost qualify as a sinful treat.”

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Hermès A/W 2001-2002 Collarless jacket and pants in cashmere and silk, high-neck pullover in cashmere and silk, scarf ‘Losange’ in silk crêpe, Le Monde d’Hermès, Photo: Ralph Mecke
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Hermès A/W 2002-2003 ‘Sac initale’ in black leather from ‘Les Gestuelles’, Photo: Marina Faust
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Hermès A/W 1998-1999 Vareuse in double-faced cashmere, sleeveless high-neck pullover in cashmere, mid-length skirt in Shetland wool and boots in calfskin, ‘Le vêtement comme manière de vivre’ Le Monde d’Hermès, Photo: John Midgley
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Hermès A/W 2002-2003 Tuxedo over-skirt in silk ottoman from ‘Les Gestuelles’, Photo: Marina Faust
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Hermès A/W 2001-2002 Double-breasted jacket and pants in wool, sleeveless high-neck pullover in cashmere and silk and muff in kidskin and lambskin, Le Monde d’Hermès, Photo: Ralph Mecke
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Hermès A/W 2001-2002 ‘Jupe enroulée’ from ‘Les Gestuelles’, Photo: Marina Faust
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Hermès S/S 1999 Cardigan in doube-faced crêpe, collarless shirt in Oxford, pants in crêpe and belt ‘Étrivière’ in bridle leather, Le Monde d’Hermès, Photo: Serge Guerand
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Hermès, L/Z 2000 ‘Le porte vêtement’, Left image: Monica Ho, Right image: Marina Faust

Margiela’s collections at Hermès did not stir the same deconstructionist shock and awe that his legendary presentations for his own house did. His tenure there is thereby a moment that has remained largely hidden from public consciousness, one explored thoroughly in Lannoo’s catalogue Margiela: The Hermès Years. The book contains archive images, essays, and interviews from the designer’s inner circle, depicting a series of quiet calculations that recalibrated the logic of major houses. While Marc Jacobs was inventing the Kanye-Murakami model of brand saturation, Margiela proposed an idea of luxury so concise that it almost dissolved into itself. These two ideas stand in a strong zoroastrian contrast that extends into today’s market. For while the digital context has stoked a desire to be hyper-recognizable, it has simultaneously made anonymity ever-more luxurious.

In September 2001, Margiela presented his Hermès womenswear collection at a “walking dinner” at Axel Vervoordt’s “M.C. Escher” building, where models of diverse ages nearly disappeared among the standing room of the guests. Like many things Margiela, it utilitized the power of innocuousness – a fashion that evaporates into a faint yet radical spore in the atmosphere. Some revolutions are quieter than others, albeit equally effective. As Dumas himself would later reflect in an interview with Sarah Mower: “They were expecting blood!”

 

The exhibition Margiela: The Hermès Years is on display at MOMU Antwerp from March 31st, 2017 until August 27th, 2017.

The book Margiela: The Hermès Years is published by Lannoo (Tielt, 2017).

Maison Martin Margiela
hermes

Published in

Issue #32 — Summer 2017"US vs. THEM"

Issue # 32 — Summer 2017

Issue #32 – Summer 2017: “US vs. THEM”

How do you find truth in an age without facts? The answer: wake up and stick together. In this issue’s dossier “US vs. THEM,” creative director RICHARD TURLEY explores how the Global Right Wing’s blatant disregard for reality has given us all a license to become Nonsense Warriors. Turning away from “them” and towards “us,” CATHERINE OPIE, NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE, and STEFANO PILATI take us into their inner circles of friends, while COLLIER SCHORR turns BELLA HADID into Lisa Lyon. We revisit the work of MICHAEL SCHMIDT, and how his community workshops turned Berlin into a cauldron of contemporary photography. JACKIE NICKERSON shows us what Robert Longo looks like with a faster Internet connection, while CARSTEN HÖLLER takes us into his kitchen to explore the post-digital nature of food. We speak with VIRGIL ABLOH as he plots a fashion industry coup d’état and follow JASON DILL on a skate odyssey to hell and back to Fucking Awesome. And, last but not least, we make a pilgrimage to Santo Sospir, the villa on the Riviera where JEAN COCTEAU created his greatest Gesamtkunstwerk.

Also included with the issue, our “HEAT UP HADID” TRANSFER KIT which allows you to create your own t-shirt emblazoned with this issue’s BELLA HADID cover.

Learn more about the issue below:

Nothing makes sense. Nothing ever will again. The year 2016 marked a total rupture in the theater of politics. Even if the damaging effects of Donald Trump’s election somehow prove to be short-lived, his rise indicates a crisis wherein digital acceleration has led to political regression. In our dossier “US vs. THEM,” creative director RICHARD TURLEY creates a handbook for our new political paradigm. Its central hypothesis: Only within the chaos of this media overload will we discover what is real again.

“I am not sure if the sculptures were even subjects for her photographs …” For her first ever magazine editorial, “Heroines: Paris/Los Angeles,” artist CATHERINE OPIEteamed up with artistic director NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE to create a study on the power of classicism and ambiguity. The exploration begins on the beige stone of the Louvre’s sculpture garden and continues to Opie’s studio in Los Angeles, documenting a sprawling circle of friends and acquaintances.

On a surrealist journey into the past, Martin Mosebach visits the summer retreat of JEAN COCTEAU. At the Villa Santo Sospir, the artist spent a decade’s worth of summers smoking opium and creating his largest total artwork.

Back with a vengeance for her third 032c cover story, COLLIER SCHORR teams up with fashion director Mel Ottenberg for “Smith & Wesson Blues,” a shoot with BELLA HADID, inspired by the body builder and Robert Mapplethorpe muse Lisa Lyon.

“Duchamp is my lawyer.” From his fortress of irony, designer VIRGIL ABLOH is set on turning fashion into the industrial arm of the art world. In conversation with 032c’s managing editor Thom Bettridge, he explains how streetwear is not just a fad, but a logic inspired by Dada and destined to dominate the digital age.

Accompanied by a re-print of MICHAEL SCHMIDT’s 2002 story for 032c, Kolja Reichert explores how the photographer’s community workshops from 1976 to 1986 create a style born out of the “Gray Island” of Berlin.

For the story “Energy Crisis,” photographer LUKAS WASSMANN and designer STEFANO PILATI shoot an editorial inside Michael Sailstorfer’s exhibition “Hitzefrei” at St. Agnes. As his first for a magazine editorial, Pilati’s styling includes garments from his own personal wardrobe.

“It’s an exhausting reality,” laughs JASON DILL. In an odyssey documented with drawings and pictures from his personal archive, the skate legend takes us to hell and back to Fucking Awesome.

In “Push Me Shove You Oh Yeah Says Who,” photographer JACKIE NICKERSON, along with fashion editor Marc Goehring and 032c apparel creative director Maria Koch, presents a yogic meditation on a white collar dystopia.

“I’m very bad at killing, in general.” As an antidote to postmodern culinary mediocrity, artist CARSTEN HÖLLER takes us to his concrete perch on the seaside of Ghana and guides us through the 11 points of his “Brutalist Kitchen Manifesto.”

In the “SSENSE Files,” we bring you scenes of cross-platform madness, including interviews with RICARDO BOFILL, PLAYBOI CARTI, CHITOSE ABE, CHRIS KRAUS, HENRY STAMBLER, AMINA BLUE, and 69.

In our second-ever “BERLIN REVIEW” section, we speak with JEFF KOONS about Plato, retrace MARTIN MARGIELA’s reign at Hermès, dive to the underwater tombs of PHARAOHS, and explore our favorite books of the season.

All this and more on 296 pages!