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    Breaking Down the Codes of Martin Margiela

    Filmmaker Reiner Holzemer explores the legacy of the elusive designer in his illuminating documentary.

    Writer: Kristin Anderson Photos: Courtesy of Oscilloscope; Getty Updated: May 13, 2024

    To maintain an air of true, where-are-they mystery in 2024 is no small feat. In the era of social media, few are able to cultivate and maintain an air of anonymity. Martin Margiela, the fashion world’s enigmatic icon who left both his eponymous house and the public eye 15 years ago, is one such figure. Recent years have brought little more than murmurs of sightings, the occasional public statement and a solo art show in Paris without an appearance from the artist. Margiela does not grant interviews. He is not photographed.

    Although Margiela has not shown his face in years, his legacy lives on, traceable in the work of Virgil Abloh at Off-White and Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga. It’s that influential legacy at the heart of Margiela: In His Own Words, a documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Reiner Holzemer. With a much-lauded film about another "designer’s designer" under his belt (2016’s Dries), Holzemer became the first director to receive unprecedented access to Martin himself. Though his likeness is never shown, In His Own Words explores the icon in far more revealing ways. We see his hands leafing through childhood sketchbooks of early designs, speaking about his first aspirations towards the world of fashion. From his fears to his frustrations, there’s a striking humanity to the film.

    Early runway models reflect on the gentle, always-active presence who helped dress them backstage. The brand’s storied Spring/Summer 1990 debut was staged on a derelict Paris playground, with plenty of kids among attendees in addition to the industry’s buttoned-up critics. The show's raw, punky minimalism subverted all the superiority of traditional fashion institutions, acting as a preface for the groundbreaking work he would go on to create until quietly departing his label in 2008.

    We speak with Holzemer about the daunting task of capturing the Belgian visionary and why his avant-garde ethos resonates more today than ever before.

    Given how famously private Margiela is, what was the inception of this movie like? How did you first begin to gain his trust and get the ball rolling for the film?

    I saw an exhibition in Antwerp of his work in 2018. I was intrigued by what I saw—some things so beautiful, others irritating, even a little bit ugly maybe. I wanted to understand more about it. When I told my friends that I would love to make a movie about him, they said, "No, this is impossible. You will probably never meet him. He has not given an interview for 30 years. He does not allow his photograph to be taken. Filming is impossible."

    Initially I gave up. But then I could not get him out of my brain anymore, so we kept going. I was lucky because he received three emails from people he trusts all saying, "If you ever want to make a movie, meet these people." That being me and my co-production partner from Belgium, Aminata Sambe. He told me later, when we met, he could not resist anymore.


    Suddenly there came this email from Martin. He proposed to meet. I thought, "Oh, my god. I have one chance, one meeting." Then we met in Paris and I told him honestly what I would love to do. I told him about the way I work; there's no cheating, no nothing.

    You have to build up the trust; you have to be patient. After we met, five days later we started shooting, but for what he thought was an exhibition movie. I thought it was my trust-building treatment. Then, a month later, he wrote me a personal letter saying, "Okay, I'm ready to do a documentary with you."

    That’s incredible.

    It was clear that he didn’t want to have his face in it, and I accepted that from the very beginning. I was not afraid that people would miss it. I was very much convinced, from the very first moment, that it would be a personal movie, even if he didn’t appear.

    It's an astonishingly intimate movie for this man who's a larger-than-life figure in fashion. When he's going through his sketchbooks from childhood, he becomes so tangible. It's a really beautiful look into his work.

    It was very important that he told the story himself. I mean, that, in the end, became the title of the movie. In the beginning he said, "Maybe we get a narrator, or an actor who I write some notes for—what I want to say or communicate—and somebody else can read it." He didn't like his voice. It took quite a while, and some tests and recordings, to convince him to agree to use his voice.

    Beyond gaining Martin's trust and figuring out how you were going to tell the story, he is such a multi-faceted creative. What was the most challenging part for you as a filmmaker?

    I saw this exhibition in Antwerp of the work he did for Hermès [from 1997 to 2003], which I really loved because it was so timeless, so beautiful. I knew from the very beginning that this must be in the movie because it shows the variety of his talent; that he's able to do classic, elegant pieces, and on the other hand, he can work at the avant-garde of fashion. It's the same person with very different expressions.

    He started his own brand at the end of the '80s and had great success. His final show was a summary of those 20 years, and then he said goodbye. That was the basic story. Sometimes it was not so easy to convince him to talk about the sad moments, the end for example. He didn't like the business anymore because he really just loved fashion: doing hands-on work, designing, tailoring, everything. He really loved it. To me, leaving the fashion world was such a brave decision. 

    Margiela wants commercial success, but not for the price of selling your soul. For him, the most important thing is to do something that has never been seen before.

    Reiner Holzemer

    Having made films about both Dries Van Noten and Martin, is there anything that struck you, either similarities or differences, between the two men?

    The working-process part, the pressure, the perfectionism. Afterwards, I discovered some elements in Dries that are similar to to Martin. Then you start thinking, "Is it something that came from the academy?" because both attended Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

    Martin was one year ahead of Dries, but I've seen photographs where both were together as students. At academies they help each other, you know? You need somebody to help you with fittings, styling, dressing, photographing, cutting or knitting, and they did that for each other. In terms of the collections and designs, they are very different. With Dries, it’s the rich beauty of the prints and the fabrics.

    Yes, sumptuous.

    It's so beautiful. That's not the case with Martin. Sometimes you think, "Oh, a plastic bag as a top? It's interesting, but is it beautiful?" It's more challenging. I love the quote from fashion critic Cathy Horyn in the movie: "He made us think more." That’s the case for me too.


    Not only because he did not speak, but also because we didn't understand it in the beginning. I had a talk with somebody from Belgium and she told me before we did the interview, "I was there at the first show in Paris." I said, "Wow. How did you feel when you saw it?" For her it was not fashion. Because she thought fashion was something like Dior or Yves Saint Laurent—big, luxury, grand—but this was underground and punk without beautiful materials. The expertise and the brilliance of Martin is in the detail.

    I'd love to talk about Martin's approach to balancing art and commerce.

    He wants commercial success, but not for the price of selling your soul. For him, the most important thing is to do something that has never been seen before with the awareness that it will take time until people understand it. The commercial success came when investor and OTB Group president Renzo Rosso arrived and acquired the company in 2002. He made it bigger, with more shows, more traditional models, all the ingredients. The shows, the loud music, the lights and everything. Before, it was really an underground thing.

    Do you think truly subversive things are still happening in fashion? Is it even possible in the current landscape for that to exist?

    I'm sure there are some young people who try to have a similar approach on the border of what we know as fashion. They want to invent it in a new way. I'm always optimistic and Martin is too. He told me once that he still follows a little bit of fashion today. He's also very optimistic and has the feeling that there's a generation growing up with a different approach; not just interested in commercial success, but in interesting fashion. That was the same way he approached it. 

    How do you see the film in retrospect? What kind of changes have there been in the industry since you made it?

    In the past few years, there have been lots of documentaries coming out about the fashion world. With Dries, we were in 64 countries and lots of film festivals. The fashion world realizes what good PR that is. So the question becomes, "Are they calling to make a documentary about the creativity of their brand or for PR purposes?" For me, creative freedom is very important because it would be a different movie with different motives otherwise.

    Either you're making a documentary or you're making a visual press release.

    Exactly. You can feel it if it's an honest piece of work with an independent mind. With Dries, it was often like this. Friends—engineers, pilots—said, "I never saw a fashion show, I didn't even know what fashion was. Then I came out and I saw what a wonderful world it is. The person is interesting, and there is so much similarity to my world."

    We are all struggling for our ideals and for the things we believe in. I like when a movie is more than just the portrait that you've seen of the world, that it really triggers something in you. With Margiela: In His Own Words, it's a story of a child who becomes a fashion designer and quits one day. It's also about honesty, about moving forward, making strong decisions like, "I'm not fitting into that world anymore, so I quit. I don't care about money." It's about independent minds. 

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