2019 DOC NYC movie review: ‘Martin Margiela: In His Own Words’

November 18, 2019

by Carla Hay

Maison Margiela fashions in "Martin Margiela: In His Own Words"
Maison Margiela fashions in “Martin Margiela: In His Own Words” (Photo courtesy of Dogwoof Pictures)

“Martin Margiela: In His Own Words”

Directed by Reiner Holzemer

World premiere at DOC NYC in New York City on November 8, 2019.

If you think about how much the fashion industry relies on photography and a designer’s image to sell products (it’s why designers always come out on the runway with the models at the end of a designer’s show), it’s pretty remarkable that Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela could spend 20 successful years in the business and avoid being photographed or interviewed. Yes, there are a few random photos of him that you can find in an Internet search, but he wasn’t a complete recluse at the time he was in the fashion industry. He was backstage at his fashion shows, where there were photographers galore, and somehow, he convinced them and other people around him not to take photos of him. At the height of his success, Margiela abruptly quit the fashion industry at the end of his last fashion show in 2008, and then he really becoming a recluse.

“Martin Margiela: In Own Words” is a documentary that tracked down the elusive Margiela and interviewed him in his home, but only his hands are seen on camera. For many fashionistas watching this movie, it might be the first time hearing him speak. (He has a very soft-spoken, almost sing-song voice.) During the course of the movie, he shares his memories of his life in fashion and what he’s been doing in the years since he “disappeared” from the scene.

Margiela (whose real name is Margiela Statin) also opens up his archives, as the documentary shows him flipping through many of his original sketchbooks and showing some of his early illustrations. We also see that Margiela loves Barbie dolls, which served as his earliest models (mini-mannequins, if you will) when he developed an interest in fashion as a child. He still keeps many of his handmade Barbie-doll fashions from his childhood, including his first amateur design: a gray flannel blazer inspired by Yves Saint Laurent. (Yes, it’s shown in the movie.)

As a child, he says he was lonely but had a vivid fantasy life. His earliest memory of wanting to be a fashion designer, he says, was when he was 7 years old and saw a Paris fashion show on TV. His grandmother, who was a dressmaker, was an enormous influence on him—someone whom he considers to be the most important person in his life.

As an adult, Margiela teamed up with business partner Jenny Meirens to launch Maison Margiela, a Paris-based company that had its first collection in 1988. He says of Meirens, who died in 2017, at the age of 73: “We both had a fascination with Japanese designers, which was very intense.” One of Maison Margiela’s early signature looks consisted of shoes designed to look like animal hooves. Another signature Maison Margiela look was to have four stitches in odd places on his clothes.

Sandrine Domas, who modeled for Maison Margiela in the early 1990s, is one of the people interviewed in the documentary, and she remembers how people often thought those four stitches were a mistake and wanted to remove the stitches. It’s an example of Margiela’s eccentric humor that he liked to play with people’s expectations on what should and shouldn’t be part of haute couture.

Other people from the fashion industry who are interviewed in the documentary (and, quite frankly, do nothing but gush over Margiela) include former New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn, who says that Margiela is “definitely in the top 10” of the greatest fashion designers of all time. Jean-Paul Gaultier, who used to be Margiela’s assistant, marvels at how impressed he was with Margiela’s first runway show, and admits that, at the time, he didn’t think the show wouldn’t be as good as it was. The NEWS showroom founder Stella Ishii compared that first Margiela show to Andy Warhol “shattering the art world in many ways.” Pierre Rougier, who was Margiela’s publicist from 1989 to 1991, raves that Margiela “was ahead of his time.”

How so? Carine Roitfeld, who was editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris from 2001 to 2011, says that one of the things that Margiela pioneered was to do street casting for models, by randomly inviting people off the street to model in his shows on a first-come, first-served basis. He also encouraged his first street-casted models to smile and interact with the audience, which was the complete opposite of the runway norm to have models walk stone-faced and aloof from the audience. There’s footage in the documentary of these street-casted models in action.

So with all this praise, glory and success, why did Margiela shun the spotlight? He explains in the documentary: “Anonymity was my protection as a person.” Later in the film, he says of the fashion industry: “I’m too serious for that world.” Nina Nitsche, who was Margiela’s assistant from 1998 to 2008, said that when Diesel came in as a major investor in Maison Margiela in 2002, things started to change—and not for the better. Diesel’s emphasis was on the Margiela brand being “sexy” instead of “mysterious.”

Margiela essentially confirms that his disillusionment with the fashion industry was around the time that Diesel started controlling his company. He also wasn’t keen on Diesel’s push to have more of the business on the Internet, and that’s when he knew the fashion industry was going into a direction that he didn’t like. As he says in the documentary: “I felt like an artistic director in my own company, and that bothered me, because I’m a fashion designer.”

There are two moments in the movie where Margiela gets emotional. First, when he talks about the night in 2008 when he shocked everyone by quitting the business right after his runway show. He says his biggest regret was how he chose to leave because “I never had a chance to say goodbye to my team.” The documentary then shows him writing a note on the screen that says, “Thanks to everyone who helped my dream come true!”

The other time he gets emotional is when discussing how flattered and awed he was that the ModeMuseum in Antwerp, Belgium, had an entire retrospective exhibit for his fashion. There’s some footage of the exhibit’s grand opening in 2009. But, ever the recluse, Margiela wasn’t there, although he obviously knew what was in the exhibit.

“Martin Margiela: In His Own Words” director Reiner Holzemer shows an admirable amount of restraint, by staying true to the movie’s title, and not putting himself on camera or having a director’s voiceover narration to steal some of the spotlight from Margiela. Many documentarians who would do a film where they’re the first to interview a famous recluse on camera wouldn’t be able to resist the urge to show off how they achieved this feat, and make sure the audience could see their other investigative journalism skills.

The movie’s main shortcoming is that it’s a non-stop praise fest of Margiela. The worst thing that people say about him is that he’s a perfectionist. A little less fan worshipping and a little bit more of objective viewpoints could have made this a more balanced film. However, that minor flaw does not take away from the fact that Margiela is a fascinating subject, who is a lot more open in telling his life story than people might think he would be.

Although he spends his creative energy nowadays by painting and making sculptures, at the end of the movie, he hints that there’s always a possibility that he might return to the fashion industry. Whether or not he ever does, this documentary serves as an exemplary capsule of Margiela’s fashion legacy, told from his perspective.