More than 13 years after leaving fashion behind, Martin Margiela, the elusive and highly influential Belgian designer who changed how we dressed in the 1990s, is back. But not as part of a nostalgia-driven trend wave. As an artist.
On Oct. 20, Mr. Margiela’s debut solo show, which is untitled, opens at Lafayette Anticipations — Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette in Paris. Like the Margiela clothes, which deconstructed notions of the suit and beauty through unconventional materials and approaches, the exhibition creates a sense of wonder around the banal through some 40 sculptures, collages, paintings, installations and films. It is almost as though Mr. Margiela views the world through the lens of a photographic negative, highlighting the details most of us never see and demanding they be reconsidered.
“I became obsessed with fashion very early in my life and developed my own vision by presenting it in the most conceptual way possible,” Mr. Margiela, now 64, wrote in an email. (The designer famously never showed his face or gave an in-person interview during his time in fashion, and he has not changed his approach now.) But, he wrote, “I needed to explore other mediums, to enjoy pure creation without boundaries.”
According to Patrick Scallon, the art and communications director of Maison Martin Margiela from 1993 to 2008, Mr. Margiela’s transition to art is not unexpected. “The approach to the show, the invitation, the clothes themselves, was always artistic,” he said of his time there. “But we were always loath to call it art because it is limited to the use and function of clothing. We were part of a commercial and industrial process.”
It was Mr. Margiela’s decision to leave that process in 2009. “Everything was immediately pushed out on the internet,” he explained in the 2019 documentary “Margiela in His Own Words.” (The OTB fashion group, which had acquired his company in 2002, rebranded it Maison Margiela, and since 2014, its collections have been designed by John Galliano.)
In switching creative fields as fashion industrialized, he is following in the footsteps of famous designers like Thierry Mugler, who now describes himself as a director-perfumer-photographer (among other things); Christian Lacroix, who harnessed his couture skills to design opera and ballet costumes after losing the rights to his name in 2009; and Helmut Lang, who is now a full-time artist.
In fact, it was Mr. Lang who kick-started Mr. Margiela’s next act by inviting him to present one of his early art objects — a plaster cast of a jacket he made in 1989 — as part of an exhibition Mr. Lang was curating at the Deste Foundation in Athens in 2009.
“Whatever the original intention behind the piece was, it illustrates Martin Margiela as the visionary man he has always been,” Mr. Lang wrote in the accompanying publication. “His body of work has been so much more than fashion or clothing. I also see the white surface of plaster as a chance for a new beginning, which a stagnant industry will need in order to stay interesting and maintain proper appreciation for creative ideas in defense of fashion derivatives.”
To guide him further in his career transition, Mr. Margiela worked with the Belgian art historian Chris Dercon, the president of the French cultural umbrella RMN-Grand Palais in Paris. Mr. Dercon, who oversees 18 museums as well as the glass-domed landmark on the Champs-Élysées and is one of the rare individuals to have actually met Mr. Margiela in person.
Mr. Dercon staged Mr. Margiela’s first exhibition of garments in 1997 at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam; in 2009, he brought Maison Martin Margiela’s two-decade retrospective from the MoMu Fashion Museum in Antwerp to Haus der Kunst in Munich; and in 2018, he met Mr. Margiela in person at his Paris studio. He has continued to visit him on an almost weekly basis ever since.
“We had a series of critiques,” Mr. Dercon said. “I did not hold back in saying whether it was good or bad, necessary or unnecessary, a contribution or not. I showed him the work of other artists and warned him that he was not alone. He is such a gifted drawer and maker, but I encouraged him to push the boundaries of technique.”
In 2019, they mounted a private exhibition in an apartment and invited around 20 people. Frank Demaegd, the founder of Zeno X Gallery in Antwerp who now represents Mr. Margiela, was there, as was the graphic designer Irma Boom, who is collaborating with Mr. Margiela on the exhibition catalog. The apartment itself was owned by the Galeries Lafayette Group, which is how the current show came to be.
At Lafayette Anticipations, visitors enter through the rear emergency exit of the foundation, and access the various floors via a service elevator or stairs usually closed to the public. The layout is labyrinthine; some of the galleries are divided by floor-to-ceiling office blinds.
“This show is very much about time — the passing of time, the ways in which we resist time, or how we accept it,” said Rebecca Lamarche-Vadel, the show’s curator, “Martin really wanted to avoid producing anything that would be related to his fashion.”
One of the works, “Vanitas,” for example, is made of five silicone spheres of imitation skin, each one implanted with different colored hairs ranging from blond to brown to gray, to explore the effects of time on the body. For “Triptych,” Mr. Margiela painstakingly reproduced an image from beard dye packaging in oil paint, each panel demonstrating the shade that can be achieved depending on the natural color. (As the son of a hairdresser, Mr. Margiela has always had a particular fascination with hair.)
Other works elevate the in-between moments of life. “Bus Shelter” is just that, only coated in a layer of faux fur and installed reverently inside a giant vitrine. “Monument” wraps an entire wall of the foundation in a tarpaulin with a trompe l’oeil print of a building, like those used to conceal historical monuments during renovation.
“There is always a danger that people are going to look at his art and only see the famous designer,” Mr. Dercon said of Mr. Margiela. “But his work is so intriguing and precise.”
All of the works on display at Lafayette Anticipations will be for sale, with prices starting at around 10,000 euros (roughly $11,600) for small sculptures that come in an edition of three and going up to about 120,000 euros ($139,400) for larger one-of-a-kind pieces.
“We have had a lot of interest since sending out the announcement that we are representing Margiela,” said Nina Hendrickx, a director at Zeno X Gallery. “But we would like to focus on selling the work to art museums and public institutions as much as possible, or at least private collectors with public spaces, before the prices go up.”
There are plans for the exhibition to tour internationally, most likely starting in China, and Mr. Margiela is included in the Zeno X Gallery stand at the FIAC art fair in Paris (Oct. 21 to 24). Beyond that, the RMN-Grand Palais and the Louvre have commissioned an original work, and a show at Eenwerk Gallery in Amsterdam is planned for later this year.
In this creative blossoming, like the release of “Margiela in His Own Words,” the art exhibition is yet another step for Mr. Margiela in reclaiming and shaping his own legacy. So will he shock the world and make an appearance at any of the forthcoming events?
“Martin will not be present,” Mr. Dercon said. “His anonymity has given him absolute freedom. But I do wonder how long he will be able to maintain it.”
Martin Margiela’s works will be on display at Lafayette Anticipations — Fondation d’entreprise Galeries Lafayette from Oct. 20 until Jan. 2, 2022.