Martin Margiela has built an empire out of mystery, both in terms of his work as an iconoclastic fashion designer and his reclusive identity as an artist. Instead, Margiela, whose face is not publicly known, has let his bracing collections do the talking. Since the 1980s, through his couture house Maison Margiela, he has turned out wearable avant-garde pieces made from unconventional materials with a legacy of deconstructing the basic grammar of fashion to make outspoken art. Reiner Holzemer’s new documentary, “Martin Margiela: In His Own Words,” doesn’t reveal Margiela’s identity, nor does it break the mold for nonfiction filmmaking. While Margiela’s visions likely deserve a more radical treatment onscreen, Holzemer’s film offers perhaps the most complete insight yet into one of fashion’s most elusive geniuses.
Margiela technically left the fashion house he founded in 2009, but his vision has been carried on by his successors in occasional runway appearances and around the world in the brick-and-mortars housing the ready-to-wear Margiela line. The documentary shows how Margiela, Belgian-born but Paris-based, drew inspiration from surrealism as well as historical fashion to conjure a jolting clash of past and future. One of his first motifs was the jabot, essentially a decorative bib dating back to 17th-century royalty. Much of Margiela’s work emphasizes concealment and disguise, which is fitting given his distaste for being in the public eye. Early in his career, Margiela wouldn’t even label his garments with his own name, instead branding them four tiny stitches that people mistook for errant threads.
A Margiela silhouette is always high drama, whether with shoulder pads, jutting accessories, or eye-catching footwear, and often all at once. His signature cleft-toe heel remains a staple piece, inspired by the tabi shoes of Japanese streetworkers. Some of his most ingenious designs involve found objects, such as a waistcoat constructed out of broken plates, a sweater made from military socks, and a grocery-bag tank top. Margiela earned his boldness serving as an apprentice to Jean-Paul Gaultier before breaking out on his own. Gaultier, one of the many talking heads here, heaves lavish praise upon his former disciple, as do most of the interview subjects, ranging from journalists to fashion moguls.
“In His Own Words” is mostly straightforward hagiography, moving through Margiela’s career with a breezy clip while hitting all the right beats for a fashionista audience. The movie touches on criticisms over perceived cultural appropriation and misogyny, his use of children in fashion shows, and the inherently globalized style of his garments. There are some brief suggestions surrounding the rationale for Margiela retreating into anonymity. But these are mostly sidelined in favor of an adoring portrait. Margiela himself, though never shown onscreen, provides a comprehensive, sometimes Proustian voiceover ruminating on his vision, his early life, and the value of being a private person in a public world. The film’s most charming moments find Margiela musing on his most in-your-face choices, such as deliberately ill-fitting garments and the patchouli he sprayed all over his models during an early 1990s runway show, daring you to be alienated.
If you don’t already have some investment in Maison Margiela, you might not be swept away by this film which, by nature of a two-dimensional screen, occasionally flattens Margiela’s structurally complex and tactile designs and sometimes amounts to inside baseball. It’s less ambitious than the crowning achievement of recent fashion docs, “McQueen,” Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s 2018 documentary that made a boldly cinematic statement about fashion designer Alexander McQueen. However, McQueen’s story was far more tragic on a personal level, and lent itself to a dark and gripping story arc. Holzemer’s film is more about the work.
That’s because Martin Margiela has remained largely walled-off as an individual, putting his oeuvre before his personality. (There are a few photos of him in existence, but they don’t tell much of a story.) “In His Own Words” doesn’t break down those walls completely. It only manages to open a window into a room, only to promptly shut us back out.
“Martin Margiela: In His Own Words” is now available in virtual cinemas from Oscilloscope Laboratories.