The Mystery Of Designer Martin MargielaS

Belgian designer Martin Margiela — who holds a spot somewhere between Steven Meisel and Howard Hughes on the spectrum of fashionable recluses — and his namesake company may have parted ways. A member of the label's design team says that the man himself "has not been present since last season."

Rumors have been swirling that Margiela the individual — who sold his business to Diesel in 2002 — would step down since at least last October. They intensified when the label showed its fall/winter collection in Paris this March, which critics roundly panned. "Just about everything at the show tonight — the hokey starlight projections on the ceiling, the empty design techniques, the use of beautiful young models instead of older, interesting-looking chicks — said that Mr. Margiela is no longer involved in his label, as editors have speculated for some time," wrote Cathy Horyn, before calling the actual clothes "home-lab stuff." Style.com's Sarah Mower said, "In the absence of any definitive corporate statement, the only test of whether Margiela is still in the house must be down to whether the inimitable dialogue of excellence, intellectual challenge, and wit is still there in his show. Safe, yet very sad to say, this time it was gone." (Margiela has the lucky distinction, I suppose, of being the only designer who can never make a bad collection, at least as long as the top taste influencers are willing to generously assume the off seasons are not his work.)

But in fact there was a definitive corporate statement. The executives at Diesel have flatly denied the rumors, Renzo Rosso saying last year that he "cannot imagine" Margiela leaving, and Giovanni Pungetti assuring us all this spring that "he's still in position." Pungetti confirmed, however, that the designer spends increasingly little time at the company's headquarters. "He's concentrating on more strategic projects. He's still working with us in the key decisions of the company. This is the spirit [Martin] wanted to create; that's his philosophy. He's more consulting with us than designing every product. The team is more Margiela than him."

Margiela's work has always played with issues of identity — he traditionally masks his models' faces for shows, and his only label is a numbered white cotton tag attached with pick stitches to his garments. In the mid-90s, Margiela stopped talking to the press and being photographed. The last known picture of him, above, is from 1997. His label has always been the product of a white-lab-coated design team (which Margiela leads — or led). Margiela has never stepped onto his runway to take a bow at the close of a show; all communication with the house is done in writing, and the communiqués are composed in the third-person-plural and signed "Maison Martin Margiela." Until Diesel bought the company, it wasn't even in the phonebook. Margiela has long concentrated on being the invisible designer: now the question, and the headwater of these persistent rumors is, how can we actually tell when someone who for so long has suppressed all the usual outward signs of being a designer stops designing? It's not like he's going to tweet it.

Edward Buchanan at JC Report contends that Margiela is backing away from his label out of a sense of disenchantment with Diesel's marketing of the brand. Diesel widened Margiela's distribution, leveraged the brand-name into arenas like home furnishings, and sales have climbed by double figure percentages even into the recession. But the Italian conglomerate's advertising-drenched culture is at odds with Margiela's studied, blank, anti-individualist ethos. If the design associate quoted by Buchanan as saying that Margiela has "not been present" since last season, that sounds like as definitive a statement as we might expect. (Assuming, of course, that the designer meant "present at the company" and not just "present at the office.") Fashion will miss Margiela's widely influential designs; he was doing the shoulder pads that turned up on Marc Jacobs' Fall/Winter runway three seasons ago, the human-hair wig coats from the last collection which Margiela is widely believed to have had a hand in have spawned a whole slew of furry imitators this season, and every time I see a pair of True Religion jeans, with their wide-set twin needle stitching and oversized rivets, I think of Margiela's playful deconstruction of those details in his collections going back decades.

Rumor has it that Raf Simons — who is safely, and for all appearances, happily — ensconced in a three-year contract at Jil Sander, and former Swiss Textiles Award-winner Haider Ackermann are among the candidates Diesel is considering as a replacement.

More Secrecy At The House Of Margiela [JC Report]
A Master Class With Lanvin And Dior [NY Times]
Maison Martin Margiela FW 2009 Review [Style.com]
Fashion World Studies Margiela's Looks And His Next Move [NY Times]
More Margiela, Less Martin [WWD]