Friday, 18 December 2009

Red Ribbon, White Space

A movie and a book neatly encapsulate the two faces of fashion: the film Valentino and the book Maison Martin Margiela. Glamour on one side, rigour on the other; overexposure of one designer as an international social force, deliberate secrecy and anonymity of another. The contrasting history and position of the designers Valentino and Martin Margiela, both of whom have now handed over their companies and taken a back seat, are worth examining as they neatly sum up what has been wrong and what has been right in fashion over the last few decades.

Valentino has enjoyed a long and very high profile career as the glamour merchant of the rich, especially in the United States. Season after season, he has made himself ever more wealthy by realising that the rich have little imagination and always eschew novelty for the known way and the path of conformity. We all know that most of Valentino's pricey little wisps of chiffon were paid for by rich men – than whom no group is more traditional. So, by never having an original idea, our Val built a multi-million dollar empire. But is this something that should make a man a household name? I don't think so. It is rather like a carpenter becoming hugely successful by making exactly the same piece of furniture over and over again, with only the slightest variations in the choice of wood. Boring to all but the most timorous and uncertain.

No one could say that of Maison Martin Margiela, as a fabulously original and challenging illustrated volume of the same title (published by Rizzoli) makes clear. Just as Valentino is a high-profile glamour figure (if you want to see naked vanity and self-regard, catch him and his business partner parading their outrageous bouffant hairstyles in the film whilst uttering a string of affected platitudes), Margiela has so shunned the limelight that many suspect that he doesn't actually exist and possibly never has. Not so surprising. Every edict and comment that issues from the company, not to mention the clothes, is branded simply 'Maison Martin Margiela'. The anonymity is total but the design is original, radical and challenging … and has been since the beginning from a company that has spawned ideas – witty, unexpected and frequently downright impossible – with all the excitement and unpredictability of a fairground.

Fashion is in chaos and facing meltdown at this moment. The fortunes of Valentino and Maison Martin Margiela offer an instructive parable for our time. What is wrong with a fashion world that elevates a creative nonentity to world status and leaves a true genius virtually unknown to the fashionable masses?

Could it have anything to do with advertising budgets? he asks innocently….


  1. i've always wondered why people like to theorize that MM doesn't exist. i cannot imagine hermes letting a ghost design the cape cod watch (it was produced during his time there, so i have always attributed it to him. whether or not he was directly involved in it, he was their in-house designer).
    since diesel has owned MM for the past 7 years, MM's low profile isn't only a matter of advertising dollars. i would propose that the answer to your (rhetorical) question lies in the success of brands like juicy. that millions of velour track suits were sold (and worn!) tells you that the majority of motivated consumers want what they want, and what they want is not design, originality, quality or even necessarily good taste. beyond that observation i am, thankfully, ignorant of what exactly it is that they do want. given that diesel, i mean MM, i mean diesel realizes that they have a limited audience from the get-go, and so encourage this different brand identity of a mysterious designer. and, on a practical level, the low profile is quite useful now that mr. margiela has walked away; there is no identity crisis for the brand or its customers.