You can count on one hand the number of photos of the Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela on the internet. Which is to say that the first documentary about his life and career is called “Martin Margiela: In His Own Words” for a reason — he is the film’s narrator, offering sensible and diligent assessments of his own work and gosh-golly takes on his influence, but not much more. Only his hands — lovely, patient — appear onscreen.
Just before the dawn of the 1990s, Margiela made his Paris debut and quickly established himself as an intellectual sensualist and a history-minded trickster. A sweater made of military socks, a waistcoat comprising broken dish shards frozen in free-fall by wire, teeny-tiny shoulder pads — Margiela’s work was mischievous, skeptical, postmodern and chic.
Early on, he decided to let the clothing speak for him. “I knew I could give more if I felt protected,” he says of his decision to abandon interviews and photo shoots.
Considering how unconventional Margiela’s disassembly of fashion was, this documentary by Reiner Holzemer is decidedly less playful. In part, it’s a greatest-hits celebration of one of the last great fashion radicals, whose choices, decades later, still have the sting of the fresh. More intriguingly, though, it is a poem about the ways in which the speed and ubiquity demanded by the internet have squeezed certain creative wells dry, perhaps irreparably.
As a child, Margiela customized his Barbie doll’s clothes to mirror designs by Pierre Cardin and Courrèges. He kept these, as well as his sketchbooks, and also the fake pass he made from a yogurt top to sneak into one of Jean Paul Gaultier’s shows in the ’80s. (He went on to work for Gaultier.)
These details, sprinkled throughout the film, humanize the apparition. But the film never quite conveys the full, unsettling grandness of Margiela’s vision. Mostly it chugs through his jolting collections, ideas arriving like one tiny, quirkily shaped light bulb after the next: in one show, models floating down a runway wear jewelry concocted from colored ice, melting under the lights, dyeing their outfits in real time.
What goes unspoken is that many of Margiela’s fundamentally anti-commercial gestures (not the ice, though) have by now become easily and widely replicable. And the film doesn’t delve into the messiness of Margiela leaving his own atelier, after his final 2008 show; financial concerns and creative tensions with its conglomerate investor are alluded to politely.
Ignoring these inconvenient topics is a way of continuing to protect Margiela. He’s been away from fashion for more than a decade (publicly, at least), and professes to be happy making art (painting and sculpture) by himself, on his own terms. But while this is presented as a kind of victory for artistic singularity, it’s actually a lament, a rebuke to the spotlight that extinguished the sun.
Martin Margiela: In His Own Words
Not rated. In French and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Watch through virtual cinemas.