Some would argue that Martin Margiela is the coolest man in fashion. He's certainly the most elusive. Since the Belgian wunderkind set up shop in Paris in 1988, no one has seen a picture of him, and no face-to-face interviews have been granted. Margiela sees his role as a philosopher, rethinking the basic premise of clothing -- how it is sized and sold, how it interacts with the body -- with his team of white-coated assistants. Over the years, this has resulted in frayed ball gowns, reversed seams, cloven-toed boots and, when he was designing for Hermes, the most perfectly cut pants and jackets on the planet. Now, with his high-flying partner, Renzo Rosso of Diesel, and a new, industrial-strength business plan, Margiela is hotter than ever. How to scale the ramparts and dispel the mystery? We figured that if anybody could do it, it would be that fashion and music provocateur, Malcolm McLaren. Herewith, the beginning of a correspondence.Dec. 15, 2004
Dear Martin, We know each other, I believe, but have never met. I certainly don't know what you look like and have even contemplated the thought that you may be a ghost! Do you exist? Sometimes I think not. But with that in mind, I am writing to you to find out.
Let me begin by saying I wear your clothes but can't help wondering if you have ever worn mine. Were you ever in London in the 70's and 80's? Because somehow, I feel we are connected. Your clothes are just a little more grown up, that's all. A more serious, Maoist approach.
I don't know what you think about that.
Wow! Just got back from Hong Kong. No flu, no shopping fatigue, but did buy a cool laser printer.
By the way, how is it working for the Diesel man? I like Renzo. He is a tough, swaggering cowboy who seems to want to do things differently in this postmillennium world of karaoke culture. What do you say?
I like your trousers. They are almost as uncommercial and impractical as mine were with a strap between their legs. I love to feel like an incroyable in his overalls. I like the boiled, mucky sweaters, too. I like your dirt and grunge. I like the fact that it looks like lots of people have stuck their dirty fingers on your clothes and left their marks all over them.
It's a different luxury, not something slick and overly produced. Do you think it's like lo-fi music? Like lo-tech culture? Are you aware of the new phenomenon bubbling across the Web? These lawless kids who convert old computers into music-making machines. Do you remember those sounds that crept out of early video-game culture? None of us cared about the sound of Nintendo back then. We just played the game. But now, I love these chip-music kids. Their icons are hackers, not Elvis. You should love it, given you're a part of that Belgian techno culture. Or are you?
These new musical hackers don't call themselves artists -- they hate that word. They prefer to call themselves reverse engineers. They love the way this antique technology can run wild. I feel this rock 'n' roll outlaw spirit has a kinship with you, or maybe I am wrong? Can you hear it? See it? Hey, are you really there? Or am I writing to no one in particular? MalcolmFour weeks later, one note (''Did you have a nice Christmas?'') and two letters from ''Maison Margiela'' arrive. The first letter apologizes for the delay and includes the disclaimer that Maison Margiela will be doing all the talking, with input from ''Mr. Margiela.'' Thus the ''we.'' The second missive follows.Read on (Click to show)
Jan. 17, 2005
Dear Malcolm, What a 10-part saga this has been getting back to you and conversing! You must think we are either mad or slack. Neither is true. It's simply been a totally frenetic period. We moved in late November -- fantastic new place -- a huge former convent and design school near Oberkampf in the 11th Arrondissement. Most things have gone really well, yet we seem to be haunted by many technical glitches. So, no, there are no ghosts here -- unless they are hiding in our server, stealing our e-mails.
Of course, nearly all of us know you. Martin knows of you through magazines from when he was a student in Antwerp, but unfortunately he didn't buy designer clothes. At the time, he dressed from flea markets. Listening to your music is another matter, however -- well done! We hear you're in Paris recording an album. Any scoop on the style?
We are really happy you like our clothes. Not at all sure about Mao and his link to what we do, though! Suppose there's a first time for everything. As for our trousers being impractical? That's really strange. We usually hear the contrary. And the dirty fingerprints is also a new one on us. Are you thinking of the garments we rework by hand from used clothing? We refer to this as our ''artisanal'' production (the label has 0 and 10 circled for men and 0 for women). Everything is always cleaned.
We're often described as serious. This is odd since it's not at all the way we live our work ''within our walls.'' The grown-up bit probably comes from a need we have to question, to take up the gauntlet of an impulse we have, to rethink a garment and then find a stimulating way to show this to others. To be frank, though, it's always a compliment that others perceive us as taking our creativity seriously.
We are very, very happy with the way our collaboration with Renzo is building. Renzo has brought us more stability, financial and spiritual -- we are growing together in the best way possible. (We leave the cowboy analogy up to you though.)
Funny that you mention it, but lo-tech culture is a strong thread of interest that runs through our team and its attitude. We were late to embrace computers; for so long we simply didn't have the money. Today we keep them pretty far away from the creative process.
Of course, we remember early video games. Those early Atari tennis games. Great sounds! Our musical influences tend to be much more grass-roots rock, in all its families -- lo-fi, as you mentioned.
As for the rock 'n' roll outlaw spirit, hmm. The force, conviction, indignation and alienation of youth are thankfully irreplaceable, yet aren't they probably meant to wane with experience and life? They belong to youth -- but when you are no longer young . . . what then?
So, yes, we can hear it. We can see it (when we can). And we're here! Even if it took us a while. Thanks, Malcolm. All at Maison Martin Margiela
Jan. 20, 2005
Dear Martin & Factory, Just got back from wicked St. Bart's and almost fell into the grave of Susan Sontag at Montparnasse Cemetery -- it was so cold! Poor Susan. I had New Year's lunch with her only last year, here in Paris. I was so sad to read about her passing in the paper over the holidays.
Still, glad to receive your letter. Don't worry about technology. It sometimes goes a little crazy and gets out of control. Wow, well done, now that you've moved to Republique. I like certain aspects of this part of Paris -- the dirt, the stupid poseurs who hang out in crappy bars listening to funny music. I think this is what Parisians think is their version of downtown N.Y. I go there sometimes to visit the lo-fi thumb tribes that rumble occasionally on Rue Oberkampf with those rock 'n' roll Game Boys.
Yes, you are right. I have been working on a new album in the desolate suburbs, south of Chinatown -- Ivry. Working with hackers and connecting them to the only all-girl rock band from Beijing, called the Wild Strawberries. They know how to post-karaoke with those chip-music freaks. It's fantastic! Imagine Sonny Boy Williamson or Jimi Hendrix lost in a video game of bleeps and bloops with some deadly-looking, Chinese, guitar-swinging girls ''comin' to getcha!'' (Totally inspired by the pixelated crude visuals of early video-game culture, I enclose my New Year's card for you to blitz out on. . . .)
I started to dig up all my own history -- old records left over from my shops on the King's Road. Can you imagine beating up Bessie Smith and the Zombies? I did. You can hear the track on ''Kill Bill Vol. 2.''
It was around this time last year that I met Quentin Tarantino here, and before I knew it, my music found a place in ''Kill Bill Vol. 2,'' just before Uma kills Bill. Did you get a chance to see that movie? It was so good! ''About Her'' is the name of my track. Check it out. I'm working more and more in film this year. Even inspired to work on a stage musical about fashion -- certainly got the tracks. Maybe we should kick some sounds around your show one of these days? Only teasing.
I know you are serious. Your trousers told me.
My comments about Mao are more about me. He is fast becoming the benign and eccentric uncle in China. Strange how history is always being rewritten.
Sometimes you sound so old, like my great-grandfather! Sensible, and deadly wise. I guess you must all be ghosts. Anyhow, see you at the shows. Maybe? By the way, does fashion end in passion or does passion end in fashion?
And I'd like a picture! Malcolm
Jan. 20, 2005
Hello, Malcolm, and all those at the recording studio. It is indeed very sad that Susan Sontag has left us. ''AIDS and Its Metaphors'' was such an important work. It shoved us along in our grudging recognition and understanding of H.I.V. and the isolation it brings. It is numbing how that virus has tricked, mutated and infiltrated. We always feared it would become a pandemic, yet who in 1987 could have predicted the desolation and devastation it would reap in Africa? ''And the Band Played On'' seems so far away today. How great it must have been for you to meet Sontag so recently.
We are so fortunate with our new home. We're just north of Republique at Rue St.-Maur. It was really weird when we came across the place. The school had been closed for 10 years when we visited it for the first time. We were totally taken aback to see that for all those intervening years everything was abandoned, just as it had been on that last day when the school fell quiet for summer. Exam papers lay on desks, pens stood in inkwells and lessons were still chalked up on blackboards. All was weighed down by a thick layer of dust. You must visit one day.
What a great name for a band, the Wild Strawberries! Your album sounds like a feast! How will the hacking work with the sounds?
When is it out?
On our side, we are forging ahead with our next project -- the 10 and 14 collections for men. To go with them, we've been shooting a video project -- musicians backstage at venues just before they go onstage: crooner, rock, goth, a chansonnier, all over Paris. We're also starting a new line of shoes for men and women called 22 and accessories called 11 -- so a lot's happening! We're also guest-editing A Magazine in Antwerp. We entitled ours, ''The past is what bonds us -- the future leads us.''
It's true what you say about Mao -- it's as if he has become a smiling, happy parent totally extrapolated from the Cultural Revolution.
He's become like Coca-Cola's version of Santa Claus or Hello Kitty.
Do we really seem so old, wise, grandparentlike? We have never thought of ourselves in that way. We always say that we are too close to the trees to see the wood (or is it wood to see the trees?) to know how we appear to others, and it's true, we are. Better to keep ''doing'' and leave interpretation up to others, don't you think?
Does fashion end in passion or does passion end in fashion? What about, Does passion end in passion and fashion in fashion? Maison Martin Margiela
Jan. 23, 2005
Hi, Maison Margiela! I'm reading, again, Susan S.'s ''Notes on Camp.'' It is inspirational. It hails the arrival of Andy W. and all that is pop and fluffy. My arrival at art school in 1965 happens about the same time ''Notes on Camp'' is published. A professor greets us -- ''If you think you are all going to be successful, well . . . you're not!''
And, pointing to the door, ''If anyone thinks they are, they better leave now!'' My head is disappearing into my shoulders. I am 17. Crushed. A year later, a few of us have survived. The old goat reappears. ''So, you're still here then? I expect you all to understand failure now.'' He turns aggressive: ''Don't think you can just fail, though. You've got to learn how to fail magnificently.'' And in a tone that breeds a certain dull confidence, he rasps, ''For it's better to be a flamboyant failure than any kind of benign success.'' It shakes me, confuses me and changes my life.
I make myself a blue lame suit like Elvis Presley and try to get exploited by walking down the King's Road. No one notices.
I fail miserably. I end up looking like a wet, dead rat by the time I reach World's End. It's November. It rains a lot. I start again by tearing my clothes apart. By jumping on them, making them dirty. By bathing them in gray dye. I make ugliness beautiful. I form a gang with Vivienne, and on the King's Road in Chelsea, we inadvertently invent a style that denies commercial application. It proudly displays a ''not for sale'' feeling. It's 1974. I am deconstructing clothes with Vivienne for an army of disenfranchised youth. I dig in the ruins of a past culture. It becomes my art. It's not nostalgia -- that's simply dead tissue. It's a wickedly old-fashioned, sexy chaos that empowers me and impacts on others.
Sex (and I love it) is fashion ending in passion. And passion ending in fashion is fetishism. Once upon a time, I was accused of being a mere dilettante for managing the Sex Pistols and not sticking to haberdashery. Now, everyone is doing everything for everybody everywhere. Exhausting! Shopping is art. Shoppertainment is the new cultural ideal. The church, back in the Middle Ages, sold salvation, and people didn't need to acquire anything. Today, stores are replacing the museums as the museums once replaced the church. We are all curators now.
The extraordinary power the fashion world possesses lies in its ability to provide identity, and sometimes I think all fashion designers can be characterized by a resistance to living in the present. This displacement appears essential as a designer must always be one season ahead. The desperate passion a new look inspires, though, seems inexplicable once it wanes. I will never forget reading about Christian Dior's life when he remarked he'd like to brand food as fashion and demanded his house brand roast beef with his name: ''Dior Rosbif.''
Television has been eclipsing all cultural institutions and life itself for some time. But the digital generation has struck a blow to the heart of television, and there is no stopping, now that the Internet is free. No matter how much government and industry try together to control the new media, the Internet's inherent lawlessness is its appeal, its sexiness. We are seizing the automated stuff of our world: I am excited. Love ya, Malcolm
Jan. 25, 2005
Dear Malcolm, Incredible! Isn't the very notion of success and failure entirely relative? Is success fame, notoriety and economic recompense, or is it, in the case of artists, the ability to express one's ideas to whatever public might be touched by that expression? Like many creative ideas, it is not necessarily the originality of the premise that is important or defines its ''art'' but the means and purity of its expression. No one can refute that what your teacher told you is accurate. But despite himself and his bombastic approach, he had a beneficial effect on you. You were lucky!
Funny, for another project, we recently found ourselves looking for a definition of ''passion'' -- a lot of what one finds is linked to ''The Passion of the Christ.'' It is interesting that for you, passion, when related to clothing, seems to be linked directly to sex. For us, the passion is in the creation. Without that initial and ongoing passion it would be impossible for us to continue. We really do not feel this pressure to be one or more seasons ahead to remain designers as you describe. A lot hangs, of course, on a definition of ''fashion.'' When one designs clothes, one is automatically a ''fashion'' designer, but sometimes this can or should simply be ''clothing'' designer. If we are to view fashion as the tidal wave of trends that we have come to know, the expression of a designer and/or his team can exist entirely parallel to fashion. Our benchmarks are more the evolution of our own creative expression. We try to provide ourselves with new horizons as soon as the need for a new challenge presents itself.
For years, designers -- including us -- were banging on about individual expression, that everyone should be able to find their own means of expression via what they wear. To a very large extent today we have what we were seeking then -- people are more individualistic, they are dressing more for themselves and less for others. Don't you agree? Of course, there will always be that validation some receive through wearing a brand, but there is no longer that idea of a prevailing look; skirts can be any length. You are so right when describing
the Internet. Long may it reign! But for how long? Even though the Internet is presented as a wild and wonderful place of freedom of expression, those who log on today thinking that their views expressed are not being monitored are fools. All of those big brothers following every hit on your keyboard.
On that note, we'd better get back to work. Our men's show is Friday. We're nearly there! All the best from all at Maison Martin Margiela
Feb. 1, 2005
Dear Martin, I never asked you where you spend Christmas; not the whole factory, that is, just you. I did the most decadent thing and landed in St. Bart's on Christmas Eve. Besotted by so many pretty things, I was immediately transported back to the Cote d'Azur in the 60's.
Let's see, Christmas in St. Bart's. Quincy Jones, Russell Simmons, Uma Thurman, Tom Ford, Bryan Ferry, Tony Shafrazi, Robert Downey Jr., Quentin Tarantino, a Ukrainian bombshell (running around seminaked with an Asprey backgammon board), Qaddafi's son. Night and day, everybody is doing everything to everyone everywhere. I bumped into Nick Rhodes, a Duran Durannie (you remember ''Girls on Film,'' don't you?), and he's still wearing all his pan stick and eyeliner. Quite a feat in the heat! I do love him, though. He darlings everybody, always with a silent teenage girl in tow. Isabella Blow queened out in her Joan Crawford gold lame bathing suit and diamante studded stilettos, with her art-house ex, or not-so-ex. I don't know. Relationships are so complicated nowadays. Detmar Blow sat shrouded in a Philip Treacy sun hat. Detmar is hysterically critical, refuses to be clever, an absolute English invention, extraordinarily funny although he doesn't know it. A part of that fast-disappearing and better side of the English postcolonial tribe. On the beach, Giorgio Armani strolled, in his ever-so-brief black bathing trunks, ultratanned chest and the toned body of a 30-year-old. Astonishing. His gang, smoking profusely with not a hair out of place. Ah! Those Italians! The funniest thing, though: they all had matching black towels and mini canvas directors' chairs, which turned out to be headrests.
It's snowing in Paris. Vive la neige!! It's Christmas all over again. Gotta see Sofia Coppola. I like her new project about Marie Antoinette. Just heard Marianne Faithfull will play Marie's mum. Great choice. She's related to Sacher-Masoch (as in ''masochism''). A long time ago, Russ Meyer, better known as King of the Nudies, cast Marianne as Sid Vicious's mum in ''Who Killed Bambi,'' the proposed movie about the Sex Pistols. I wrote it with Roger Ebert and Rem Koolhaas (yes, the architect! He was in Hollywood then). She had to shag Sid in the script. However, she would only agree to do so on condition he took a bath beforehand. He did have this notorious, dirty reputation.
A sudden thought. Would you like to go to a dinner party for dogs? There will be no barking at the table. By the way, where are all those pictures you were going to send me? Lots of love, Malcolm
Feb. 3, 2005
Dear Malcolm, ''Curiouser and curiouser''! What a drama, receiving your last letter, that is. This weekend, we finally got to show our work on the men's collections to the press. We showed them the six small films based on the musicians backstage on the point of going onstage we told you about. The films seemed to please. Of the many that popped in, Gert Jonkers of Butt magazine in Amsterdam passed by. He said that he was busy tracking you down for dinner (did he manage?) and that he was curious as to the correspondence you are having with us. Gert also told us that your letter had been sent. Yet nothing had arrived! Was it happening again? That's when the frantic search began. Our panicked e-mails requesting another copy of your letter all arrived, as did the replies of those who could forward it to us, yet the letter itself was always blank on arrival! It finally transpired -- subject to verification, of course -- that your letter was being blocked, filtered or censored somewhere in the ether between Paris or New York! A tiny symbol in the ''Sent'' folder, in front of the many attempts to mail, showed that its contents were unsuitable for transmission. Why? Could it be that we are now at the stage where mail of ''questionable'' content evaporates -- deemed immoral? Is this the next stealthy step of reining in the Net, our thoughts and expression? Was it your reference to Sid Vicious having to to take a bath before doing Marianne Faithfull?? Or was it some lazy spell check that didn't want to get up off its bum and preferred to destroy the evidence? Quick, check Nostradamus! Well, we have your letter now -- it finally arrived, by fax! Maison Martin Margiela