Time and again, Maison Martin Margiela has been labeled as an “anti-fashion” brand. Still, its history is inseparable from Paris, home of haute couture and high-toned glamour. Ever since Martin Margiela showed his first collection there in 1989, the French capital and the Belgian brand have been inseparable.
Nowadays, John Galliano’s exuberant Maison Margiela shows take place at Paris’ most magnificent venues. In the 1990s, however, the brand navigated the city in more unconventional ways. Margiela’s atelier was situated in the 18th Arrondissement, a neighbourhood unfrequented by the fashion crowd. The shows, too, were set in areas which the fashion set would consider to be backwater. The nineties saw Maison Margiela shows set in a graveyard, a disused hospital, an abandoned depot, and an old subway station. Check out some of the highlights in our interactive map below, and keep reading for a more detailed look at Margiela’s most notorious locales.
The brand’s debut show for AW89 was held in a playground in the 20th Arrondissement, and local kids ran on the runway among the models. There was no allocated seating, and lateness was not tolerated. Whatever your position in the fashion world was, if you were late, you were out. This attitude stirred up serious complaints from fashion journalists and buyers.
Maison Martin Margiela’s AW93 is particularly notorious in this regard. There were, in fact, two shows: a black one and a white one. The shows were located at the opposite sides of the Montmartre graveyard – one at a disused hospital, and the other at an old mansion in Pigalle Quarter. Each guest received an invitation for one specific side. Those who followed the crowd to the wrong side were firmly denied entrance.
Maison Margiela would repeat this experiment for AW97, with three distinct venues booked in close proximity to Place de la Republique. White mini buses shuttled the models, clad in papery, one-armed jackets, between venues. By the time the models arrived at the final venue, most of the guests “had over-imbibed the robust red wine” offered in Margiela’s signature white plastic cups, remembers Susannah Frankel.
White has always been a leitmotif for Margiela. Just think of those iconic square-shaped pieces of white fabric sewn to the brand’s garments in lieu of tags. Consider too the infamous white laboratory coats, worn by the brand’s design team.
The brand’s obsession with white manifested itself in the opening of the all-white Maison. The famous headquarters in the 11th Arrondissement once belonged to the Sisters of Charity, who used it as an orphanage. By 2004, when Martin Margiela and his team moved into the building, it had been empty for 10 years. Thick layers of dust covered the surfaces, and mismatched old furniture clustered the hallways. To make the place look coherent, Jenny Meirens and Margiela decided to paint the 3000 square foot space white.
Demonstrations of Martin Margiela’s revolutionary attitude are countless, not only in terms of his designs, but also the way he chose to present his works. The way he maneuvered through Paris differed strikingly to what other brands were doing in the 80s. Back then even Jean-Paul Gaultier, fashion’s enfant terrible of the decade, never ventured out of the city centre. Maison Martin Margiela kept to the younger and more dynamic Left Bank, altogether ignoring Paris’ bourgeois and conventional Right Bank.
Bringing fashion to the margins of the city Margiela signalled the dawn of a new, more democratic era in the history of fashion. Although Maison Margiela is firmly part of the fashion establishment these days, without its unorthodox approach in the 1990s, contemporary fashion wouldn’t be the same.