Maison Martin Margiela's First Show, Spring 1989: Deconstruction and Interpretation
There's a particular allure I feel and have always felt regarding Martin’s debut show in 1989. It presents a level of artistic confidence that is incredibly inspiring: a notion that, with the right vision, groundbreaking work is possible from the get-go. Look by look, there is a feeling that what is being presented is entirely self assured, containing the framework or an entire universe to be decoded in years to come. But that's what makes Spring 1989 special, encoded within is not just the philosophical foundation for the future of Martin’s work, but the philosophical foundation for so many designers of my generation and future designers, a feeling that nothing is impenetrable to deconstruction: everything is on the table.
My enamored rambling about this show is neither new nor helpful to anyone wanting strictly information, of course. But I think it’s important for people to understand that this show wields emotional resonance, that the elements put into it can, if you let it, create a feeling akin to viewing a masterpiece painting or a groundbreaking album.
The show took place at the Cafe De La Gare in Paris, in the 4e arrondissement, notably outside of the seemingly universal and all-necessary 1er arrondissement arrangements for fashion houses at the time. This convention was rarely broken as many editors and press members had become accustomed to near royal treatment, often having the seating layout and accommodations adjusted to fit their stature and importance. This was not the case for this show. This show was to occur on the Maison’s own terms. Most discussions regarding runway shows begin at the first look. That is not the case in this presentation. As guests were arriving, the loudspeakers were playing the busy hum of the team backstage, finalizing things before the show began. It's a small act all things considered, but contextualized against Martin's broader ambition to bring process to the forefront, this is perfectly in tune. It’s a reminder that what you are experiencing is a product of many hands, hands that have likely worked tirelessly to bring all of it together and continue to work tirelessly up until the end. I imagine these hands would continue to alter and perfect the looks should time have permitted, but that was not possible: the show was going to happen.
This hum is abruptly interrupted by the overwhelmingly loud introduction to The Velvet Underground’s “Guess I’m Falling In Love,” a fast paced track released alongside some of the band’s best work. Using the Velvet Underground feels very conscious, they were a band known for disrupting a seemingly impermeable landscape, changing much of what followed, in tune with what Martin must have known he would accomplish. Additionally, the band was known for playing exceptionally loud in early live shows, ushering in a new era for music in a blaring and unforgiving way. In just the first show, Martin did just that.
The first model then steps out. She is shirtless, wearing simple unfinished white trousers, a jabot tied into a hand bra, and the iconic black Tabi boots. On her chest is the faint impression of a V-neck tee shirt, made visible by sunburn. The hair and makeup appear undone and unkempt in a perfectly personal way, with stark black eyes and deep red lips.
This is not at all in line with the typical image of a runway model for 1989, or for any of the 1980’s at all for that matter. Inge Grognard, makeup artist for much of Martin’s early work (and being 14 at the time), was in charge. She described Spring 1989 as chaotic, saying that preparation rooms were dark and many of the supplies needed for the show were not yet available (namely the stark and heavy black eye makeup) Like the rest of the team she was able to improvise, finding a non cosmetic pigment that was mixed with applicable grease to use in and around the models eyes, sometimes covering them completely in the way that you’d see eyes crossed out in a confidential document. This, along with the sheer veils, created an atmosphere of anonymity, which I will detail in a later section.
The next couple of looks followed closely to the first, showing predominantly simple white garments and a number of unique and brash hair and makeup motifs. A number of important garment motifs were put forward too, all of which were maintained throughout the Maison’s history. Some of the notable ones are the slim but pointed shoulders, garments engineered to be worn backwards comfortably, and multilayered ensembles, all with finishing details like exposed seams and unfinished hems. In the same way that Yohji Yamamoto or Rei Kawakubo were picking monochromatic palettes to emphasize shape and cut, so did Martin within this show. When a set of garments are limited to a short list of colors to work with, the shapes and cuts must do the talking. Martin would of course go on to experiment with a whole range of palettes and even prints, but this show is particularly interesting to me because he seems set on defining and spearheading his Maison’s legacy through cut and shape.
The show was said to be split into multiple different sections based on palette layout, from white to red to black and then to the full ensemble. As mentioned before the white section is simple, relying on an almost entirely monochromatic palette and a strict emphasis on attitude and cut. This is continued through the red and black section mind you, but the white section seems to convey the Maison’s themes particularly well, though I do think the “Margiela shoulder” is better suited and made more prominent by the color black for these particular blazers and overcoats.
The red section introduces a number of staple motifs that the house would go on to expand in the future, most notably the now-iconic full face masks, first appearing in an all red, multilayered look. This look contains so much of the Maison’s outlook for change: predominantly the active celebration of anonymity. This was conveyed in multiple ways: through Martin’s reluctance to speak with press or appear in photos, the use of white trench coats (typically the changing room uniform of models backstage) on the entirety of his team and on the runway, and finally, the masks that appear from show to show. In an era that was defined by supermodels and celebrities being dressed by eccentric and individualized designers (all of which were very famous and very recognizable), Martin was presenting a new idea for communication through fashion. He opted to remain anonymous, placing heavy emphasis on the importance of his team and using predominantly street-cast models (some of which he covered the face of entirely, as mentioned above).
These things may seem small, but contextualized against the broader state of the fashion community predating him, one that was predicated on the unquestioned power of fame and iconography, it is not hard to see that Martin was desperately needed. He was, in a way, bringing fashion back to earth, letting everyone know that the action of attitude through fashion was something that anyone could do, in a truly artistically conscious way. The rest of the red sections follows suit, using layering and trompe l’oeil techniques, along with more iterations of the veil presented in the first look. This was combined with the same imperial and striking shoulders, pointed collars, exposed seam tailoring and a bold red iteration of the Tabi boot, with a solid black heel. Seeing these motifs continue from white into red and then into black give them an entirely different feel, and overall help to reaffirm the audience's understanding of Martin’s vision through cuts alone.
The red show transitions subtly into the black section of the show. The white section was abruptly interrupted by the first all red ensemble, but the red section makes this transition slowly, having small black details appear throughout the red looks and eventually into completely black dresses and jackets. The all monochromatic and predominantly black looks help with the stark contrast that the hair and makeup was looking to achieve as well. There is something so captivating about the pointed shoulders and collars in this particular color when paired with the black eye makeup shown throughout, it’s all very empowered. The small cream/white elements that typically underpin these garments are really complimented as well in the process, serving to accentuate the more outlandish motifs and cuts as well as making the smaller layering techniques more clear, where in single color looks they were more obscured. The first look of this section sets the tone so well.
Another mainstay of the Maison was (and still is) their artisanal line, now signified by line 0 on the iconic numbers label. While this particular insignia had not yet been developed by the team, there were still many garments produced entirely by hand by select staff at the Maison, often exploring themes in a more conceptual manner. This creates a space for Martin and the team to explore ideas with complete and uninhibited creative freedom. This eventually panned out into garments such as broken ceramic plates refashioned into a vest, standard denim jeans painted black, white and pink to chip away over time and convey age, and parkas constructed entirely out of winter gloves, to name a few famous examples. With these garments they are able to ignore the sell-ability and wearability aspects they typically have to meet (though they now sell for and are worn by die-hard fans), opting to focus entirely on the conceptual. As it currently stands, there weren’t any garments artisanally produced for the debut show. What is interesting though, is that the idea for artisanal and conceptual garments had already been considered, and actually developed during and after the show. Laid onto the catwalk was a long stretch of white fabric, presumably marked and scuffed by the models as the show went on.
In preparation for the second show, Autumn Winter 1989, the same stretch of fabric was rolled back out in-studio, and various models walked across it once again, this time with the soles of their Tabi boots painted red. This, of course, left a bold and contrasted impression on the used runway fabric, which was then constructed into an artisanal vest that was to be worn by a model for Autumn 1989. Small things like this are why Martin’s work is as special as it is, there is always consistent emphasis on a conceptual and immaterial theme at hand, that cannot be bought. It inspires consideration, not consumption. Which is entirely against what the fashion system promotes!
These are small acts in the grand scheme of the Maison’s history, and anyone not immediately in the know of them would probably associate Martin’s legacy with the more popular motifs like the Tabi boots and deconstruction. But these artisanal garments carry so much weight, embedded in each and every one of them is some element of the Maison’s DNA. Furthermore, in the action of creating an item that is not necessarily predicated on wear or seasonal trends, the Maison transcends conventional uses of clothing, instead portraying individual examples of their work as pieces of art: being made by hand in the same way that a painter would create a painting or a sculptor would sit with and contemplate their sculpture. It, along with much of the Maison’s output, posits the idea that clothing can be transcendental, holding within an entirely conceptual universe that conveys themes as large and complex as consumption, transience, belonging, and many more. These are conversations we are used to having now, but in Martin’s era they were quite novel.
Ultimately, Martin is one of the biggest reasons that many of us in this community feel they can do the things they do. As with many other enthusiasts my age, there is this tireless effort to confirm and defend fashion’s place within the world of art, to make the case that there are substantive and conceptual works we can engage with that defy the frivolity typically associated with the form. And it is not often made easy.
The current fashion zeitgeist is rife with problems: ecological harm, exploitation, appropriation, patriarchal norms, body shaming, and many, many more. It would be foolish to say (or expect) any individual artist to address these issues in an all-encompassing and resolving manner. And there are certainly elements of Martin’s work that neglected these elements. But good work in any of these directions should be noted when it happens, and Martin was quite ahead of his time in this regard. His emphasis on re-use and appreciation of already-existing clothes is a notion that's found its way into popular consciousness nowadays, his attempts at deconstructing the patriarchal and objectifying impediments placed on women by the very form he existed within, and his dedication to finding and promoting beauty in non-consumable, non purchasable concepts (that still held artistic meaning) were all unprecedented for his time and his industry.
And that precedence is still important today, though I don’t think a designer has yet to step to what Martin created. But there certainly is hope, there are many emerging designers that are addressing the industries’ issues in a meaningful and impactful way. There is truly infinite potential, and in some respects, we have Martin to thank for it.
Writer: Cal D.