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The Artist is Absent: A Short Film on Martin Margiela

A portrait of the most elusive and influential of fashion designer, through archival footage and illustrious guests.

10 – 15 | 2015 | Documentary | Fashion | Mixed Footage | USA

The Artist is Absent. The title that Alison Chernick chose for her  portrayal of the most elusive among avant-garde designers on one hand winks at ‘The Artist is Present‘, the Marina Abramovic doc, but on the other is a perfect summary of  Martin Margiela’s significance for the history of fashion.

The arrival of the Margiela in late 80s was something truly revolutionary: in a time when the cult of top models and designers was exploding, he decided to refocus attention on the one thing that really mattered: the clothes. Strongly opposed to the ideal of the glam model, he used to send armies of ‘faceless aliens’ out on the runway, covered by masks or full bodysuits, to let the clothes and the presentations, unique and unrepeatable, speak for themselves.

The designer himself, who officially retired in 2009, has always maintained a strict anonymity – he never showed his face on the catwalk, and all contact with the media was always done by fax. To this day, only one photo of Margiela exists, the only publicly known portrayal of the designer’s face. The documentary focuses a lot on this refusal of fame, that has however created a legend, a certain halo of mystery, perhaps even more intriguing than the exuberant personality of some of his contemporaries.

Is not it a coincidence that before launching the Maison, Margiela worked for three years in the Gaultier atelier in Paris. As two sides of the same coin, the designers opposite personalities, but they have been similarly able to innovate and impact the fashion industry.

Jean Paul Gaultier himself is interviewed in the documentary, and remembering vividly the first time he saw Martin work, he says he realized immediately that he would do great things. He also adds that he “wasn’t his teacher, because he didn’t need any teachers”.

Other illustrious figures interviewed by Chernick are critic Suzy Menkes, who dwells on the novelty of the designer’s deconstructionist approach: he surely wasn’t the first to deconstruct and re-construct clothes, but he did it with such impeccable tailoring skills and with an immediacy that made his creations unique and iconic.

Antwerp is also obviously crucial to the story, through the testimony of people like Geert Bruloot, the pioneer of the Belgian fashion industry, and Inge Grognard, a collaborator of the Antwerp Six (of which Margiela was not part of, unlike what’s often reported) and of the designer from the very beginning.  The lived for fashion, she recalls. An immense admiration and respect transpire from the words of Raf Simons, who also argues that everyone should follow the example of the designer and retire when one feels like they’ve said everything that needed to be said.

The small curiosities about the inscrutable designer that pop up here are and there are also delightful, such as the fact that the mother used to buy antiques to rework and transform them – exactly what the son later did  with fabrics and garments. Anyway, the archival footage of Margiela’s earlier shows is the most notable feature: unique and shocking events that revolutionized the concept of a fashion show, that would sometimes create security issues as people would fight just to attend and take part of.

In a short film it’d be impossible to exhaustively explore the work of Margiela, but ‘The Artist is Absent‘ is an excellent introduction to the mysterious world of the Belgian designer, a first answer to the question “Who is MM?“. This look at the life and work of an  ‘absent’ artist also evokes some important insights about the current fashion world, increasingly subdued to social media relevancy and easy publicity. . The short film, produced by Yoox.com, was presented last week at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Alison Chernick is a veteran of art documentaries, having directed films of Jeff Koons, Roy Lichtenstein and the noted Matthew Barney: No Restraint, that followed the making of Drawing Restraint 9.

Flavia Ferrucci

Flavia Ferrucci

Flavia Ferrucci

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