Time in the Early Work of Martin Margiela


We typically think of fashion as a search for the new. When we imagine what designers are doing, we imagine that they are trying to do new things. Even  with designers like Virgil Abloh, who self-consciously frame their work in terms of the so-called postmodern instability of the copy, of repetition itself, we imagine that they are doing this in order to bring about a new critical vision, if not a revolution in form. The new, it would seem, is all fashion is after. It is very hard to escape this way of thinking, which is actually devilishly subtle. It causes us to divide the history of fashion into periods, into stories about trends, movements, arcs of succession. To do this seems deathly obvious, but it is it the only way to know these histories? 


The new is a property of time. More closely, it is a property of a certain form of time, a way of knowing time. The search for the new is a direct effect of the integration of fashion and consumer capitalism, which ties the order of production to the dynamics of the market. For designers throughout history, however, the production of clothing has always entailed a more intimate, immediate temporal presence, a time bound to the qualities of materials, to the rhythm of methods. In the work of late 20th century designers like Martin Margiela, the immediacy of this practical timescape becomes a vehicle to convey a message about the linear, capitalist temporalities of fashion criticism and consumption.


In this piece, we review the work of historian Francesca Granata, who has considered Margiela’s body of work, both as a collection of patterns, and as a broader theory of time for thinking about fashion history. Granata’s work is important because it focuses on an oft-overlooked period of Margiela’s career: the period of work spanning his spring/summer 1993 and spring/summer 1996 collections. 

Martin Margiela’s garments can be thought of, not only as critical interventions into the trends and historical movements that intersected with his time as a designer, but as a more abstract critique of the form of fashion history itself. Granata, who has spent years closely studying archived collections of Margiela’s work around the world, has argued that Margiela’s aesthetic preoccupations represent a direct affront to the traditional genre of art-historic narrative. 


Granata’s account of the SS93 collection, which makes use of theatrical motifs from various points in the history of drama, compares the montage of historical references to the imaginative reconstructions of the past found in films like Bonnie and Clyde. In both cases, the past is revealed as implicit, or just-beneath-the-surface, of the present. And histories are correlatively revealed to be "reflexive, interpretative and thus necessarily mediated and culturally constructed rather than being a stable and unmediated reconstruction of the past, which could be fully disinterested or objective.” 

In theatre, Granata argues, visions of the past overlap through the process of costume design. A costume atelier tasked with redesigning an Elizabethan gown for Hamlet might take the fluffy shoulders of a postwar Balenciaga cut as physical reference. Granata finds similar thinking at work in the pattern for a 93 Margiela fur coat, which evokes the sumptuary shape of 18th century furs but is actually adapted from the 1940s. 


Periods of design history do not follow one another in succession, so much as they form pacts, unconscious complicities, and circuits of dummy reference. By drawing upon dramatic history specifically, Margiela manages to “dismantle the illusion of a stable and ‘authentic’ past that the theatre costumes are meant to represent.”He presents history itself as a theatre, or a set of changing costumes with ambiguous origin—a labyrinth of materials rather than a timeline of successive aesthetic periods. The construction of garments is like historical writing itself, is, as Granata puts it, “achieved by quoting more recent pasts.”

In a deeper sense, all our approximations of history are just that—proximate constructions. They depend on documents, archeological conditions that are themselves second-hand accounts. The origin itself, as Margin Heidegger argued, is always retreating, already withdrawn. Reconstructing the past is always a process of quotation in which historical autochthony is deferred through the apparatus of citation. It is not so much a linear trajectory as a web of references and memory-traces. 


In his iconic 1996 collection, which included photographs of old garments, printed onto new garments, Margiela deepened his exploration of this temporal problematic. Photography itself is a process of historical documentation that paradoxically reveals and effaces the history it constructs—the photograph is at once a pure objectivity, a perfect image of the past and a frame, a single window that erases the context beyond its borders. In one especially impactful moment, Margiela prints the photograph of a gown with 1920s Delphic-style pleats across a modern, minimal shift dress, suturing together the beginning and end of the 20th century womenswear in a single, uncanny look. In fashion, Margiela suggests, time is not what we think it is—couture and its obsolescence may be one and the same shifting material. 

The effect is the so-called tromp-l’oeil—the trick of the eye. At first, the photographic print appears to be the textile, But then, as its folds fail to move, as the  shape seems more strange against the discordant surface, the realization dawns. As Granata puts it, “these printed garments instil a temporal and material confusion, so that the viewer is not sure, at least at first sight, whether they are in fact vintage pieces and/ or pieces from Margiela’s previous collection – which, in a further twist, were often replicas of vintage pieces to begin with.” 

In his seminar from the same year, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan established a visual theory of the tromp-l’oeil in his study of anamorphotic painting:


What is it that attracts and satisfies us in trompe l'oeil? When is it that it captures our attention and delights us? At the moment when, by a mere shift of our gaze, we are able to realize that the representation does not move with the gaze and that it is merely a tricking of the eye. For it appears at that moment as something other than it seemed, or rather it now seems to be that something else

It is Lacan’s emphasis on “attraction,” “satisfaction,” and “delight” that is of special significance for understanding fashion and the production of our desire for it. What delights the viewer in the tromp-l’oeil is the joy of semblances shifting, of a new dimension, a new spatial volume disclosing itself. Margiela suggests that beauty persists here, not in novelty, not in seeking a space outside the repetition of form, but in the way layered repetitions produce new, obtusely unsettled perspectives, when the experience of seeing breaks down into the pleasure of realizing one does not know exactly what one is looking at it.  Not unlike a magician’s trick, the garment becomes a suspense of shifting perceptions, a photographic scene that appears to be remaking itself before our eyes. 

 

For modern fashion, photography is our primary means of historical documentation and archival. Photographs shape how we grasp the linear succession of ‘trends’ and ‘periods’ in fashion history. As Roland Barthes argued, the fashion system is constituted by the apparatus of photojournalism, which constructs desire and consumer subjectivity as it symbolically positions the institutions of fashion within a shared historical narrative. 

The photograph, as the fundamental medium of advertising, appears in SS96 as a critique of originality itself. Margiela insinuates that our photographs of the past are always caught up in the fabric of the now, and conversely, that our present is but a silkscreen for the camera reel of memory. 


Margiela’s photographic prints illustrate a striking and literal premise. The photographs of last season’s collection are actually alive, in motion, across the surface of this year’s. Only most of the time, they are invisible. The photograph—the historical record—is not only the screen for our apprehension of the present, it is also what we are projecting onto the screen. Whatever we are seeking in the future, it is something we don’t realize we have already found. In other words, the old is projected across the surface of the new—clothes do not reveal new desires to us, they operate as screens for the projection of our nostalgia for what we have lost. 

If it would seem that Margiela’s work muddles the distinction between the new and the old, this is because its purpose is to do so. Granata connects this to developments in theory and criticism, which Maison Margiela seems especially evocative of. She writes, 


The Belgian designer’s pieces constitute a visual and material theorisation of ‘new history’ and its attendant historiographical methods, which developed with particular force from the 1970s onwards to debunk the so-called ‘master narratives’ and the traditional paradigm of history.


The idea of art critique as vocation that emerged in the early enlightenment with writers like Johann Joachim Winckelmann established a model of periodization that art history has had difficulty escaping. Neoclassicalism, in the early picture, succeeded the excesses of the baroque—and so the history of art could be read as a teleology of progress, or if not progress, then of conflict and response, a dramatic format borrowed from the birth of the novel. The succession of periods in art mirrors the civilizational epochs charted by the early anthropologists, and both testify to a human tendency to rationalize time into sequences of growth and logical transformation.

Margiela’s detailed palimpsest of citation and self-reference complicates this traditional, historicist approach. Indeed, as Granata eventually concludes, its mode of temporality draws upon a completely different theory of time, one that is bound to cycles of material change rather than grand narratives of historical progress. 


Margiela’s ongoing preoccupation with reuse, decay, and recycling is a topic that demands an essay of its own. But at a thematic level, it resonates deeply with the temporal puzzles of his early work. For a designer like Issey Miyake, by contras, who pursues the cutting-edge of technologically-assisted design, the search is often for entirely new materials, alien fabrics that we cannot even imagine the feeling of yet. This search for the radically other is not itself in line with the consumer demand for novelty that characterizes, for instance, fast fashion, however it does represent a dramatic difference between the work of Margiela and a more innovation-oriented designer like Miyake. 

Likewise, Margiela’s fascination with reuse must be clearly distinguished from reparative arts such as boro that can be seen in the present-day work of brands like Kapital, and which is grounded in the history of practical darning. Instead of folk history and necessity, Margiela’s work evokes consumer dereliction and contingency. On the contrary, Margiela’s work embraces a stranger, more parodic and irrational recycling process that is averse to historical nostalgia. It is the urban anonymity of the landfill or the alleyway, in which materials unconsciously mix, forming unintentional sculptures, that is the model here. 

The word ‘recycle’ was not always affixed to the sentimentalities of the environmental movement. In its original usage recycling was an industrial, technical term, used to describe processes like the recirculation of oil in a factory facility. And in the work of Margiela it is important for us to retrieve this older meaning, which takes shape in colder, inhuman states. Time emerges as a circle—not an ouroborean story of life flowing into death, but a complication of those categories, and a cut through the suspense of time between them. Recycling relates to the cyclical time of machines themselves, not the linear time of the economic system the factory exists within. It is the clock time of computers, the algorithmic growth of fungal colonies—time outside time.


The time that matters for Margiela is time we are not capable of perceiving. It is a circular time, that—like the bacterial colonies he famously seeded his garments with—we can fabricate, but not feel. The history of fashion is outside of experience. What experience discloses is only the tromp-l’oeil, the angle at which point the frame pivots, opening on something else. This aesthetic whiplash has no name other than joy before beauty, and our attempts to collate and categorize—even to remember—Margiela suggests, are perhaps only attempts to stifle that joy. 

References:

Granata, Francesca. Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

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