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What Martin Margiela can teach us about sustainability

If anyone knows a thing or two about longevity, it’s Martin Margiela. The Belgian designer walked away from fashion all of 11 years ago, but he is still talked about today — maybe even more so.

That’s partly because he remains an object of fascination: Margiela has mastered the miracle of being anonymous in the 21st century, even in a new documentary about him. You see his hands, you hear his voice (slightly altered, because that’s the only way he could listen to it), but you don’t see his face.

What you can see is his work: a revealing portrait of a designer who understands fashion so intimately as to be able to take it apart and put it back together again. And elusive though he is, Margiela’s influence is pervasive. It has seeped into the collections of designers as disparate as Marc Jacobs and Raf Simons, and continues to colour those of John Galliano, now helming Maison Margiela.

Yet, of all the things that Margiela is known for — those peculiar Tabi shoes, his Paris atelier devoid of colour — perhaps the most intriguing is that he built his legacy in fashion by doing what designers are only just starting to. That is, recycling, reusing, and all other eco-minded practices in the name of sustainability.

That word is used so liberally today (and we’re guilty of it ourselves) that it’s starting to lose its meaning. For a definition that will stick, we can refer to Margiela’s design philosophy.

Do it yourself

A Magazine curated by Maison Martin Margiela, June 2004 (Photo credit: A Publisher)
A Magazine curated by Maison Martin Margiela, June 2004 (Photo credit: A Publisher)

Although his medium was fashion, Martin Margiela’s message was anti-fashion. He rejected fashion’s love for glamour by staging his shows at ordinary locales, like playgrounds or the subway. He didn’t care for its social structures, either. He didn’t speak to the press, and guests at his shows weren’t assigned seats based on their importance. But nothing is more radically anti-fashion than championing DIY, a movement that encourages you to create what you want instead of buying it.

When Margiela curated the first issue of A Magazine in 2004, he included a step-by-step guide on how to make your own Margiela sock sweater. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a Frankenstein’s monster of a garment put together with socks, scissors and stitches. And anyone could own it.

His DIY spirit (which also gave rise to another tutorial later on) is one that will fit right in with our times. This year’s hottest fashion accessory — by necessity, of course — is the face mask, which many have taken to making on their own because of its low supply. But what if we learned to be just as resourceful with everything else in our closets? Margiela (and the planet) would certainly approve.

Rethink everyday objects

Porcelain waistcoat, 1989-1990 (Photo credit: Palais Galliera)
Porcelain waistcoat, 1989-1990 (Photo credit: Palais Galliera)

That was the rule of thumb for Margiela’s Artisanal line, which is what truly earned him the title of fashion’s father of recycling. That’s because he made use of seemingly anything — hair combs, straws, faux gold rings — and turned them into covetable and wearable designs. These include a dress tasselled with shoelaces, or a pair of trousers made from old leather belts.

Made with rare (and ironically ordinary) items and meticulous craftsmanship, the Artisanal line inevitably became a fixture of Paris’s revered haute couture seasons. Not that that was Margiela’s intention. “It is all about giving a new life to old and abandoned pieces, so they could be worn again in a different way,” explained the designer.

Those might as well have been his words of advice for us today, especially for those of us with one too many rolls of paper towels sitting in our homes. (Yes, Margiela has even made a dress out of them.) On Instagram’s trending #HomeCouture hashtag, you’ll find that many people are taking heed, even if only in jest.

Embrace the old

It’s a cliché, but old really is gold. Especially in Margiela’s hands, which turned actual vintage Germany Army Trainers into designer sneakers that are highly sought after today. Those secondhand shoes even came with a note: “Feel free to add your own graffiti.”

Besides upending the very concept of luxury, Margiela was known for highlighting the beauty of vintage creations. He did so most effectively with his Replica line, which consisted of exact reproductions of old clothes, accessories and objects that the designer found. The point was to emphasise their timelessness, which to Margiela was one of the most important qualities of a garment.

Today, his successor John Galliano is keeping that idea alive through Recicla. The new line, too, makes use of thrift store finds — not for replication, but for reuse. Stitched with the brand label, they were shown directly on the runway of the Maison Margiela F/W 2020 show as a bold statement that what we already have is enough.

Work with what you have

Margiela’s famous Tabi boots only became a signature of his brand by accident. The cleft-toe clogs first made their debut in his Spring/Summer 1990 collection. Because Margiela couldn’t afford new shoes for his label’s next collection, he simply reused the Tabi shoes from the last one and covered them in wall paint for a “new feel”.

It’s sometimes said that practicality is at odds with creativity, yet Margiela proves exactly the opposite with his iconic shoes. They also spell out his very design ethos: “I like to collect old clothes and give them another life. When they are lying there, they are dead.” Perhaps it’s time we look inside our wardrobes and do the same.

Pameyla Cambe
Senior Writer
Pameyla Cambe is a fashion and jewellery writer who believes that style and substance shouldn't be mutually exclusive. She makes sense of the world through Gothic novels, horror films and music. Lots of music.
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