From Margiela, The Hermès Years at MoMu (Photos: Hamish Bowles)
May 30, 2017 — On my nine-day, six-city romp through Europe I managed to take in two powerful fashion exhibitions that covered the style waterfront—from conceptual understatement to flamboyant excess.
Margiela, The Hermès Years, at MOMU Antwerp’s innovative fashion museum, showcased the work of the designer who redefined the storied Parisian House during his tenure as creative director from 1997 to 2003. Curator Kaat Debo has juxtaposed Margiela’s own revolutionary pieces from the period (and some that pre- or post-date it) with the infinite subtlety of his work for Hermès, and discovered many surprising echoes and counterpoints.
The exhibition, stylishly designed by Bob Verhelst, places the Hermès pieces against walls and platforms painted the brand’s trademark orange, whilst the Maison Margiela pieces are easily identified against white.
The willfully enigmatic Martin Margiela studied at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Arts alongside future fashion stars including Dries van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, and Walter van Bierendonck. He was ahead of the pack as the first to find gainful employment—as an assistant to Jean-Paul Gaultier from 1984 to 1987—before opening his own house the following year with his angel partner and investor Jenny Mierens. Immediately, he challenged the flamboyant status quo of 1980s fashion, introducing a whole new way of looking at clothing that embraced the idea of repurposing vintage elements into new garments, deliberately left pieces unfinished, and played with scale in imaginative and, at times, surreal ways.
He might not have seemed an obvious fit for the House of Hermès: When Jean-Louis Dumas made the appointment, it “shocked the fashion world,” as The New Yorker noted at the time. For his presentation to the house, instead of an elaborate visual mood board or mock-up collection, Margiela presented seven words that expressed his vision—among them “nonchalance,” “comfort,” and “details.” “Martin is invisible,” said Dumas at the time, “but it is like oxygen, invisible but vital… Martin is not a cuckoo bird nesting in the leaves of Hermès. On the contrary, he brings a new vision of what we are.”
Margiela had wanted to present his collections in an intimate showroom setting, but the demands of a big brand meant that they were ultimately shown in Hermès’ flagship store on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, with a pan-generational casting of agelessly beautiful models who had been stars a decade and more before. The collections, as I remember, were startlingly austere in that age of Galliano-at-Dior and Karl-at-Chanel runway excess, and many of the nuances that would have been detectable in the hand were lost in these presentations—so it was a revelation to see the pieces up close and marvel at how Margiela adapted the codes of the house and introduced his own. Whilst he resisted using the iconic printed scarves for clothing, for instance, instead he used the scarves’ hand whip-stitching to finish his blouses—and although he had fashioned an iconic Maison Margiela dress from vintage scarves, his own Hermès scarf design was a bias-cut triangular lariat in solid black, white, or orange. In place of the flashy jeweled buttons of yore, he invented a six-hole button that could be stitched on to form the letter H.
Meanwhile, elements like his vareuse tunic, with its deep-V neck, and his enveloping stole with deep pockets (an alternative to a coat), became symbols of the house and were repeated through the seasons in different fabrications and proportions, defying the ephemeral nature of fashion and, in the process, redefining what luxury could be.
At the Palais Galliera in Paris, meanwhile, a whole different fashion experience awaited me at Dalida, une garde-robe de la ville a la scene, an exhibition celebrating the recent gift of the iconic actress and singer’s extensive wardrobe from her brother Bruno “Orlando” Gigliotti to the museum. Dalida, born in Cairo to Italian parents in 1933, was Miss Egypt in 1954 and yearned to become an actress. Her marvelously rich singing voice changed her destiny—she ultimately sold more than 170 million albums worldwide. Successful as her professional life was to prove, her private life was strafed with tragedy, and she took her own life in 1987, adding even deeper resonance to her soul-searching classics. Anyone who has stayed too late at a French nightclub (hello) will be familiar with her iconic roll-call of classic songs that get all the boys in the yard—from the soulful “Il venait d’avoir 18 ans” to the disco-tastic empowerment anthem “Laissez-moi Danser.”
Dalida clearly had great sentimental attachments to her clothes, which run the gamut from the bell-skirted jeune fille dresses that she wore in the late 1950s and early 60s (made for her by established couture houses like Pierre Balmain, Jean Dessès, and Carven, as well as emerging designers including Jacques Esterel) through the classical white column dresses she wore for her performances later in the decade, to the increasingly razzle-dazzle and kitschy ensembles created for her campy TV specials and stadium concerts, to the Dynasty-shouldered leather extravaganzas of Jean-Claude Jitrois.
The Galliera’s exhibition, curated by Olivier Saillard with Sandrine Tinturier, has been designed with Dalidean elan by Robert Carsen, who sets the performer’s bedazzled-and-feathered show gowns on spinning gold-disc turntables and has ranged the sleek white column dresses against a dark black sky like a pantheon of goddesses—which is, after all, only appropriate.
From Dalida, a Wardrobe From the City to the Stage at Palais Galliera. (Photos: Hamish Bowles)