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Cult Of Impersonality

Martin Margiela is the most celebrated designer the world has never seen. And now he's not here in L.A.

September 09, 2007|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

HE is the mystery man of fashion.

Avant-garde designer Martin Margiela refuses to show his face, though there are people who claim to have met him. He never grants interviews, and he communicates only through his right-hand man. He won't even put his name on the labels of his clothes, branding them with numbers instead.

He doesn't have an "It bag," a publicist in charge of celebrity dressing or an advertising budget. And yet, this master of underexposure has set up shop in Los Angeles, of all places, opening his second U.S. boutique last week in Beverly Hills.

If it all sounds like something out of "Zoolander," just wait. Margiela's calculated mystique doesn't end there. Miles away from the glittering maisons of Christian Dior and Chanel, Margiela's Paris atelier is in an unmarked building in the decidedly unfashionable 11th arrondissement. A small Airstream trailer houses the receptionist, and the staff wear white lab coats.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Maison Martin Margiela: In an article about Martin Margiela in Sunday's Image section, the wrong street number was given for his Maison Martin Margiela boutique. The store is at 9970 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 16, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Maison Martin Margiela: In an article about Martin Margiela in the Sept. 9 Image section, the wrong street number was given for his Maison Martin Margiela boutique. The store is at 9970 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills.

On a visit in July, his Artisanal collection was presented not on a runway, but in a darkened room with models in glass cases lighted up like a peep show. Even the brand's website -- Martinmargiela.com -- is odd, instructing visitors as it loads that "this site is not under construction." (It also doesn't give the address of the Beverly Hills store -- which, naturally, is hard to find. It's at 19970 S. Santa Monica Blvd.)

The Margiela marketing strategy -- which Patrick Scallon, the right hand, characterizes as "absence equals presence" and "the cult of impersonality" -- is interesting to think about in this post-Tom Ford-at-Gucci era, when luxury brands are headed by tycoons, and product is being emphasized over the star-like personalities who once designed it. Margiela has taken himself out of the equation from the start, forcing us to focus on his clothes, which are as finely crafted as they are clever.

Not that he's escaped fashion's corporate clutch. Margiela is backed by Renzo Rosso, the Italian entrepreneur who created the Diesel denim empire and is now banking on raising the profile of this decidedly low profile designer.

Margiela is an accomplished tailor, and deconstruction has become his signature, which means tailor's markings and exposed seams are often intentionally left on garments. His answer to couture is the limited-edition, handmade Artisanal line of pieces reconstructed from found objects, such as a "fur" coat made from Christmas tinsel, perfect for Tinseltown.

He was born in 1957 in Belgium, where he attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. In 1984 he joined Jean Paul Gaultier's design team, and in 1988 he launched his own label. His offbeat shows are a highlight of Paris Fashion Week, held in vacant lots or abandoned Metro stations, once with marionettes as models. One collection featured garments printed with images of fur coats and sweaters, another used broken dishes, and another old car seats refashioned into dresses.

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The white room

The Beverly Hills boutique is a treat, a temple to the avant-garde in a former church. The white carpet inside the front door is intentionally soiled with footprints leading to a pyramid of champagne glasses displaying Margiela's famous split-toe Tabi boots and shoes. This accessories area is bordered by a row of chairs pushed together and encased in a single white slipcover.

Paris-based interior designer Eduardo Dente created the space, which opens into a large selling floor, photo-printed to look like hardwood. There are trompe l'oeil moldings on the walls, and a TV monitor flickers with the latest runway show. On the racks, tailored classics include a sharply cut navy pea coat with enlarged lapels ($1,598) and a fluid, circle-back jersey dress in picnic check ($995). The nude bodysuit with the rigid, linebacker-size shoulder pads that made such an impression on the fall runways is $345.

From the Artisanal collection, there is a chain-mail top made from interlocking jeweled rings ($11,245) and a men's leather vest emblazoned with a pinup-style face ($5,495). An added bonus: The Brentwood boutique Mameg has moved into the back of the building, offering such thinking woman's designers as Rick Owens, Jil Sander and Viktor & Rolf.

The white-coated Margiela staff and friends celebrated with a party Wednesday night. It may have been the quietest opening this town has ever seen. The invitation was printed white-on-white, there was no red carpet, and the designer did not attend.

At least we don't think he did.

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booth.moore@latimes.com

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