a paris mashup
Photographed by Debra SCherer/styled by angelo desanto
When John Galliano took the reigns as creative director of Maison Margiela, everyone reacted with a raised eyebrow, fond memories and a collective “why?” It seemed like two disparate aesthetics, an impossible interpretation. But think again, because looking at the original vision of these two fashion thought leaders of the 1990's, it seems they weren’t so far apart after all. So to discuss our mashup and help put it all into context, we continue the conversation with fellow time travel enthusiast Mesh Chhibber, as he and I take a look back, break it all down, and try to figure out where it all could be going.
Debra Scherer: As you know John’s work so intimately, your take is invaluable on this. I have such memories of Margiela’s shows and presentations, in all of their dark, Belgian glory!
Mesh Chhibber: Yes, Margiela was taking clothes and literally deconstructing them and putting them back together again. He was what we would call a conceptual designer. So, he was radically different in the way that he approached fashion, and one could argue that there was a whole group of Belgian designers who came out of London in the late ’80s and early ’90s who had a very different approach to fashion, and he was a part of that vanguard.
But, he at some point decided very early on that he was no longer going to do interviews or engage with the press, and his absence became his sense of presence. He stuck to his guns to such a degree, that it wasn’t just small magazines or big magazines that he didn’t talk to, he didn’t talk to any magazines, across the board.
DS: Yeah, it became a real Greta Garbo situation, but I don’t even think he planned it to be that way.
MC: No, I think he didn’t want to talk to the press.
DS: And then the press made it into a thing.
MC: I agree, I think he just didn’t want to engage with the press at some point. He probably saw the way the wind was blowing, where you constantly engage with the press, and you don’t have time to design.
He came from Brussels, he was conceptual in his approach to fashion. What you’re saying today is quite interesting, that he left the House of Martin Margiela a couple of years ago, and now they have appointed a new designer called John Galliano, who had a very public fall in 2011, whilst he was the designer for Christian Dior and John Galliano. Anyway, he’s now been appointed the creative director of the House of Martin Margiela, which is very interesting because John Galliano is such a media interest, from his shows to his personal life, that it’s quite ironic that one of the most media-facing designers is now at a house whose reputation is built upon not engaging with the press, apart from just showing them the clothes.
DS: There’s that, but also in terms of an aesthetic point of view, if you turn back the clock and listen to what people were saying about those two at the time, Martin Margiela and John Galliano, let’s say we’re talking about specifically ‘96, ‘97. You would have described them as being the polar opposite. You would have said that what Martin Margiela was doing was disrupting. He disrupted fashion in such a way that he would take two pieces of raw fabric, and sew them together in a way that if it was just sitting on a table, it just looked like a piece of fabric sitting on a table, but when you put it on, in some weird way, it would make the most beautiful evening gown. He understood a biased cut, a beautiful shape, a classic shape, a couture shape of an evening gown, and deconstructed it so much that it was such an intellectual approach. He was inventing new shapes, and it was very hard to describe. Whereas John was also playing with couture shapes, but in the most extroverted way.
MC: His was about romance, he was a romantic.
DS: But I would say Martin was also a romantic, in another way. So this is what we’re getting at.
MC: Right, one is more intellectual in his approach, and one is more intuitive.
DS: Yes, it’s like the sacred and the profane.
MC: John Galliano was feeling, while Margiela was intellectualizing.
DS: But in that moment, you would have said that they were doing exactly the opposite thing. Okay, so now here we are, fast-forward, the idea of John Galliano designing Martin Margiela, it sounds like a fireman dealing with an ice sculpture, right?
MC: But there’s another level of irony, in that in the ’90s these two were young designers, both radical in their own ways, even though they were both referencing couture, that was just radical in itself. What was so interesting is they worked having no money, producing these amazing collections, and doing shows that were emotional and engaging.
DS: And commenting on shows themselves.
MC: They had no money, and they walked away from the traditional way of approaching fashion shows, they did their own thing on very little budgets, and it was a comment on the fashion show. The irony is that one of them ends up at Christian Dior, where he has budgets that allow you to make hundreds-of-thousand dollar dresses for hundreds-of-thousands of dollars, whilst the other one ends up at Hermès, where you’ve got clients who will spend tens of thousands of dollars buying a crocodile bag. So these two designers who were working on very limited funds ended up at two of the most respected…
DS: …and important luxury houses of them all. When they chose Martin Margiela to do Hermès, it was like I had died and gone to heaven. That’s what I was thinking, with his approach and all of that stuff, and now he’s going to be able to use these incredible materials that Hermès is going to provide him with, the most incredible leather, silks, and cashmere, and he did the simplicity, and it was like, oh my god! That was a marriage that was incredible. I’m getting teary-eyed thinking of those clothes. It was the same with John and Dior, we won’t re-cap the whole Englishman at a French house, that’s another interesting view. Also John had how many "petite mains" sitting there, just sewing for him?
MC: I mean you had these ateliers, one was just for dresses and one was just for tailoring, and you had people who had worked decades, they were craftspeople that would be very difficult to find anywhere else in the world. They’d grown up in this incredibly French tradition of couture, people like Christian Dior and Chanel had protected those traditions. So you’ve got those ateliers, incredibly skilled people making some of the most beautiful things, obviously being sold for ridiculously high prices. You see that there’s a beauty of craftsmanship, a respect for craftsmanship, which has to be protected, and these houses are doing it. It’s been absolutely brilliant to see that you have these young people. It’s not just old people working as ateliers, it’s these young people who want to learn about craft.
DS: Right, the next generation, they want to learn, they want to protect these crafts, and in all senses. There’s this real myth that’s like, “Oh this new generation, they don’t care about any of this stuff, and it’s quick, quick, quick.”
MC: But, there are a lot of people like that.
DS: Yeah, of course.
MC: There are a lot of very successful designers, you described two, John Galliano and Martin Margiela, who both knew how to make clothes. They literally knew how to cut the cloth.
DS: Well, they were fluent in that language, and they came up with their own dialects, the two of them.
MC: I think today what’s happened is, something that Karl Lagerfeld said, and I sort of agree with him, is that one of the reasons why young designers are so obsessed with vintage is that it’s a shortcut to learn how to make something. If you can’t actually do it anymore, and you’re not taught to make it anymore in that sort of very methodical and you could argue laborious way, but you really learnt your craft, and today young designers don’t really learn their craft in the same way, so they look at a jacket that’s been made 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, and they look at the construction, but it’s not really a construction that they understand.
DS: Exactly, whereas someone like Martin Margiela, he did a collection that he called the Dolls Collection, where he recreated actual dolls’ clothes, where there’s just one button and it’s not necessary, but it’s there. He was looking at those shapes, and he could come up with something completely original because he was so fluent in the actual cutting of shapes and fabrics.
MC: Yeah, if you’re going to deconstruct, you better know how to construct first.
DS: Exactly. Okay, so here we have this ’90s mashup extraordinaire. I just think it’s the epitome, I think it’s something so important to really stare closely at right now. There’s so many reasons, and I hope we can add some context to it. So we went back and said, “Let’s look at those clothes and let’s do a story about it.” I have to say, the story that we did is actually quite personal because it’s really all to about my memory of what it was like then.
So what we did was, we took original Margiela pieces, which are not easy to find, the real ones from ‘96, ‘97, that moment, and the clothes that John was doing at that time, and we also looked at hair and makeup, and their sort of DNA of what was going on at that time for both of them. Actually the first thing people said was Margiela was all minimalism, but I had to remind everyone, actually, no. In fact, it wasn’t at all.
Margiela’s shows, there was a lot of makeup, and it was very particular to him. There was a heavy lip, and the hair was that sort of dirty Belgian hair, and it was always tucked into the clothes, and it was a very specific way of doing it. We looked at the real stuff and got all the pieces of that exact time period, and what we did is we mixed them together, and we did a Margiela/Galliano mashup, and that was a very beautiful exercise, it was almost like a school paper.
That’s what we kind of realized, we would take a John Galliano jacket and put it with a Margiela dress, and be like, “Wait, we know this feels right together, but what do we have to do?” So we would literally take the jacket off and turn it inside out and put it back on. So, all you really have to do is take a John Galliano jacket and turn it inside out, and you have a Margiela jacket. There was a certain Margiela dress that was actually from the Dolls Collection, it was a beautiful silk dress cut on the bias, like it could be John, and it was in that exercise that we realized how close they actually are. With the distance now, I realize how in tune with each other they actually were.
MC: Different sides of the same coin.
DS: And again it turned out in a very personal way, and the way we shot it was very much what those shows felt like, what John’s early shows felt like, what the Margiela shows felt like, what those girls were like. That feeling. I hope that we captured that. What do you think Mesh? You saw the video.
MC: I thought it was interesting to see how you couldn’t necessarily tell what was Galliano and what was Margiela.
DS: It was really interesting to go back and actually look at the pieces together. They definitely have a lot more in common than one would think.