High street collaborations with designer labels are now commonplace—Target has worked with Isaac Mizrahi, Rodarte, Proenza Schouler and Prabal Gurung; Karl Lagerfeld did H&M first in 2004, then came Stella McCartney, Viktor & Rolf, Sonia Rykiel, Rei Kawakubo with Comme des Garçons, Alber Elbaz for Lanvin, Donatella with Versace, and on; Jeremy Scott for Adidas; Pierre Hardy for GAP; Jil Sander for Uniqlo, Christopher Kane, JW Anderson and Louise Gray for Topshop.
The Maison Martin Margiela for H&M collaboration, which launches tomorrow and is projected to sell out that very day, is slipping sabots into this lubricious fast fashion machine. Critics are questioning what it means to buy supposed anti-fashion from the most mainstream rag trade. Accusations of selling-out go like this: in 2002, the mysterious Martin sold his company to Renzo Rosso’s OTB Group, which also owns Viktor & Rolf and Diesel; in 2009, he left the brand; now this. I don’t buy the sell out. I prefer to think that team Margiela’s partnership with H&M is self-aware, that the debate it’s inciting is intentional, a continuation of the marque’s reflexive, avant vision; their mirror on the fashion industry. Accepting that essay, this may be the Maison’s most avant move yet.
Once upon a time—I wasn’t there but I accept the myth—Margiela was the anti-designer with the anti-label making anti-fashion for fashion insiders: he didn’t do press or wave from his runways; his shops eschewed obvious signage and weren’t listed in the phone directory; his tags were nameless, pure white, and recognizable only by their four corner stitch. The clothes were (three key adjectives): challenging, conceptual, intellectual. Margiela’s design ethic was the antithesis of the mass market model—subtly coded, well designed, historically reverent, and rewarding those who worked to find it. That was the late ‘80s through the early ‘00s.
N.B. Anti-fashion is still fashion. It’s not not caring, it’s caring so much you are pressed to create alternatives, to publicly declare your disaffiliation from the norm. What Martin founded was a fashion house, it’s written into the name. The house was never anti-consumption, but pro-inconspicuity. The clothes were branded, just discretely.
In his op-ed for The Business of Fashion, Making The Case Against Fast Fashion Collaborations, Eugene Rabkin, editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine, points out that neither the “cheap” company (H&M) nor the “chic” company (Margiela) profits much from sales of the products of their collaboration. Think of it, rather, as one big advertising campaign. It lends exposure to both brands, cred to cheap and a potential new audience for the chic. The paradox Rabkin identifies, and he’s not the first to voice this, is that such popular brand worship was exactly what the Maison Martin Margiela worked against.
So we question: Would this collaboration have happened while Martin was still at the reigns? Before the Diesel Group bought him out? In 2008, right before Martin’s departure from his namesake house, Eric Wilson wrote that, “Current and former employees have mentioned Mr. Margiela’s displeasure at Diesel’s marketing-driven culture, which would seem at odds with his philosophy that requires his fans to make an effort to find his clothes.” Detractors will claim the H&M collection is a betrayal of Martin Margiela’s original vision, that it’s a product of Diesel direction, of selling-out, that it tarnishes the brand. I say we try looking at it another way:
Reproduction has always been a part of the Maison Martin Margiela ethic. Early on, the atelier reworked flea-market goods, like old leather gloves, silk scarves, and canvases, into new forms. In 1994, Margiela showed a collection composed entirely of looks from the seven years prior, stating the original season on the new garment’s label. The next season, he was reproducing period clothes. “Authenticity is more and more important – instead of imitating originals, I decided to make complete reproductions,” Suzy Menkes quoted Margiela saying about that season.
Most of the looks in the MMM with H&M line are reproductions of archival Margiela designs, a greatest hits reunion tour starring the duvet coat, the trompe l’oeil bra bodysuit, the plexiglass footwear. H&M is even reproducing looks that were originally composed of found materials: an old wool army sock sweater, vintage silk scarf patchwork coordinates. Mass reproducing archival looks that were initially composed from reclaimed materials as a statement on conspicuous consumption and recycling for a fast fashion enterprise that has been known to slash and dump their products when they don’t sell—now that’s high concept.
Margiela’s collaboration absolutely challenges our belief in the integrity of the fashion garment and system. The original sock sweater was crafted in such a way that the natural morphology of the socks (the heels and toes) came to form elbows and a bust line. Each one was unique. The iconic MMM wig coat—not reproduced by H&M but still—took 51 hours to sew together. How long do we think it took for one of H&M’s maybe-exploited Cambodian laborers to sew the collaboration garments?
This past weekend, hundreds of silent “protesters” dressed in black with white atelier aprons took to the streets of Paris, Hong Kong and San Francisco with placards advertising H&M with Maison Martin Margiela. At first sight, I assumed the protest was real, a reaction to the recent allegations of poor labor conditions at H&M’s Cambodian factories, or something more. But, no, I read on, it’s just another ad campaign. Or is it?
If the Maison isn’t making money from their H&M products, what are they gaining? Exposure, maybe. But I think it’s something more: MMM’s H&M repros make obvious the differences in material (in quality and production) and belief (insider versus mass) between their once elite clothes and those of high street. The paradox is so obvious, it can’t not be intentional. Team Margiela is doing their most disruptive work yet, no longer standing, discrete and whitewashed, on the outside, but fucking things up from the inside. As a proponent of the cult of MMM, this is what I choose to see. I choose to believe that the collaboration is a continuation of Margiela’s funhouse-mirror reflection of the fashion system, an inside joke and an insidious proposal of protest, a statement on authenticity and mechanical reproduction. That’s true anti-fashion.
To be continued after tommorrow’s official launch…