‘Martin Margiela: In His Own Words’ is an intimate portrait of one of the most radical designers in history – and a total must watch
“Obviously, there was that moment when his clothes, his style, shocked people. But also the fact that he didn’t show himself. ‘Who is he?’ ‘Who will get him to emerge from his shell?’” the enfant terrible of French fashion, Jean Paul Gaultier, asks in the opening moments of Martin Margiela: In His Own Words.
It’s a question that’s likely crossed all of our minds since plans for the documentary were first announced, but now, as the film finally gets its release, it’s clear that in director Reiner Holzemer’s hands, it’s not one that should have ever been a concern. Beginning with the radical designer’s childhood and ending at the point he bowed out of the fashion world for good in 2008, with In His Own Words Holzemer proves an inherent talent for getting enigmatic and notoriously private designers to open up.
Having previously profiled revered Antwerp Six member Dries Van Noten in Dries in 2017, Holzemer managed to convince Margiela to open himself up to the idea of a film. “I wanted to respect Dries and not just go to any other fashion designer, and then I saw an exhibition opening of the work that Martin (Margiela) did for Hermès. I said, ‘you know what? This would be the right guy for our next documentary’. I didn’t know at the time how hard it would be,” Holzemer laughs.
“I saw an exhibition opening of the work that Martin Margiela did for Hermès. I said, ‘you know what? This would be the right guy for our next documentary.’ I didn’t know at the time how hard it would be” – Reiner Holzemer
Eschewing press interviews, industry events, and even the traditional post-show bow throughout the entirety of his 20 year career as the head of his eponymous house, Margiela is seen here being unprecedentedly candid – but this isn’t a typical unveiling. With his face remaining hidden throughout, the audience is instead drawn to Margiela’s hands, which carefully loop champagne corks into Couture necklaces and caress fabrics in old teenage sketchbooks.
At its best, the film charts his childhood aspirations and an unyielding admiration for his grandmother, a dressmaker in Genk, Belgium. “I would sit there for hours and see how she cut patterns, fabric, so I was fascinated by this woman who would answer all my questions with right answers, wrong answers,” says Margiela. “She was quite extravagant.” Elsewhere, the designer opens up about a number of poignant collections and shows, including his legendary SS90 presentation, which took place in a playground in the Paris suburbs, and the ‘oversized’ show of SS00, and talks candidly about the pressures of the industry and the ways in which they took their toll on him.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the documentary is the way in which someone who has maintained an astonishing elusiveness slowly becomes so overwhelmingly familiar. “I promise you, when the movie is finished you will have the feeling that you’ve met the guy even though you haven’t,” says Holzemer. To celebrate the world premiere of Martin Margiela: In His Own Words at DOC NYC film festival, here, the director discusses how he got access to fashion’s most mysterious designer, their favourite moment of the film, and the conversations that got left on the cutting room floor.
How did the film come about?
Reiner Holzemer: This is a good story! In 2015 or 16, I was shooting a documentary about Dries Van Noten which was really fun for me. It was my first movie about the fashion world and, in the end, I was so excited by it that I wanted to do another one. I wondered who would be the right person to follow Dries because his work is on a very high level and I wanted to respect him and not just go to any other fashion designer. Then in 2017, I saw an exhibition opening of the work that Martin did for Hermès and I was so fascinated by the things that I saw. I didn’t know much about him before, to be honest, because I’m not a fashion expert, I’m a documentary filmmaker.
I began to read a little bit more about his ideas I became more and more fascinated. At that time, my co-producer Aminata Sambe and I agreed to do another documentary together. Then I said, “You know what? This would be the right guy for our next documentary.” I didn’t know at the time how hard it would be. I’m sometimes very naive in my approach, which is often helpful (laughs).
What was Aminata’s reaction when you said you wanted to go after Martin Margiela?
Reiner Holzemer: She told me to go on dreaming because this guy has never given an interview. Many people question if he even exists at all. No one truly knows if they’re a man or a woman. Nobody knows. Nobody has seen him except the people who work with him. I thought that maybe I had the wrong subject but then two months later, I bought a book about (Margiela’s) exhibition. I looked at that book many times and I loved it. I came back to Aminata and said, he’s the only one I would really be interested in.
We were a bit lucky because (at the time) he was preparing his Paris Galliera exhibition. We contacted some people who worked with him on the exhibition and Aminata met a former Margiela model who said she’d connect us with Martin. One day we got an answer that he would like to meet.
How did you feel when you received the news that Martin was interested in meeting with you?
Reiner Holzemer: I was nervous and excited but on the other hand, I thought to myself, ‘my god, you have one chance.’ We met in Paris at the Galliera museum and then I found out he wanted me to shoot the exhibition. He was very happy that he had 110 (archived) outfits together from his whole career. He thought this would never happen again so he was looking for someone just to shoot those mannequins and garments and that would have made him happy. If it was only a movie about an exhibition, it wouldn’t make me so happy, but I decided to give it a try. A few weeks later, I kept talking about this idea of making a portrait. In the beginning, he was saying, “I’m unsure. I’ve never done that. I never comment on my work”. But then he said yes. We started shooting four days after we met.
How long did you spend with him?
Reiner Holzemer: It was more than 40 days over a period of a year. The last official shot was made in December 2018, so it’s all quite fresh.
Considering he is notoriously private, how hard was it to get him to open up?
Reiner Holzemer: In the beginning, it was difficult and he did not want to talk. He wanted somebody else to speak as him, like an actor. Martin even proposed an actress. It was clear from the beginning that we could not show his face because he wants to remain private. I don’t think that he will ever change that. I told him if we cannot show his face we at least need something personal in the movie. For me, it would be his voice. And I love his voice. I think he has a very interesting voice, but he said, “no, I don’t like my voice when I hear myself. It doesn’t sound good. And when the movie is finished, I would love to enjoy watching the movie too. But when it’s with my voice, I won’t enjoy it.”
No one likes the sound of their own voice, though…
Reiner Holzemer: Exactly! I said this to Martin, that this happens to be the same for everybody. We made some tests to see if we could manipulate the voice a little bit so that it would be more comfortable for him. We found a slightly technical way to change it. For me, it’s still the voice of Martin and for him, it’s a little bit nicer for the way he hears himself. That’s how we convinced him in the end, to speak.
Even then, he was not prepared because he had never done interviews. He didn’t want to talk in a spontaneous way, he wanted to read written statements. I said, ‘Martin, when I came to you this morning,’ which was the first day shooting at his studio, ‘you were talking for one and a half hours about what you would like to talk about and you gave me all the information and if you would have taped that, we would have it already in a very normal and authentic way. My idea is, when I come back tomorrow morning, I switch on the camera and keep it running. Whether we decide that’s what we want to shoot or not, it’s running.’ That’s how we did it and that’s how he felt at ease.
“This isn’t in the movie, but we talked about how after the first show, which was quite successful, he wanted to stop because it was so intense. It was so much work he almost got sick from it. He was so exhausted that he wanted to stop. He worked hard for 20 years and had almost no private life so when he eventually quit, he said it took him a whole year to recover from it” – Reiner Holzemer
Something surprising was that, even though you don’t see his face and you only ever see his hands, the film still feels very intimate…
Reiner Holzemer: Thank you. That’s what I wanted to achieve and I was totally convinced from the very beginning. When people asked me about my current project and I told them I’m doing a portrait about somebody but you don’t see the guy in the movie ‘they’d say “how can you make a movie, especially a portrait about someone that you don’t see?” I have no problem with that. I promise you, when the movie is finished you will have the feeling that you’ve met the guy even though you haven’t.
Is there a stark difference between creating a portrait of someone who enjoys the spotlight, fame, and celebrity and someone like Martin, who prefers privacy?
Reiner Holzemer: There’s not such a big difference. But in a way, I like his attitude. He says, “it’s not me who wants to become famous. I want my work to become famous and influential.”
But on the other hand, for me, I think it’s interesting to know how he became who he was. Now (we) know that his parents were hairdressers, you understand why he’s so fascinated by hair. In the beginning, he didn’t want to talk about his childhood but once we had lunch together, I asked him, “when did you decide to become a fashion designer?” He told me it was at 7 years-old when he watched a (Paris fashion) show on television. I don’t even remember what my dreams were at 7. I told him, “I think we should tell that story and we should start with this little boy having this dream to become a fashion designer in Paris.” He didn’t want to talk about that because it was too private.
Four weeks later he came back and said, “Oh, I talked to my mom and she found so many things. She kept all my childhood drawings and books and sketches and Barbies,” and you see that in the movie. He was fascinated by himself and it was fresh, even for him, I think it was a journey through his past. It was very emotional to discover things he sketched as a 14 year-old boy that more or less was later in a fashion show when he was a freshman designer in Paris.
What do you think your most intimate moment with Martin was?
Reiner Holzemer: This isn’t in the movie, but we talked about how after the first show, which was quite successful, he wanted to stop because it was so intense. It was so much work he almost got sick from it. He was so exhausted that he wanted to stop. He worked hard for 20 years and had almost no private life so when he eventually quit, he said it took him a whole year to recover from it. Even when we were shooting and when we scheduled to talk about certain experiences in his career, he would say things like, “Do I have to? I feel stomach problems coming on. Do I really have to talk about that again? Do we need that for the movie?” It’s still very physical for him because I think he was under so much pressure. It’s not only pressure from the outside world, but I think it was the pressure he put on himself. That was the worst thing for him.
Towards the end of the film, you ask Martin “Do you think you’ve told everything you’ve wanted to tell in fashion?” He pauses, puts down his glasses and simply says, “no”. To me, his answer had a sense of sadness. How did that feel from your perspective?
Reiner Holzemer: We all loved it. Martin loves that moment, too. I can laugh about it, I can smile about it, not from the impact of what he’s saying, but I like his very simple gesture. He lays his glasses on the table and he says that “no” and it’s like he is showing himself suddenly. The glasses represent him. It’s like looking into his eyes, that’s what I liked about that scene.
This is your second fashion film, following Dries. Is this something you want to continue doing?
Reiner Holzemer: I would love to do a third one on an interesting character with a big influence on how we look at fashion. It’s not easy to find the right person. After Dries it was difficult and now it’s maybe even more difficult.
Martin Margiela: In His Own Words is set for wider release in 2020. Revisit the SS20 collection below.