Thursday, 6 July 2017

tu es vraie, vraie, vraie: margiela the hermès years

Classic luxury and Avant Garde individualism play off against each other in Antwerp's Mode Museum's latest exhibition, Margiela: The Hermès Years.


Last month I went to Antwerp, a European city slightly more under the radar than its neighbours Paris and Amsterdam. The main factor that drew me towards the Belgian city was its position as a fashion capital. The Mode Museum (MoMu) is an essential tourist destination for any fashion fan. Since the 1980s, when the Antwerp Six rebelled against convention and conformity, Antwerp has been well and truly planted on the fashion map. A visit to Flanders Fashion Institute and the fashion district is even included in the city's walking tours. Their current exhibition, 'Margiela: The Hermès Years' runs until 27th August.

The latest MoMu exhibition spans the career of Belgian designer Martin Margiela at his own label and later as creative director of Hermès. It features iconic Margiela creations, such as the tabi shoe and the duvet coat. These Avant Garde pieces redefined the wardrobe staple before being toned down for the everyday wearer in Margiela's collections for Hermès. 

My dad wearing white socks and loafers in one of Europe's fashion capitals #fashun

'Margiela: The Hermès Years' presents work from two very different labels side-by-side. This creates a thought-provoking contrast between art and function. Fashion frequently debates whether whether it can be called an art because it is also functional. Seeing both answers presented in such close proximity raises the question: is art or function more valuable in fashion?

Duvet coat trend by Bill Cunningham
New York Times, 2000 (via  blindface)
Function surely has more monetary value. Ready-to-wear collections are much more profitable than couture. People will always need to buy clothes that they can comfortably wear. This straightforward assumption is complicated when we are discussing a luxury brand like Hermès. There are few people who can afford to wear Hermès, so does it even matter if it conforms to codes of wearability of not? Seeing Hermès clothes up-close proves that it is quality that you are paying for when you buy from the brand. The excellent tailoring and versatility of Hermès jumpers, coats and accessories confirms that, if you have the money, they are worth investing in. 

When clothes are placed in the context of a gallery, however, they have more value as art. An Hermès silk crepe tunic and trousers pales next to a Margiela dress made entirely from vintage engagement rings. The Margiela pieces undoubtedly hold exhibition goers' attention for longer. How could a mirror-ball jacket not grab attention? The reaction to the Hermès pieces is more akin to phrases like, "That's nice. I'd wear that." This meant that the exhibition was hardly 'Savage Beauty', but it did have it subtle charms.

At first glance, the brands are so different that it is hard to believe they are designed by the same designer. Margiela makes clothes for art students and weekend parties. Hermès is for wealthy middle-aged women. That isn't to say that Hermès lacked innovation. Margiela's experimentation with his own brand gave the designer an intricate understanding of how garments work. At a closer look, the exhibition is arranged to highlight the similarities between Margiela's work at both labels. The designer's work for Hermès is incredibly creative, but in a way that increases its functionality. The exhibition is dotted with videos of women in Hermès coats, showing how they can be put on a removed with great ease. The porté par deux coat, for example can be worn in single or double layers.


Ease is a central theme for Hermès. Ease and femininity are at the forefront of the exhibition. Whilst it is by no means original or revolutionary to aim to make clothes that women are comfortable wearing, Hermès has a unique twist. The porté par deux coat is just one example of Margiela's introduction of fresh ideas to the classic brand. The designer also introduced coats with openings under the sleeve inset and sleeves that could be tucked in, transforming the coat into a cape.

The exhibition opens with a voice over reading out a list of compliments for women in French. This addition summarises Margiela's aim at Hermès; to create clothes that make women feel confident. The aim is generic, but the clothes are not. Furthermore, the exhibition reflects this aim by casting older women as the models in the videos, showing that the compliments are directed at all women, not just the under-25s that the fashion industry usually worships.

The Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp

I will always be a bigger fan of Maison Margiela than Hermès, but the MoMu exhibition shows that Margiela never abandoned his innovative creativity despite designing for such a major fashion house. The Belgian designer himself has always been shrouded in mystery, and it is hard to find information about his work online, so the exhibition gives a really eye opening insight into Margiela's world. Despite the tradition associated with Hermès, Margiela managed to inject a subtle newness to the brand. The clothes are fluid and liberating. Instead of just exploring new concepts and images, over his time at Hermès, Margiela showed that there are always new ways to wear garments and new shapes to explore.

If you visit Antwerp, the Mode Museum is definitely worth a visit. I would love to visit again when they have an exhibition on the Antwerp Six.

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