Marvelous At Margiela

At Maison Margiela, John Galliano illustrates what in fine form means


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You know John Galliano is on a high when he is able to work and deliver on a theme seemingly unconnected with fashion, but reflects the side of humanity that we should’t be proud of. Back in January of 2000, Mr Galliano imagined a Dior couture collection inspired by the homeless of Paris (including outers that looked like newspapers vagrants cover themselves with for warmth) that resulted in controversy so massive that the widespread disapproval of the provocative optics threatened to block out the genius of the designs—extravagant dishevelment included, so much so that the initially-defiant designer eventually had to say that he “never want to make a spectacle of misery”.

We knew not if he actually meant it, but Mr Galliano continues to aim for visual impact gleaned from the most unlikely places. This season, it’s the uniformed personnel who punctuate war-torn destruction. Conflicts are never easy to interpret, even in art, and Mr Galliano risks further disapproval if the idea means his approval of war. Yet, this is not to romanticise armed confrontation. Mr Galliano calls it a theme of “hope”, with nods to the figures of hope such as American soldier of WWII KT Robbins (whose heartfelt romance with Frenchwoman Jeannine Ganaye spans 75 years and across two continents) and British nurse Edith Louisa Cavell (from WWI, known to aid the allied and all alike, and was later executed by German firing squad), possibly this season’s Marchesa Luisa Casati. This is the closest to his weakness for historicism since joining Maison Margiela, and one of his most inspiring collections for the house yet.

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While war themes may mean military uniforms or destruction of life and the attendant gore, Mr Galliano has, instead, chosen a particular glamour associated with those war years of the first and second and between, possibly cinematic glamour, but no where near the too-literal soldierly styles of the Andrew Sisters. He seems to draw from the infirmary than the trenches, from nurses than troops. While the re-imagining of British military coats yield some delectable deconstructed outer wear, it is his focus on what the nursing corp wore that we found especially appealing. Mr Galliano gleans from a time before strict policies about nursing uniform we know today were implemented. To be sure, this is no cosplay. In his redux and remix, he dreamed up nursing wear that may only be seen in luxury rehab centres such as The Kusnacht Practice in Switzerland, rather than one adopted by Florence Nightingale, even off-duty, and certainly no where close to those preferred by the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Theresa’s order.

We are also taken by what may have been worn by patrons of private medical institutions, such as the olive, tulip-shaped top fastened at the collar with a purple ribbon (perhaps to suggest the Purple Heart Medal?) that evokes a more couture sensibility in terms of form and detail (those haphazard stitches on the collar that look like tagging by hand) than what RTW normally allows. Or those cape-like add-ons with puffed-up backs, outshone only by a bumblebee’s abdomen. Just as agreeable are the off-beat layering: shirt under a preppy wool vest and over those a strapless dress that looks like the back side of a skirt!

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Not only is Mr Galliano’s narrative compelling, his blending of fabrics, too, is beckoning. A master of mixed media, and in recent years those suggestive of a digital realm, he is able to combine the seemingly disconnected and contrasting textures in one sumptuous whole. Perforated sheers suggesting bullet holes but look more like polka dots go with men’s shirting and suiting fabrics, satins clash with knits but is rounded off with gossamer metallics, and the frail muslin-looking with sturdy woolens, which, together with a quilted coat that seems to mimic the upholstery of the Chesterfield, rather door-stopped the collection from looking obviously spring-like.

Seasons, just as gender, do not, obviously, limit Mr Galliano’s vivid, story-rich imagination. There’s something transformative about the designs of Mr Galliano. He does not only bring us into his reveries, he shows us how wonderful those worlds are too, and how much beautiful possibilities could exist in them, whether we can imagine them or not, all through dressmaking that defies tradition and what is possible with mere cloth. John Galliano may not be a film-maker, but he sure imagines—and regales—like one.

Photos: Fior/


Some Kind Of Wonderful

John Galliano is no longer the enfant terrible of fashion; he is no longer a media darling, and he sure is no longer a spaceman, a chieftan, or such, taking the customary bow at the end of his shows—in fact, he does not appear to the applause at all for Maison Margiela, but he sure is still uninhibited, unapologetic, and unafraid


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So many designers have stressed that they want to veer off street style and re-emphasise tailoring, but it’s John Galliano who’s really taking tailoring to places we have not quite ventured yet—a wonderland (and we mean this literally) that fires the imagination, not just churning out a perfectly-made suit. For the next season, he made us ask in wonderment: really, what more can he do to a jacket, a coat, a dress? And what will he think of next? We know he has always been a master of the tailleur—those suits he did for Dior are still unforgettable and resolutely modern. Now that he has, to us, really found his groove at Maison Margiela, and not make mad clothes for madness’ sake, as he did at the start, we find his designs compelling, even if only because they astound.

There’s a lot to unpack at Maison Margiela, but what delightful unpacking. In keeping with the house’s deconstruction legacy, Mr Galliano, in fact, not only deconstructed, he reconstructed, and, sometimes, post-constructed, also not omitting the technique known as décortiqué (meaning to shell a lobster or, in Mr Galliano’s case, shedding the carapace of the superfluous), leaving those of us fascinated by how clothes are made (or engineered, if you want to take it further) quite enthralled, and with lots to see. It wasn’t just the ideas, but how he thought of them and how he made them happen. And, how he was able to temper idiosyncrasy with exactitude. Simply put, he made our spine tingle.

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He offered tailoring that was raw, feminine, and against the rules. There were jackets with Watteau back (a personal favourite); shell tops with tromp l’œil (the Latin grapheme ‘œ’ itself evocative of Mr Galliano’s visual ligatures) blazer front (including stitching that suggests tailor’s chalk marks); a bodysuit, unfastened at the crotch, that looked like it was cut out of a jacket (with racer back, no less!); outer wear with sleeve treatment that seemed to house the arms inside like a cape, but with openings above the elbow that allowed the arms to hang outside, (which then would change the silhouette of the garment!) if desired. And the quirky details, such as upper arms with cut-outs that flop like Mickey’s ears (does his flop?) and from the rear looked like lantern sleeves. We’re not done unpacking, not even half-way through.

Even when he was ‘good’—in dressmaking terms, conventional, ‘regular’ outer wear, including the swing coat, the car coat, the trench, and even le smoking, were not only precisely cut (and just rightly oversized), but also the epitome of perfection. The surprisingly few dresses—no bias-cut splendour so associated with Mr Galliano—was sufficiently off-beat without crossing into unwearable or hobo territory, with one lace shift left raw-edged and worn under a shower-curtain twin with Rabannesque, linked harlequin squares. The plastic a see-through that sees through nothing except the delicate layering inside that is unexpectedly even more covered up, and in a version for men, too.

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The collection is, of course, gender-fluid—a recurrent theme in Paris this season. Although not quite as outlandish (men in dresses is, frankly, not eyebrow-raising any more), it points to an earlier time (mainly ’80s), when, in London especially, hedonistic fashion indulgences saw no gender divide. Boy George, despite the gender-specific first and second names, emerged from this period to raves by not restraining himself to conventions of dress. Mr Galliano himself alluded to the clubbing days of his student years, when the impresario/stylist/nightclub promoter of the day was the headlining Australian Leigh Bowery (1961—1994), whose “polysexual”, as he called it, club Taboo was where sexually-ambivalent clothing set the clubbers apart. The wacky, if not outrageous, looks later went borderline mainstream through publications such as the now defunct The Face, in which Mr Bowery has styled its pages and appeared as gender-, even creature-, indeterminate—an amalgam of cultures, photographed by Nick Knight.

The gender-undefined styles of Mr Bowery and his cohorts impacted Mr Galliano, who lived through, absorbed, and enjoyed this era of fashion mayhem. Like Leigh Bowery (also a fashion designer, but of significantly less profound stature), he is an astute gatherer of not just cultural mismatch, but visual discordance, who could use fashion to express something about society at large. Like many other designers, there’s cultural commentary (no one just makes clothes anymore) in this one. In the pre-show screening of a black-and-white video (projected almost all-around on the walls), Mr Galliano had six women—the “mutinists”—talk about individualism, with Willow Smith urging all to “Create the rules, then break them”. John Galliano has long stopped breaking rules since he has broken most, if not all, of them; he now makes his very own.


Sans Flowers, Is Lace Still Lace?

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Following our previous post, someone mentioned to us that her objection to men wearing lace is due to “the unholy combination of lacy and floral that guys should just stay clear off”. What then, we wondered, if the lace were stringy and graphic? Just to be sure we don’t get it wrong, lace, according to Georgina O’Hara’s The Encyclopaedia of Fashion, “is a textile patterned with holes and designs created by hand or machine”. There was no mention of flowers or florals. In fact, Ms O’Hara cared to trace the word’s origin to the Latin laqueus or “knot, snare or noose”, which sounds rather nautical to us, even executional!

If lace is “a fine open fabric of cotton or silk, made by looping, twisting, or knitting thread” (according to the OED—we wanted to be absolutely certain), then Maison Margiela’s T-shirt for men (above) is made of lace. Yet, we don’t think there is anything lacy about it, at least not in the vein of those made in Chantilly or Venice, just two traditional centres of lace-making. Net-like, yes, but lacy, not quite. In fact, we were very attracted to this top—the fabric in particular. At first glance, you thought it was a bonded fabric, but upon closer inspection, you’d see that it’s basically strings laid flat, but not straight, and then stitched over, much like quilting. This is applied to a black cotton/polyamide jersey base, which yields a vaguely bonded effect.

To us, there’s no denying the appeal of this otherwise basic T-shirt. The texture of the fabric treatment and the harlequin-check pattern of the stitch work are allowed to do all the talking. The T-shirt requires no bombastic design treatment to make it special. While no doubt artistic, the overall finish this lace reminds us is that of fishermen’s nets of yore, of which the making and mending was a masculine and life-sustaining chore. Interestingly, nowhere in our reading were there suggestions that openwork depicts only florals or are exclusive to female dress.

It’s not reported that John Galliano is involved with the men’s collection of Maison Margiela. It is very likely that the designs are left in the hands of the very capable technicians who have kept the line very much alive and vibrant since the departure of its founder. Innovative fabrics, technical and those with craft-like appearances, are the mainstay and continue to keep the men’s wear captivating.

Sadly, the Maison Margiela store in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands closes today. No official word on its closure was released, but it’s very likely due to what a despondent salesperson described as “slow” business. Whether the brand will completely exit the Singapore market, it is not immediately clear. In the mean time, Bangkok is the only city in Southeast Asia with a free-standing Maison Margiela store. Singapore, your fashion standing is fading fast.

Photo: Jim Sim

There’ll Never Be A Hush

Some called it a match that shouldn’t have been made. But many are fervently supporting the return of one of fashion’s biggest dreamers. Did John Galliano thrill with his debut collection for the house that Martin Margiela built?

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By Raiment Young

John Galliano’s languorous trek back to fashion via Maison Martin Margiela wasn’t entirely met with approval. Sure, many raved—the everyone’s-great fashion flock, in particular—but there were those, such as I, who were concerned that Mr Galliano might attempt to re-write MMM’s house codes too aggressively. Mr Galliano is, after all, the polar opposite of Mr Margiela. One loved the spotlight so much that he seemed to wallow in it, while the other shunned the spotlight to the point of being reclusive (leaving his own house in 2009 without ceremony). One loved dramatic, over-the-top presentations, the other bland; sometimes nearly clinical showings. And one embraced histrionics and historicism with near-operatic passion, the other held close deconstructionism and witticism with inscrutable zeal.

Last Monday, in London, Mr Galliano offered no rancor-as-response to his earlier fall from grace. Instead, he put out a 24-piece collection that allowed design to do the talking. He even took a very meek curtain call: a mere peep, by his own standards! Let the clothes be upfront, he seemed to say. Whether this is to keep things as quiet as the public face of Maison Martin Margiela, it wasn’t quite clear. As it stands, MMM is now shortened to MM or Maison Margiela, a move that echoes what Hedi Slimane did for Yves Saint Laurent, as if dropping the first name allows one to start with a clean slate. There have been attempts to understand why the show—the Artisanal collection (the house’s take on haute couture, formerly helmed by Matthieu Blazy, who, following Mr Galliano’s appointment, was reported to have moved to Céline)—was staged in the English capital, at the end of the London Collection: Men, but perhaps site isn’t as important as show. Mr Galliano was out to prove he has not lost it. A four-year hiatus is a long one, even considering the one-season, bit-part stint with Oscar de la Renta’s Spring/Summer 2013 season.

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It is inevitable that the discourses that followed centred on how much of the clothes were very Galliano, how much very Margiela. I am not sure, after receiving so many text messages asking me what I thought of the collection, if that really is the point. These days, those who take over the design responsibilities of storied fashion houses are not assuming the position of small companies obsessed with keeping their hard-earned heritage. Maison Martin Margiela is owned by Only the Brave (OTB), a corporation that runs more than just one brand (others include Marni and Viktor & Rolf). Although not nearly as large as LVMH, OTB is sizeable enough for its owner to be mindful of the bottom line. MMM was never the massively successful fashion brand in the same vein as, say, Dior. It does not have a significant leather goods or cosmetic business to bankroll its fashion arm, the crux of MMM. Its unexpected pairing with H&M in 2012 was later rumoured to be the latter’s weakest-performing collaboration. MMM, despite all its conceptual might and breathtaking craftsmanship, is not a fashion-crowd pleaser, even when it’s a fashion-line influencer. Designers wear MMM, so do rag-trade insiders and fashion editors, no so your Chanel-clad tai-tais. Three months after the standalone boutique opened in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, the staff does not negate that traffic has been slow.

It’s not known what Mr Galliano is really obliged to do for Maison Margiela, but I think he would not be able to do what he did for Dior during his later years there. So what he did for his debut with MM was to try to strike a balance. You sensed the showman with a foot on the stage, and you also sensed a quieter soul conceptualizing in a more monastic setting. Whether this is how it will turn out in future seasons remains to be seen. While those who were full of anticipation wanted to see what grandeur (read: fantasy) Mr Galliano will reveal, I was more interested in seeing how his collection will transition from Mr Blazy’s swansong. Sure, it does not have to have anything to do with the previous collection, but I did like the Artisanal pieces of Autumn/Winter 2014, and I did hope that the quiet, kooky elegance can somehow be retained (those dresses composed of what looked like embroidery samples!). Or maybe I was just hoping for an MMM that shall be no more.

Galliano for MM Artisanal G3But I should have known better. So few creative directors installed in couture houses are able to keep the spirit of the label alive and unwavering. Karl Lagerfeld did it with Chanel, but only at the beginning. These days, it’s manifestly Mr Lagerfeld doing Lagerfeld with Chanel fabrics and the house’s iconic motifs. Someone said to me that he felt Mr Galliano was doing a Dior. I refuted that: Mr Galliano did a Galliano, just as he did, prior to Dior, at Givenchy. He can’t help it; he’s wired this way. And he offered a show more dramatic than what the Maison was used to, but fashion always could use a little drama. That someone also added, “There was nothing new in the collection.” I took that to mean there was something old or that there was not anything groundbreaking. I wouldn’t say Mr Galliano stayed with the past—he did not resuscitate the likes of Marchesa Luisa Casati (to seduce us with an another improbable high-style adventure) just as he did not bring around the Margiela of yore. It wasn’t a landmark collection—that much is certain. As Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times wrote, it was “not one of those moments that change the direction of clothes, redefining a silhouette or mood…” But there was something else: sure-footed verve.

Anna Wintour already allowed us to preview what Mr Galliano could be doing. In early December last year, she wore an MM dress designed by Mr Galliano to receive the Outstanding Achievement honour at the British Fashion Awards. The monochromatic sleeveless dress—biased cut, no less—with floral motif spiralling to the neckline looked like something Ms Wintour typically wears. It was a relief, therefore, that the collection that eventually emerged was nothing like her for-awards-night dress. In contrast, Mr Galliano sent out outfits that had the theatrical femininity that he’s known for, as well as the simpler and more linear aesthetic that the house of Margiela has promoted. While we could see the romantic flourishes in the more extravagant designs, we could also see the technical finesse in the simpler pieces. Like so many of you, I saw the show online, and I was not terribly impressed, but I was quite pleased that it was not entirely Galliano-OTT. Those who are partial to Mr Margiela’s minimalist leanings will surely be drawn, for example, to the red, floor-length coat-dress with square insets over the bust in which vertical darts were pivoted. Mr Galliano could charm the heart and, in the next breath, seduce the mind.

Galliano for MM Artisanal G4It has never really been established how successful the Artisanal line is, but the house has never been cast in doubt as to how skilled the design team is. From the start, Artisanal was meant to showcase technical ability more than the dearest fabrics. The collections were based on “found objects”—pieces of this and that, for dressmaking or not, in or out of the atelier. The unexpected media confounded as much as enthralled. And it does not only characterised the Artisanal line. I still remember how, in his debut collection of 1989, Mr Margiela morphed a leather butcher’s apron into an evening gown. I remember calling it reverse-transmogrification, and I was very intrigued. It changed forever what I thought could be done in fashion design. But increasingly, the Artisanal collection was built on found fabrics more than objects. In the last collection before Mr Galliano took over, one sensed that the keepers of the Maison had gone around Paris, picking up pieces from the floors of fabric designers, embroiderers, beaders, plummasiers, and such artisans. It was hotchpotch in the most delightful way, and everything was assembled with a lightness of touch that has become quite uncommon.

Mr Galliano, too, showed such compositional skill; only his, like always, pushed excess to the fore and toyed with the viewers’ sense of heightened expectation. It was remarked to me just this morning that there was something Comme des Garçons about some of the pieces, to which I reminded the commentator that even Mr Margiela had traversed CDG territory. Both Mr Margiela and CDG’s Rei Kawakubo, while mostly compelling, were not always comprehensible. Mr Galliano, on the other hand, is compelling and usually relatable. His ability to attract and retain attention, his knack for forceful narrative that you’d want to hear and see, and his skill at transforming already beautiful dresses into creations far beyond that will be welcomed at Maison Margiela.