Miraculously, the revolutionary Belgian designer Martin Margiela—from his start in the late 1980s until 2008, when he left the house that bears his name—has never shown his face in public. His creations—angular white tunics poised to take wing, strangely erotic soft leather boots with a tabi-style split toe—could be jarringly conceptual or starkly beautiful, and were often both. Sometimes his clothes could be hard to understand at first. His runway shows—often featuring models whose faces were swathed in fabric or obscured by shaggy wigs—were dazzling but also enigmatic. Still, he insisted on his privacy, preferring not to explain his ideas to the press or to consumers.
If that approach makes Margiela sound arrogant, Reiner Holzemer’s superb documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words proves the opposite. Holzemer never shows the designer’s face, but we hear his voice and see his hands: We watch as he goes through mementos he’s saved over the years, like the forged invitation that got him, as a young, aspiring designer, into a Jean Paul Gaultier show—later he would get his start in fashion as Gaultier’s assistant. But Holzemer’s film goes even further back than that: Margiela explains that a Courreges fashion show he saw on television as a child in the mid-1960s inspired him to snip the toes off the boots of his Barbie dolls, an early sign that wherever the world was headed, he wanted to be out front, leading the way to modernity. The Margiela woman was, as a former assistant explains in the film, mysterious, not sexy.
Mystery is the key to understanding Margiela, and he explains how his anonymity gave him freedom: “I knew I could give more if I felt protected,” he says. We watch as he fashions a sturdily exquisite necklace from a champagne cork and a length of black ribbon. Anyone could do it, but who would think to do it, just so? As former New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn says in the film, by refusing to spell out the language of his clothes in words, Margiela “did us a favor: He made us think more.” Here, the effect of merely hearing his voice and watching his hands is so intimate that we walk away with an almost tactile sense of who Martin Margiela is, the way we confidently, yet only sort of, know what the man in the moon looks like. His mystery becomes our secret too.