Martin Margiela is the man who founded cult label Maison Martin Margiela, but also famously refused to take a bow at the end his shows, and guarded his privacy so tightly that few people know what he looks like. So close has the self-imposed cordon been around him, that few photographs of the man even exist. In an era of Kardashian-style overexposure, that is worth digesting for a moment.
About 220 pieces from the label, many dating from when Margiela himself was at the helm, are to go on sale in an online Sotheby's auction between Thursday, September 19 and Tuesday, October 1, and are expected to smash records. For example, at a sale earlier this year, a dress from the autumn / winter 1992 collection – an unwearable concoction of see-through garment bags and sticky tape – sold for $26,662 (Dh97,916), more than 10 times the estimate.
Japanese collectors, in particular, cherish Margiela's work, which reduces clothing to its bare components, or is made from totally unexpected materials, such as playing cards carefully stitched together to make a tuxedo waistcoat. One such piece is listed as part of the Sotheby's Paris sale and, with only five known to exist, it is expected to smash its reserve price of €5,000 to €8,000 (Dh20,360 to Dh32,580).
Born in Belgium, Margiela studied fashion in Antwerp, before moving to Paris to work under Jean Paul Gaultier in 1984. Margiela founded his own label with business partner Jenny Meirens in 1988. In his early collections, plain white labels were sewn into the clothes. As the business grew, product lines were given random numbers (such as three for fragrances and 12 for jewellery) instead of names.
Inspired by the avant-garde thinking of Rei Kawakubo, founder of other cult brands Comme des Garcons and Dover Street Market, Margiela saw clothes as commentary, and deconstructed them to raw seams or turned them inside out, leaving linings exposed. He recut vintage pieces and experimented with scale, making clothes that were twice the standard proportion. In 1994, he scaled up Barbie's wardrobe to human size, complete with oversized buttons and stitching, while for his first women's collection in 1988, he turned a leather butcher's apron into an evening gown.
Even at the height of his fame, Margiela refused to give face-to-face interviews, instead insisting questions be sent by fax for the whole studio to answer, and despite the label carrying his name, all letters were signed "we".
For fashion shows, Margiela shied away from conventional spaces, opting instead to show at empty metro stations or on random Parisian street corners, sending out maps as invitations. In 1989, he staged his runway collection in a playground in suburban Paris, with schoolchildren milling around, while on another occasion he had models sitting among the audience, free to wander about whenever they liked.
He refused to uphold the rigid industry hierarchy of the 1980s and 1990s, and instead of having preassigned seating, made it first-come, first-served, meaning high-powered fashion editors could be left fuming at the back.
In 1997, Margiela was named creative director for womenswear for Hermès, a role he held until 2003, during which time he delivered collections that were about absolute luxury (think camel cashmere).
In 2008, for the 20th anniversary of his label, an upbeat show had models wearing coats made out of wigs and trouser-like disco balls, as a person dressed like a giant birthday cake walked down the runway with them.
However, the designer left his namesake label a year later, giving no explanation for his departure.
In late 2014, renowned designer John Galliano was named as Margiela's successor, in a move that is said to have pleased the founder. His only instruction to the new head of the label he created? "Make it your own."