How do you make a documentary about a man of whom no footage exists? That was the challenge that filmmaker Alison Chernick faced while making The Artist Is Absent, a 12-minute documentary short about Martin Margiela and his maison debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival this week. Chernick’s solution to never actually meeting or interviewing her subject was to cut together fashion show clips set to abstract music and interviews with insiders including Raf Simons, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Suzy Menkes.
Among Margiela’s career highs covered in the short are his inclusion as the “seventh member” of the Antwerp Six (the six were his classmates at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts) and his significant role in placing Belgium on the fashion map in the ’80s and ’90s. While Margiela didn’t invent deconstruction, he was the first to make it “believable,” as Suzy Menkes says in the film, by reconfiguring discarded materials like plastic and flea-market clothes into veritable high fashion.
He also made anonymity famous, not just by hiding his own appearance from the press, but by employing similar techniques with his models, who often sported masks of some variation to conceal their identities (a practice that is said to have started partially because Margiela couldn’t afford their photo rights for his lookbooks). In an age when designers became heroes and supermodels were truly super, Margiela’s rejection of publicity only thrust him and his designs further into the spotlight.
Chernick’s film also serves as a sort of swan song for the designer, who left his namesake house sometime around 2008. This year it has been reborn under the vision of John Galliano, who showed his first ready-to-wear and couture collections under the Margiela label, finally cementing that the era of Margiela the man had come to a close.
—Austen Rosenfeld, Style.com