The industry's worst kept secret was confirmed this week when Renzo Rosso told Horatio Silva that he was "this close" to appointing a new designer at Maison Martin Margiela. Though Rosso says Margiela will continue to be involved from a distance, the loss of a founding designer at a namesake brand is not an easy transition to make. In the first of a two part series, our friends at Agenda Inc. examine how Maison Martin Margiela grew into a global cult brand, at the heart of which was the noisy invisibility of the eponymous designer.
PARIS, France — This month, after several years of intriguing – then frustrating – rumours among journalists, fashion editors and fans, Maison Martin Margiela announced that Margiela was no longer designing at the brand that he had created.
The reaction was confused. People wanted more information. As a cult brand, it had spent 20 years inspiring loyalty, love, and disciples. Despite years of communication that the brand was designed by a team – the hand of Margiela, albeit invisible, was a big part of the brand’s equity.
With Margiela gone, how should the brand evolve? There are lessons to be learned from real-world cults – who face varying levels of crisis when a leader leaves, retires, dies, kills himself, is proved embarrassingly wrong or – in some other way – is no longer available.
We believe that the future of Maison Martin Margiela can benefit – in strategic and business terms – from leveraging the heritage of the brand, and to integrate lessons from real-world cults about how leaderless cults evolve.
To understand the cult elements that animate the Margiela brand, it’s important to understand the role that invisibility and anonymity has had throughout the brand's history.
A sense of invisibility has been incorporated into the DNA of the brand since the beginning. Patrick Scallon, the right hand person to Margiela once characterised the marketing strategy of Margiela as “absence equals presence” and “the cult of impersonality,” indicating that it was a central part of the brand identity.
This cult of impersonality spread through the aesthetic of the brand:
Signage - Stores are never listed in phone books or identified with signage.
Uniforms - Staff at stores and at Margiela HQ wear standard white labcoats.
Colours – White - called “whites” in Margielaspeak - is the ubiquitous color of all stores, Margiela HQ, and of the sheets that covered all in-store furniture and displays.
Packaging – Margiela packaging is monochrome and logo free.
Models – Runway models at MMM more than any other designer often appear on the runway with covered faces.
Runway shows – Seating is mostly first-come, first-served, avoiding the industry standard of seating hierarchy.
Collective speaking – The brand used a first person plural response to all requests, emphasizing the collaborative, disciple-like consensus of their thoughts.
Photography - As Derek McCormack wrote in The National Post, the aesthetic of MMM’s photography “is reminiscent of spiritualist photography of the 19th century: Models are mysterious blurs, shots are bleached by unseen lights.”
As the brand became successful in the mid-90s, Martin Margiela retired completely from public view, at a time when the idea of the invisible designer found itself at odds the accelerated rise of celebrity culture. As other designers chose – or were required to become – famous; Margiela’s anonymity became louder than ever. And ironically, his invisibility became exponentially interesting to the media. No article was written without some reference to his invisibility. It was part of the appeal, it defined the brand. But the clothes still dominated.
The figure of Martin Margiela became relevant to wider debate – still going on – about the relationship between designer, celebrity, and the brand they represent; a debate summed up in this comment by Zac Posen:
“I think there's a great divide in fashion right now between the desire of the old school, which valued being hidden and shy, and what is going to bring our industry forward, which is connection, personality and craft.”
In fact, Margiela uniquely was operating at both levels simultaneously. The hidden part was the personality. So far, so Jean Baudrillard.
In part two, we explore how Mr. Margiela's exit from the company could have been better managed by adopting strategies learned from real-world cults.
Lucian James is Founder of Agenda Inc, an insight and thought-leadership partner for luxury brands.