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Op-Ed | Unmasking Margiela

Last week's unveiling of Matthieu Blazy as Maison Martin Margiela's head designer may have seemed like another casualty of the age of Instagram. But our modern over-exposed world is actually not a threat but an opportunity — if luxury brands can manage anonymity the right way, argue Joe McShea and Lucian James.
Maison Martin Margiela couture A/W 2015 | Source:
  • Joe McShea,
  • Lucian James

PARIS, France — Last week's forced unmasking at Maison Martin Margiela's couture show was not just a fashion story, it was part of a much bigger cultural moment.

It’s an incident that asks big questions about whether luxury fashion brands can continue to retain their allure in a world where Instagram threatens to expose everything.

We believe that for smart luxury brands, our over-exposed world is not a threat but an opportunity. Although anonymity is much harder to manage than it once was, the rewards of doing it well have never been higher. Anonymity as a strategy is about to become big business. It’s time for a little strategic shadow play.

We're entering a period where anonymity is the biggest story of our time. There are rare moments in history where fashion doesn't just reflect the story; it can become the story. Since the recession in 2009, fashion brands have been looking for something to really get their teeth into. The smart ones will spend some time looking at the opportunities afforded by anonymity, and a role just out of the limelight.

It’s a powerful strategy for luxury brands because it taps directly into our raging cultural debate over living in public versus our right to privacy. In anonymity, fashion may have found its theme for the 21st century.

But back to the Margiela show.

On 7th July, when Maison Martin Margiela invited its Twitter fanbase to “follow the unmasking of our Artisanal show”, it couldn’t have predicted that Matthieu Blazy, the collection’s previously anonymous designer, would also be unmasked.

The unmasker was Suzy Menkes. In a review for Vogue, she decided to "out" the designer and followed up with backstage photo proof on Instagram.

"An exceptional collection at Maison Martin Margiela brought the designer Matthieu Blazy out of the shadows. It is understandable that Renzo Rosso, whose company Only The Brave is behind Margiela, should want to keep Blazy backstage – especially since the founding designer so rarely showed his face. But you can't keep such a talent under wraps," she wrote.

Blazy’s identity was an open secret in the fashion world. He even listed his job title on his (now deleted) LinkedIn profile. But for the purposes of the Margiela narrative, he was anonymous, and he had never been publicly named or photographed before.

Margiela has been actively trading on a philosophy of anonymity for 25 years. An important part of the cult appeal of the brand is based on its erasure of individual identity, and the promotion of the creative collective team. The anonymity of Blazy was being actively protected by the brand, as Suzy Menkes acknowledges.

The Blazy incident is not a serious blow for Margiela; they practically invented the rules of strategic anonymity. They elevated it to a profitable art form, but in the glare of the Instagram age, it’s much trickier. If any brand knows how to strategically deploy anonymity, it’s Maison Martin Margiela. Anonymity has been the core brand value since the brand launched in 1989.

Margiela demonstrated that anonymity could sell products, create a powerful brand, and attract devoted followers.

Anonymity at Maison Margiela meant that clothes spoke for themselves, and not on the personalities of whoever made them. As Sarah Mower wrote in Vogue in 2008, "Because he's so impersonal, his clothes become personal to you."

In an interview with fashion journalist Filep Motwary in 2010, the collective “we” of Maison Martin Margiela put it this way: “We do not use any physical image of a designer to promote our work… What our designer looks like has, for us, little or nothing to do with our process…”

It’s a humble-sounding, earnest kind of message. It’s also willfully provocative.

Maison Margiela has always known – like Apple – that the value of mystery can create millions of dollars worth of column inches, cult adoration, and free PR. Margiela has proven over the years that anonymity has deep power.

Martin Margiela the man was the first to instil the cult of invisibility at the brand, beginning with himself. In the 1990s, as other designers chose – or were required to embrace – fame, Martin Margiela made a clear statement in the opposite direction.

He used to appear on the runway at his shows. Martin Margiela’s last appearance was at the Spring/Summer 1994 collection. He stood on the runway ringing a bell. He might as well have been sounding the arrival of a new era. Elsewhere in another part of Paris, Daft Punk must have been experimenting with their own masks — their trademark helmets — for the first time.

And in America, the Internet was being patiently explained at the nation's collective breakfast table, The Today Show on NBC. The Internet was heralding in vast new platforms of visibility, just as Martin Margiela was taking his leave.

Margiela seemed to know already in 1994 that the coming era would present a choice. He left the limelight — but not the brand — and thrived as a counterpoint to a whole new generation of charismatic, camera-ready designers.

In 2002, when Only The Brave group purchased Margiela, the management of anonymity appeared to shift. Anonymity was used less as a creative strategy, and more as a policy of that needed to be policed. It was now insisted on more rigorously, but less creatively.

When Martin Margiela himself was finally confirmed as having left the brand in 2009, anonymity was more of a corporate issue, not a creative one. “Martin has not been there for a long time... We have a new fresh design team on board. We are focusing on young, realistic energy for the future; this is really Margiela for the year 2015,” said Renzo Rosso at the time.

When Matthieu Blazy was outed last week, again the response was more of a corporate statement: “In light of the recent rumours regarding individual members of our design team, we ask you to remember that the long-standing communication policy of the Maison has not changed and that MMM does not communicate on any individual member of its collective, as our work is done by a team and is credited only to this same collective. This is our official spokespeople policy, and it remains our only comment on this subject.”

A corporate response is one way to go. But we believe that there is a bigger opportunity open to Margiela. It can re-claim the conversation around anonymity that it once so playfully authored. Anonymity is the key subject of the age, and it’s Margiela’s for the taking.

The question is not whether the press reports Matthieu Blazy’s name. After all, we have all seen Daft Punk without their helmets on, and the music still sounds great. It’s about how Margiela can regain its strategic point of view on anonymity.

Anonymity is not about hiding away. It's not about shrinking the business. In 2014, we’re living in a culture where anonymity has never been more potent, or more lucrative.

In the world of politics, Anonymous, Pussy Riot and Edward Snowden show that anonymity can make governments tremble. Small groups of people – and individuals – have disproportionate power in a way that they never did in the early days of Margiela.

In the world of art, Banksy has become the most over-exposed faceless person in the world. And one of the most well paid. He's achieving what Margiela once did, and putting it on Instagram. He proves that it's possible, compelling, and lucrative.

In the world of music, songwriter Sia just released an album from which her face has been redacted. On a recent front cover of Billboard magazine, she is masked with a paper bag. Sia amply demonstrates that massive amounts of narrative power can be generated when you step — with clear strategic intent — backwards into the shadows.

The world knows who Matthieu Blazy is now, but that doesn’t mean his cover his completely blown. After all, the best cult brands show glimpses of their inner workings. Like Sia, he can make a show of negotiating the shadows. It’s an evolving story of secrecy, managed live as events develop.

This is a time when anonymity is a way for us all to re-establish who we are. It is a rich area where luxury and fashion brands are suited to deliver something fascinating.

For luxury fashion brands, anonymity needs to be deployed creatively. It’s sometimes more a matter of imaginative Public “Negations” rather than Public Relations. PR turns the lights up on everything. But we all know that the most interesting stuff happens when the lights are turned down.

Anonymity is not about seeking invisibility or shunning it; neither is a 100-percent lockdown possible. Brands need to know why they want to be anonymous, what is hidden, and what is showcased as a result. They need to know when to lurk anonymously in the dark and when to pounce into the light.

Just as a brand in the 1960s couldn’t ignore freedom, or a brand in the 1980s couldn’t ignore identity politics, fashion brands today must engage in the cultural conversation about privacy, invisibility, and anonymity.

The recent fracas shows that the public is still paying attention to how Margiela delivers intriguing anonymity to the world. For luxury fashion brands, these are exciting times. There is work to be done, a clear theme to grasp, and lucrative shadows to explore.

For luxury fashion brands, it’s time for a little shadow play.

Joe McShea and Lucian James run Agenda Inc., a strategic and creative consultancy to luxury brands.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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