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Influence of The Works of Jacques Derrida on Martin Margiela

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This essay will be examining the extent to which Jacque Derrida’s studies in the field of philosophy inspired the work of Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela. While Derrida’s work appears on the surface to be an analysis of grammatology, the scientific study of writing, the importance of his ideas lies in their ability to be used as a method of critically analysing institutions – providing a backbone to which Margiela’s work can exist. With specific focus on Maison Martin Margiela’s Spring/Summer 1990 show, the house’s third showing in Paris, I aim to pick apart different aspects of the presentation, from the clothes to the location, in order to demonstrate how the Belgian designer’s work points towards Derrida’s theory of deconstruction.

Before discussing the parallels in the works of the two men, it is important to grasp what Derrida meant when he coined the term ‘deconstruction’ in the late 1960s. While giving the term a clear definition would be contradictory, the philosophical thought could be understood as a process of breaking down established forms, conventions, and boundaries, revealing the instability, and ever-changing nature of words and phrases.

Meaning in language is produced by signs, made up of the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. The signifier is the input sensed by the brain, and the signified is the concept/idea that the signifier points to. The signifier, and what it signifies can’t be real, due to everyone having highly complex and slightly different ideas around each sign.The signified and signifier are united in the brain, and the French philosopher believed that the differences between the signs are what gives them their meaning. For example, a shirt is a shirt, because it is not a pair of trousers. Expanding upon this idea, he suggested that the signs are not only dependent on each other for their meaning, but that other signs were always present within the meaning of each specific, single sign, in what he called their ‘trace’. When any given concept is thought, other concepts, signs, signified, and signifiers are present within the sign itself to define its meaning. Oxymoronically, these concepts are neither present nor absent in the signifier, but are identifiable by their trace. Derrida uses the term ‘différance’ to explain how meaning exists in the space between signs.

I will use examples to illustrate how Margiela utilises these Derridean ideas to critique the fashion system as a whole, from the function of the clothes themselves, to the mechanisms of the industry.

When Maison Martin Margiela’s 1990 show took place, it could be seen as a rejection of the ostentatious luxury that came to define fashion of the decade that came before it. Almost the entirety of the shows at this time were presented in tents erected around the first arrondissement of Paris. This show, however, was different. As can be seen in Figure 1, it took place in a rundown playground in the 20th arrondissement of the capital. The show was first come first serve and had no seating plan. Models were literally walking on a rubble surface. This created what seemed a highly absurd and inappropriate scene to fashion journalists. Here, Margiela employs Derrida’s idea that a signs meaning derives from its difference from other signs, holding a ‘trace’ of what it does not mean. The Belgian designer forces us to rethink our predefined notions of what constitutes a fashion show by juxtaposing our expectations of beauty and luxury associated with fashion and Paris, by holding the ceremony in the apparently harsh environment of a deprived borough on the outskirts of the City. There is no sign of any traditional ‘catwalk’ as the models are forced to adapt their customary hip-swinging strides, to a more cautious, everyday-woman’s walk as to make sure they don’t trip on the uneven dirt. This contrasts to the parameters of fashion of the previous decade, where the catwalk was defined by unreachable beauty standards and a classist unattainability. These themes were paralleled by the ‘dishevelled’ hairstyles Margiela asked Stegerhoek (serial Margiela collaborator, hair stylist) to achieve. Martin asked Stegenhoek to make the model’s hair look ‘as if the women could have put it together themselves’, incongruous with the ‘very proper’ hairstyles popular in the late 1980s. The open door philosophy democratised the show. High profile journalists, used to being chauffeured around the Louvre, sitting in reserved, front row seats at shows, now had to travel to the end of town, fighting with children for a reasonable view.

Margiela could be seen to be critiquing how the fashion system works and creates trends. Designers first present their clothing on elegant celebrity models on an elevated catwalk to be viewed by journalists and other high status attendees, a world apart from the eventual trickling down of these clothes to more commodifiable forms, worn by everyday people. Margiela breaks these traditions by showing his clothing on models who represent the everyday women, in an environment that emulates everyday life.

Corresponding with Derrida’s intended purpose behind his writing on deconstruction as a method of critically analysing organizations, the clothes in this show serve as a multifaceted critique of the fashion system. Margiela juxtaposes the glitz and glamour of the previous decade, ringing in a new era of fashion, by sending a model down the rubble runway wearing a supermarket bag.

When the term ‘deconstruction’ is applied to the field of fashion, it is frequently misinterpreted as a binary opposite to the term ‘construction’, due to the clothes looking destroyed/incomplete. Such a simplification is common, yet massively misses the idea that the French philosopher was pointing towards. To ‘construct’ something, is the action of building said thing. Derrida adding the prefix ‘de’ to the verb is paradoxical, insinuating a bidirectionality to the method. Said bidirectionality is explored in this look. Cutting out a whole in the bottom of a bag destroys the function of the bag in its original form, as a tool used to carry things, but creates an opportunity for the bag to be utilised in a different way, making it possible to put the bag over one’s body as a wearable item, repurposing the handles as shoulder straps.

Margiela calls to question the stability of the signs used to signify the main functions of clothing.

Different types of garments and the way they are worn constantly indicate the social status of the wearer. The scruffy look and the use of a free, throw-away, everyday item such as a plastic bag is a caricature of the signifiers embedded in cheap clothing worn by lower status individuals. By showing such an aesthetically shabby garment on a model at a fashion show in Paris, an occasion reserved for only the most high-end, well made, expensive pieces of clothing, Margiela rebukes the idea that social standing could be accurately read and assumed through clothing. Despite adhering to Western ideals surrounding social etiquette and nudity, the plastic top shows that clothing can nonetheless still be deemed indecent, by doing so with objects whose traditional purpose lies outside the field of fashion.

The Maison is aligning themselves with Derrida’s practise of breaking down ideas of the conventional, revealing the constantly evolving nature of signs and what they signify. The plastic bag turned top serves as a crude reference to Derrida’s writing in Of Grammatology about how the meaning of a sign is derived from its difference to other signs, containing a trace of what the sign does not mean. The new plastic vest is now seen as an item of clothing, yet the trace of what it is not, or no longer is, is made clear by Margiela’s effort to not hide the history of the item, as a disposable supermarket bag.

A key theme explored in the notorious fashion house, is anonymity. Increasing influence of media publications and broadcasting lead to an accelerated rise in celebrity culture in the 1980’s. The fashion industry was no different – the faces and personalities of Fashion designers were intrinsically linked with the clothes that they presented and sold, epitomized by a lead designer of the period, Jean Paul Gaultier, who Martin spent years assisting. Similarly to many of his opinions of 1980’s fashion, the Belgian designer was not impressed, and decided to turn the other way, in an effort to reimagine the framework that governs fashion. Margiela decided not to publish any personal interviews or portraits, and preferred to allow the clothes to speak for themselves. This decision to remain incognito is embodied by the infamous blank label, shown in Figure 3. The label is a tremendously important feature of high end clothing, providing a sign of authenticity to a garment. As per Derrida’s writings, the same way a text cannot use language as a ‘transcendental signifier’, a label cannot unequivocally indicate a high or low price piece of clothing. For Margiela it is not who designed the clothes that gives them their value, but rather the thought and time that goes into designing and making them. Like the blank label, the logo on the front of the supermarket bag now reads as a mockery of the lazily embossed logos that designers plaster on their works to validate and legitimize the extortionate prices they charged. The supermarket bag, made of a cheap item, now in the shape of an everyday tank top is analogous of the clothes that are most often smothered in logos, as items that don’t offer too much more by way of design or fabrication. These lazy signatures used as design motifs could be seen as an embodiment of the consumerist nature of the fashion industry, run by hierarchical power structures that have become synonymous with clothing. Margiela’s motivation to interrogate the substructure of said industry can be most easily recognised by the empty label. The blank tab is also meant to provoke the consumer who expects at least a simulation of legitimacy, validating there decision to purchase such high-end goods.

In line with his own anonymity and typical discountenance of the fashion system, Margiela opted to present this collection on street cast women, rejecting the notion that a high-end show must consist of top models. This is yet another reference towards Derrida’s idea of ‘trace’, now more obviously embodied by binary opposites. When the sign ‘Paris fashion show’ is thought, concepts of ticketed catwalks and celebrity models would commonly be associated, yet these connotations contain a trace of what they are not – in this case, a rundown public space and the women found there.

Derrida didn’t intend to give deconstruction a specific methodology or definition. Payne pointed out the difficult nature of defining such a term, as deconstruction automatically exists through an attempt to communicate, as deconstructive processes are constantly occurring within a text waiting to be interpreted. This is mirrored in Margiela’s footwear. Through Margiela’s lack of an attempt to explain, the shoes speak for themselves, being ‘deconstructed’ simply by existing. Figure 4 shows the tabi boots that the models wore on the runway at this Spring/Summer 1990 show. The split-toe shoes have been presented every year in slight variations since his very first show in 1989 dating to today, 2020, establishing it as an iconic piece of footwear. The boot takes inspiration from the traditional Japanese sock ‘jika-tabi’, dating back as early as the 15th century. The tabi boots that were presented in this Spring/Summer 1990 show can be seen in Figure 4. Geert Bruloot claims that the models ‘reused the exact same Tabi boots that had been used in the Autumn/Winter 1989 show’. Margiela painted over the shoes in a base layer of white, before painting in a graffiti-esque style on top of that. These shoes tackle the fragility of the term ‘avant-garde’. When presented to the Western consumer, these shoes fit the bill as a new and experimental garment. When presented to a Japanese farmer however, these shoes would simply be seen as a slight variation of a historical item of clothing, and certainly not an example of avant-garde.This is in harmony with Derrida’s idea that a signifier has no universal meaning, and is interpreted differently depending on factors such as the time and place a person attempts to understand it. By painting over the same pair of shoes that had been previously used, Margiela further questions what it takes for an idea, or design, to be considered new. The tabi boot is a shoe that has minor aesthetic changes to the jika-tabi sock that it references. By not making a new pair of shoes in a new colour, but by reusing the same shoe, simply painting over the colour it was previously in, Margiela tackles the foundation of the term avant-garde, and what it takes for an item to earn, and lose such a moniker. Does the same exact pair of shoes, that was indeed considered avant-garde, lose its ability to be considered so, through changing only it’s colour? This is paradoxical because the colour is new, and the shoe has slightly changed, but in its evolution, it could be seen to lose its ability to be considered new, as it is now just a different version of a previously created idea.

White paint is a signature design code associated with the infamous fashion house. Here, the white paint does a good job of signifying the open use of historical references. In a rare quote, Margiela has said ‘white means the strength of fragility and the fragility of the passage of time. An expression of unity, purity and honesty.’ Just like one can’t hide the unique marks and signs of wear on white shoes, Margiela doesn’t wish to hide the unique inspirations that have unavoidably tainted his creative mind. As the shoe is worn, the layers of paint on the boot will inevitably crack, revealing the palimpsest nature of the design. This is a metaphor for the unsuccessful attempts of designers to deny the history that inspired them, juxtaposed with Margiela’s unforgiving brutality in his honest interpretations of the history of fashion, making his references clear in form.

Revealing the potentially erogenous section between the big and index toes give the shoe their unsettling nature, encouraging a range of reactions. By partially exposing a usually hidden body part, the shoe points to the idea that an idea within fashion can never truly be avant-garde, as the field is forever tied to the human form that the shoe paradoxically covers yet uncovers.

The fact that these shoes have been worn before would have been unthinkable to Margiela’s contemporaries. Incongruent to fashion at the time, this poses questions about what constitutes high and low fashion, as well as what it takes for clothes to be deemed worthy of being shown on the catwalk in Paris. Similarly to the plastic bag vest, this seems to almost mock the throw-away nature of the fashion system, critiquing it from the inside. Further plays on what can be considered high fashion can be seen in the final layer of paint on the shoes that resemble the graffiti on the walls surrounding the fashion show in a rundown area of Paris.

Margiela attempts to decode and redefine the parameters that are prescribed to high fashion and it’s insatiable pursuit of the next avant-garde. In a Derridean way, he does not give any unequivocal answer or reveal his opinions, but instead prods at onlookers to ask themselves what their opinions are. This is the essence of deconstruction. There is no solid truth, rather a series of potential interpretations, forever changing from time to time, place to place, and person to person.

Martin Margiela spearheaded high end fashion’s metamorphosis from its ostentatious frivolity of the 1980’s to a more conceptual division of the art world in the 1990’s. It is clear that Margiela had a firm understanding of Derridean texts and provided a unique interpretation of them in the medium of fashion. While some would consider the amalgamation of the two fields a watering down of philosophical thought, I believe Margiela’s work accurately exemplifies Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, demonstrating the epitome of the thesis, as a critical way of thinking that is infinitely applicable. Many journalists have previously described Margiela’s work as ‘deconstrionist’, but have largely missed the point of the term. I wanted to draw parallels between the eponymous fashion house and the philosophical nature of deconstruction, rather than its blasphemous misinterpretation as a synonym for the french fashion phrase ‘la destroy’, as a mere anti-fashion, destructive message. The Maison took a holistic approach to fashion whereby this central concept penetrates every component of a collection. The location and set up of the show, the plastic bag turned top, and the second hand shoes all played on the idea that a sign is given its meaning through its difference from other signs, leaving a trace of what it is not. The logo on the bag, and the anonymity of the iconic blank label deconstructs and reconfigures our predefined notions of what gives an item of clothing value and authenticity. The repainted and second hand shoes serve initiate a wider comprehension of how people perceive signs in their own unique way, while simultaneously criticising the importance and lack of substance in the strive for the next avant-garde. In Margiela’s attempt to decode and redefine the parameters that are prescribed to the fashion industry and its insatiable pursuit of the next avant-garde, the Belgian designer ironically, yet inevitably, came to personify just that. 

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