The German filmmaker Reiner Holzemer’s documentary Martin Margiela in his own words is an intimate and immensely enthralling portrait of legendary fashion designer Martin Margiela. Featuring interviews with Jean Paul Gaultier, Carine Roitfeld, Lidewij Edelkoort, Cathy Horyn, Olivier Saillard and the Belgian designer himself, Holzemer has managed to create a film that is evocative rather than nostalgic, a celebration of Margiela’s indispensable influence that still reverberates today.
In the director’s words, the documentary is about “a 7-year-old boy who sees a Courrèges fashion show in Paris on TV and he decides that he wants to be a fashion designer one day. Not just a fashion designer, but a fashion designer in Paris. And he achieves that, follows that dream for many, many years.” The boy happens to be notoriously anonymous Martin Margiela who staged fashion shows at derelict playgrounds, subverted the function of the lining, elevated mundane objects to couture garments and radicalised the rules of tailoring in pursuit of originality.

Reiner Holzemer discusses his process, the recent mainstream interest in fashion documentaries, anonymity in the digital era and how he convinced mysterious Martin Margiela to break the silence.
You have created documentaries about photographers like William Eggleston, Juergen Teller and Walker Evans. How did you get into making films about fashion designers?
While working on the film about Juergen Teller, I joined his photoshoot in Dries van Noten’s garden. That’s how I met Dries for the first time and I got excited and interested. I wanted to know more about fashion designers. Being interested in arts, I thought fashion was a very creative craft, a form of art. I met Dries around the time when Galliano was fired from Dior and I read an article about the background, the stress, the pressure fashion designers are under, the number of collections they have to design. I became interested in the industry. Making a movie about Dries was very exciting. I spent a whole year with him, following the development of four collections. It was wonderful. The film ended up being really successful. It was shown in seventeen film festivals and distributed in sixty-four countries worldwide.
There has been an unexpected mainstream interest in the fashion documentaries like McQueen by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui and Dries. Where do you think this interest is coming from?
The fashion industry is the second biggest industry in the world, so many people want to look behind the scenes to see how things are made, who is the person making it, who are the designers, what are their inspirations, how do they react emotionally to things they encounter. I think a few movies about Chanel and Dior opened up first audiences to fashion films. I don't know how long this interest will last.
On the other hand, after watching the news right now – because of Covid – I don't want to bother with another problem, I don't want to see a movie with huge drama. I want to look at something beautiful. That’s how I feel sometimes and it’s not that I am turning my back towards reality. Sometimes we all want to look at art, look at movies, look at fashion, feed something beautiful to our souls – at least for a moment.
What was it about Martin Margiela’s work that stood out to you?
First of all, after the success of Dries, I could not just do a movie about any other fashion designer. I wanted a certain level of quality and creativity. Also, I am not so interested in big brands. I am much more interested in independent people, in people who do not sell their souls and do what they really want to do, what they need to do. Margiela’s creations are all very contemporary. Some of his designs like plastic tops were quite irritating. I did not understand them in the beginning. They were confusing and I wanted to find out more. I did not know at the time that Margiela refused to speak to anyone. So everyone who heard that I wanted to do a documentary about Martin Margiela said that I was just daydreaming, we don't even know if he exists. But we succeeded. I was very lucky.
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You have done something no journalist or fashion editor has managed to do. What do you think were the main reasons you succeeded in convincing elusive Martin Margiela to speak?
There were so many journalists who followed Margiela’s career for 20 years and never had a chance to meet him in person or to ask him a simple question about the ideas behind his work. I think I approached him at the right moment because he was preparing the Palais Galliera exhibition in Paris. It was the only chance to get more than a hundred Maison Martin Margiela designs together in one place so he wanted somebody to film or photograph them. When I heard about the exhibition I decided to get in touch and start a conversion, talk about possibilities.
I think the other thing was that he had gained some sort of distance from his work. He felt that many people were interested in what he was doing, they wanted to know, learn about him. Many young fashion designers had approached him. The fact that we could not shoot his face was clear from the very beginning and he did not even want to talk with his own voice. It took a lot of convincing. I offered him a very close co-operation. He was involved in every step of production. And I excepted that. My goal was to create the first movie in which he talks about his work because that had never happened before.
There are so many designers plagiarising Margiela’s ideas today. Do you think that part of the reason for his willingness to participate in the documentary was to reaffirm his legacy?
I think that could partly have been the reason. So many designers copy his work. It does not matter if they do it with or without mentioning his name. About the designers that paid homage to him, Martin said that they should create their own ideas and designs. He always wanted to be original and wanted to create something that had never been done before. Considering that, if you think of the daily work for each collection, you can understand why he was probably exhausted after 20 years in that business. Originality is the ultimate goal and it is not easy to achieve. We are never free of influences but what happened with Martin upsets me a little bit because there are people who are copying his work one to one. I think that it's not fair.
Despite the influence Maison has had on the fashion industry there is little to nothing known about Martin Margiela himself. How did you and your team prepare for the documentary?
There are very few books, there is little information about his work, there is no biography, there are few articles, you can not find any interviews with him. Bits and bobs came from the Galliera exhibition because his whole work was displayed in chronological order so I could really see his development, the change of his style and the collections, different chapters in his work. But the main source for the research was the conversations with him. We shot for almost forty days. We talked sometimes from eight to ten hours and we recorded two hundred hours of footage.
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How did you go about structuring the film? How did you approach editing one of the most remarkable designer’s life from two hundred hours down to an hour and a half?
The basic storyline was to capture what happened during the 20 years he designed for his house. But I did not know what happened in his childhood, how he decided to become a fashion designer. All those questions came with time. I did not know if he would be open and ready to talk about that. He wanted to start with his time at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and then his time at Jean Paul Gaultier and then on to his collections. But we met, had lunch and dinners and he spoke about his childhood and I said that the story would be very important for the movie. Also, you can not put forty collections into a movie so you have to make decisions. Of course, having Martin at my side was a little bit more difficult because for him every collection – or almost every collection – is important. Sometimes I had to tell him, Martin, we can not put it all in, people will get bored. Our goal was that we wanted a movie for a bigger audience and not only for people interested in fashion.
It is not easy to reach a broader audience but his childhood story is so emotional. It is a story about human nature, about a man who struggled to achieve a certain goal and who quit at a certain point in his life and said ok, this is the world I don't fit in anymore. Sometimes it is very hard to cut things out, the beautiful, emotional moments. In a sense, I was limited because I could not show his face. So how do you get that emotion only by showing the hands?
We edited for four to five months and the biggest amount of time was spent on watching the footage. Martin is a protagonist looking at his own life and it was sometimes hard as he was not as distanced from the story as I was. But he trusted me. We had a lot of discussions and in the end, we always found an agreement. But sometimes I had to say, Martin, we can not put it all in, it is impossible, otherwise, we will have a four-hour-long movie and then only your fans will watch it. People who have seen the film feel like it is very short, they say they could have watched more. The movie is quite entertaining and that’s what I was set out to achieve.
You have mentioned that you were irritated by some of Margiela’s creations, that you did not understand them. Do you think that you understand Martin Margiela now?
I was not really ‘irritated,’ it was more that I was motivated. That is why he caught my interest and now I understand him a lot more. In the beginning, I was intrigued when I read about him. Now I understand that there are various reasons for some of the creative decisions he made. Sometimes he does not even know why he did something. It is just because he liked it. For example, the plastic dress: he just saw it and he was fascinated by it. Like any other artist, sometimes people are unable to give you the reasons for their actions. When you understand that he always wanted to create something that had never been seen before then you see, you understand him. He was open, and he wanted to shock people, he wanted to take risks.
But, in general, I would say that a very, very basic idea of Martin Margiela is that he always took things out of their normal context and used them in a different way, in a new way. In my opinion, that is essential about his work. That, I understood after shooting the movie. I also saw that he is a brilliant tailor. He takes a plastic bag, puts it on a model and it looks wonderful.
That is also a great example of taking things out of their ordinary context and transforming them into another object, into a piece of garment.
The film sees Martin Margiela discuss the reasons behind his decision to remain anonymous. Do you think it is possible to be anonymous as a designer in our digital age?
I can not really say yes or no. When you think when Martin entered the stage of the fashion world it was the time when designers’ faces, their names sometimes became more famous than what they created. It was the era of Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs. Can you imagine not knowing how Karl Lagerfeld looks like? Of course, it was not impossible to be anonymous then and now but as Martin said, the tough part comes when you want to be anonymous and at the same time successful. Your work has to be stronger than anything else. And Martin proved that with his work and after some time people accepted his decision.
Today, everybody wants to catch a photograph, post it on Instagram or Facebook as some sort of trophy. I respect that Martin does not want to show his face but he did not hide in front of my camera. I have footage where you can see his face. For me, it was so important not to destroy the trust between us. When Martin was working at the Galliera exhibition there were many trying to take a photograph of him with their iPhones, so silly. What does it mean for young designers today?
I think you can still convince the industry with your work and remain anonymous but most of the people sell their private lives, sell their backstories, sell the backstage stories. Of course, there are artists who don't seek public attention, like Banksy. It is harder to be anonymous but it is possible.
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Do you think that because of the interest in designers’ lives, fashion journalists compromise on writing about clothes?
When I created Dries it was more or less my first encounter with fashion journalists and, to be honest, I would not call all of it journalism. Fashion should be about clothes and not about the designer. Then you could ask why do I make documentaries about designers. But I think in both movies, especially in Dries, the reason for showing his private life was because for him the way he lives, how he decorates his house, all of it is part of his being as a designer. There is a certain unity and it’s important. There is a decision that you have to make in every portrait that you create.
With Martin it is a different story, he is more or less a shy person who does not want to be in the centre of attention. It is a different story but the centre point in both films is about what they do, what is their DNA, what is the fingerprint they will leave on the fashion world.
What do you think we should expect from Martin Margiela next?
Martin is creating art now. I think he is still following what’s happening in the fashion world but I don’t think he will ever go back. I know how he felt when he left, how torturing it was for him. He is so ambitions, he is so creative and he wants to do things that have never been done before. He can not change that attitude, and I don’t think he would put himself under the same stress that comes with working in the fashion industry again.
Sometimes the best way to preserve your integrity is knowing when to leave, recognising that you have reached a certain point in your career. Would you agree?
Martin’s case is very unique as many people would not choose to leave. People commit suicide because of pressure, but Martin is still alive and doing something different not because of bankruptcy, but because he chose to. I don’t think many have done the same. He is a very strong-minded person and there is a certain stubbornness to that decision.
And that’s what the movie is about: it’s a story about a 7-year-old boy who sees a Courrèges fashion show in Paris on TV and he decides that he wants to be a fashion designer one day. Not just a fashion designer, but a fashion designer in Paris. And he achieves that, follows that dream for many, many years. As designer Jean Paul Gaultier, a very close friend of Martin’s said, Martin loved his craft, fashion was essential for him and giving it up is a very emotional decision. But he did it because there was no alternative for him.
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Even though the film does not show Martin Margiela’s face, it is a very intimate portrait of the designer. Was this your main aim as a filmmaker?
My co-producer and I were thinking of using Martin’s few photographs up until the time he decided to be anonymous, which was around his third collection. But we decided not to and I think it makes the movie stronger. There is a certain tension till the very end as viewers hope to glimpse his face. The audience is never disappointed though. They feel very close to him.
At private screenings in Paris people were crying outside the cinema, saying that the movie was touching, that they felt close to this man and his struggles for authenticity. He is the hero, he is the survivor because he left and that makes him even stronger in a way. Would we make the same decision to leave? Are we as strong as Martin? I don’t know. When people heard that I was working on a documentary about Margiela they asked if I would show his face. When I said no, they would ask how I was going to make a portrait of somebody without showing their face. I had no doubt that it would work, that even if you would not see the face you would get the impression that you have met him.
That is always my goal as a documentary filmmaker – I want to give audiences a chance to meet someone, to look behind the scenes, the ateliers, the situations they would never have the chance to encounter. I wanted the documentary about Martin to be personal too. And no one who has seen the film has said that they were disappointed.
What do you think about Maison Margiela today?
I am not a fashion expert but when I look at what John Galliano is doing today I see Martin’s DNA. Galliano as a designer has his own DNA, he comes from a different world and incorporating that into the viewpoint of someone who was so powerful in the history of fashion is admirable. I think he adds another layer to what Martin started.
Should we expect more fashion documentaries from you?
I would love to do a third film about fashion. I don't want to make a Karl Lagerfeld documentary but there are still a lot of interesting people working in the business. But the air is getting thinner. People who are really successful don't have time. It took me three years to convince Dries van Noten. People are stressed and under so much pressure. Dries designs around 1500 pieces for each collection for example. So, the key to his agreement was that he saw how I work, that I don't disturb the daily operations.
Dries once told me that as a designer you only present your design once it’s perfectly finished, so showing the development of the collection from the first sketch to the final piece is a big step for the designers. But I am open to close collaboration, allowing the designers to see rough cut before it goes out to the world. It is important to build trust. I am very happy that I have made both movies and I would like to do another one.
Do you think you need to distance yourself from the fashion world to create an objective representation of the industry?
At the end of the day, you are creating a movie about people. As I work in the creative industry myself, I have observed that the problems you encounter, struggles you have with yourself, with the outside world, risks you take in your creative expression – there are the same questions no matter if you are a filmmaker or a fashion designer.
For example, I felt very quickly at home in Dries’s atelier. Fashion design is a different craft – they make things with their hands, they work with fabrics and I work with digital files. But there are a lot of similarities between filmmaking and fashion design in the way you put things together. I learned so much about that craft and am very thankful. That’s why I love my profession so much. Being a documentary filmmaker you get to explore so many different worlds.
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