c.2015 New York Times News Service
c.2015 New York Times News Service
This has been something of a banner period for fashion documentaries. In April, there was “Dior and I,” and this week, there are not one, but two, debuts: Albert Maysles’ feature-length “Iris” and Alison Chernick’s short “The Artist Is Absent,” about Martin Margiela. “Iris,” which Manohla Dargis of The New York Times loved, is about to open in theaters, but “The Artist Is Absent,” which had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, is already online, courtesy of its producer, the fashion e-tailer Yoox Group.
In other words, you have no excuse not to see it. And you should.
Not because it’s an extraordinary artistic achievement — it’s perfectly fine, but nothing special visually — or because it is the final word on its subject. There are some very nice interviews with figures such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Raf Simons and Olivier Saillard, curator of the City of Paris’ fashion museum, the Palais Galliera, but it doesn’t feel comprehensive.
Rather, you should see it because it is about Martin Margiela the designer, not Martin Margiela the brand with the just-hired, controversial former Christian Dior designer John Galliano. And as such, it provides a glimpse of a slice of fashion history that is key to contextualizing the present.
In a world where fashion memory is ever shorter thanks to social media, which often has little sense of provenance or past, that is extraordinarily valuable.
Put another way: If you want to understand what all the hoo-ha over Galliano’s hiring was about — why it had fashion critics (like me) scratching their heads and raising their eyebrows — or the evolution of fashion designers into celebrities, this is what you need to see.
Even though Galliano is not in the film. Nor, of course, is Margiela, who throughout his career (he sold a majority stake in 2002 to Renzo Rosso’s Only the Brave company and retired a few years later) was the Greta Garbo of fashion, as the critic Suzy Menkes puts it. Specifically, no one aside from friends and family ever saw his face.
Instead we get snippets of Margiela’s shows — which often featured models with their faces covered or blacked out, the better to make people concentrate on the clothes (Clothes?! Clothes?! There are clothes in a fashion show? I was looking at Kendall Jenner!) — and talking heads musing over Margiela’s contribution to fashion.
“He didn’t only introduce new clothes, he commented on the system,” Saillard said in the film. And later: “He proved you could make things with nothing.”
From Simons: “It’s admirable that a person knows that he or she said what they had to say, and — basta. It’s what more people should do.”
Margiela wanted, always, to make his audience think about what a shirt or a skirt or a dress actually was — what their expectations of it were — and then ask, why? Why does it have to be that way? Why can’t it be like this? Inevitably, watching his collections, you started to think (OK, I started to think): “Why not indeed? Why do I think pants need to have two legs with seams sewn down the sides and a waist?”
Maison Margiela, as Margiela’s brand is now known under Galliano, no longer asks those questions. That’s its right. Fashion moves on. But they were important and should not be forgotten.
This was not necessarily Yoox’s intention in supporting the film, of course. It was interested in Margiela, sure (it sells the brand). But the e-commerce site also thinks of itself, Federico Marchetti, its chief executive, once told me, as an “enter-tailer” because entertainment is key to driving e-sales, and it has made an assortment of short films over the years, including one with Hedi Slimane before he became creative director of Saint Laurent.
In any case, it has developed a proprietary formula that measures film-related site engagement and, according to Marchetti, “Every time we have launched a new short film, our visits increased by 20 percent compared to the period before.”
So even though it isn’t selling tickets, it is profiting from the venture.
Whatever the reason, however, that doesn’t lessen the film’s worth. Watch it, and remember.