Maison Martin Margiela - The Cult of Invisibility

Maison Martin Margiela scarification Source: ASVOF
Part 1
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 – The aesthetic of photo communications came to resemble the spiritualist photography of the 19th century; models appeared as ghostly blurs, and a sense of fragility hovered in the air, somewhere between the theosophy of Blavatsky and the work of Louise Bourgeois.

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.
Part 2
In Part 1, we examined how the Maison Martin Margiela brand successfully adopted strategies of impersonality and invisibility to achieve cult status with consumers. Today, we explore how Mr. Margiela’s exit from the company could have been better managed by adopting strategies learned from real-world cults.

PARIS, France — In 2002, in an acquisition that was described as Greta Garbo marrying Harpo Marx, the Maison Martin Margiela brand was acquired by Only the Brave, owned by Renzo Rosso, making it a sister brand of Diesel.

Between 2002 and 2007, Margiela’s cult of invisibility turned into confusion and journalists and editors experienced a crisis of confidence. The clothes seems to show his hand at work, but it was increasingly difficult to tell, and the speculation became increasingly distracting from the fashion.
When asked in June 2008 if he could imagine Martin Margiela leaving the brand, Renzo Rosso said: “Never say never, but I cannot imagine. I love him.’

By the Spring of 2009, there were some uneasy signs that a transition was underway. “He’s concentrating on more strategic projects. He’s more consulting with us than designing every product. The team is more Margiela than him,” said Giovanni Pungetti, the brand’s CEO. In June 2009, the tone began sounding political with an official statement that said: “We neither confirm nor deny anything.”

This only served to make journalists more suspicious: “Where has Martin Margiela gone? Now we’re a little bit worried,” asked The Guardian.

“In the absence of any definitive corporate statement, the only test of whether Margiela is still in the house must be down to whether the inimitable dialogue of excellence, intellectual challenge, and wit is still there in his show. Safe, yet very sad to say, this time it was gone,” wrote Sarah Mower on Style.com.

And then suddenly, it seemed to be over. Before the Spring Summer 2010 show in October 2009, the rumours raged. When the show took place, it was described by Suzy Menkes as “tragic.” Then a statement from Renzo Rosso seemed to attack the cult of invisibility head on.

“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.

In three sentences, the statement seemed to do several things; all of them damaging. It undermined the role of Martin Margiela. The announcement of a “new fresh team” seemed to disrupt the importance of any transitional talent at the brand. It set a course for the future which sounded more like a business plan than a brand positioning. And to loyal followers who had invested so much time and energy in their loyalty to the cult, the brisk talk of a “Margiela 2015” seemed baffling. The statement had the effect of opening the curtain to reveal nobody was there, while inviting people to believe nothing had changed. It trod on people’s dreams.

The JC Report commented soon afterwards that fashion editors were abandoning the brand in droves.

It didn’t – and still doesn’t – have to be like this. As a truly cult brand which borrowed implicitly and explicitly from cult strategy, Maison Martin Margiela could have learned and deployed successful strategies from real-world cults to better manage Mr. Margiela’s exit from the company. Indeed, the brand’s “cult of invisibility” was already set up to do exactly that.

Three things Maison Martin Margiela could have learned from real-world cults.

1. An immediate need for communication

At a time of crisis, or apparent lack of leadership, it is critical for the messaging to be clear. For those invested in the cult or brand, their sense of community is disrupted when lack of leadership is apparent. During times like these, cults need to over-communicate on the continuity of power, or on the abilities of a temporary council to create reassurance

In the case of MMM, the communication that the brand is business-as-usual both undermined the importance of Martin Margiela in the heritage of the brand, while also failing to calm the rumour that recent runway shows had been sub-standard because he was not involved.

2. A call to community

When a cult leader leaves, the typical reaction of a real-world cult would be to draw a celebratory – rather than dismissive – line under the moment, with an invitation to encourage followers to celebrate in some way the life of the leader; usually via some kind of ritual. We define a ritual as a performance of a myth. So typically it would be the recreation of some aspect of the origin or founding of the community to help align thinking, and to remind people of their shared role in its success.

The aim of the ritual is to give followers a sense of closure, and also to invest them in the next phase of the cult’s life. While a global Martin Margiela ritual might be a little excessive; there are lots of ways that they could be conducted; via product portfolio, communication, in-store elements, and more.

For example, one of the 4 stitches in the MMM logo could be changed in color, or removed. A limited edition line of products released. An annual celebration set up for the brand. A leadership crisis – as every cult knows – is one of the best times to build a business and evangelise.

As well as a neat ritual, it could have been a great business opportunity.

3. A new shared vision

Cults are built on passion and community. Community is built on shared ideas and conversation.

If the principles of a cult need to change, and they often do – for example, when the extra terrestrials fail to appear on the appointed day and everyone has to grudgingly remove their pointy tinfoil hats – it’s a nasty shock. And it’s a shock that needs to be addressed at a community level. A new shared vision needs to be articulated, and confirmed. Energy and consensus need to be redoubled. New tasks must be allocated. A new ideology embraced.

While the presence – or at least the phantom – of Martin Margiela was hovering over the brand, the direction seemed clear; and the shared conversation was the amazing innovation of the clothes, the mystery of their production, and the games of presence, evanescence and invisibility.

But now the invisibility is lost; leaving the brand – from a strategic point of view – in a whole series of contradictory double negatives. According to the official statements, neither Martin Margiela nor more recent “design teams” are working at the brand

In either case, the course seems set for the future, and the brand should have no difficulty attracting fantastic talent to build on its incredible heritage. But, in strategic terms, the cult of invisibility has enormous value – both emotionally and financially. And it’s clearly suffering.

While the moment for the immediate communication may have passed, it’s not too late for the cult of Maison Martin Margiela to take the opportunity to galvanize its followers for what’s next. Members of the cult of Margiela still want to believe. The brand just needs the right cult strategy

Lucian James is Founder of Agenda Inc, an insight and thought-leadership partner for luxury brands.