It seemed like back to the beginning at Maison Margiela, where John Galliano’s ‘Artisanal’ collection suggested the work of a penniless but ingenious artist who uses found objects as his tools of creation.
Of course, taking a humble sack, decorating and draping it into a painted haute couture coat is not so new to the designer, who famously introduced the French word “clochard” — a hobo or beggar — into the vocabulary of couture while he was at Christian Dior.
And the concept of recycling is integral to the history of his current brand, and its founder Martin Margiela.
So in one way it was refreshing to see Galliano exchange formerly lavish sets for a long plain background, just as he had done for his first comeback collection in January this year — which was shown in London, not Paris.
Yet starting over is not easy, under the cruel spotlight of fashion, where a wedding dress wrapped in sausages of white, serving as make-do ruffles, looked like something from a university student’s final show.
I wondered what message, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, which played repeatedly, was supposed to send? That Galliano was not shouting his return, but letting the message percolate slowly? Yet the clothes and the makeup, which included bruise-like smudges on the face or dark stains from hair to cheek, were not signs of a shrinking violet.
Programme notes talked about “cross pollination… divining an accidental and unconscious glamour”. The notes also defined the impenetrable fabrics as “swathes of Chinese mud silk meet British tweed”, and “Madagascan raffia” which “adorns painted neoprene”.
It is tough to think of this collection as Maison Margiela, rather than a series of Galliano’s personal fashion statements. Some of which were striking and wearable, especially a skirt of patchwork crochet squares, topped by a neat black jacket.
Big coats were bold and beautiful, including one with a gathered back, which held a Yves Klein blue satin attachment like a sculpted backpack.
Even ignoring the peculiarity of shoes with Perspex wings at the heel, there were many ideas from Galliano’s still fertile mind that could be transferred into more wearable ready-to-wear.
But the Margiela show, on the final day of a truncated Paris couture season, got to the heart of the matter. What is haute couture in the twenty-first century? Is it still the ‘laboratory of ideas’ that became a cliché for over-exaggerated outfits designed to attract photographers in a classic, client-led collection?
It is apparently not difficult to find people who can spend time and money on high fashion. The addition to the season of Fendi Furs, designed by Karl Lagerfeld, and of Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana, who are showing in Italy, proves that there are plenty of big spenders.
I would like to think that an imaginative client will pick up some of the finest Margiela ‘Artisanal’ pieces and work closely with John, as couture should allow.