Beyond The Margiela Myth

“I was not his teacher because he didn’t need a teacher,” says Jean Paul Gaultier of his former protégé Martin Margiela. “I knew that he could do something great, but I didn’t imagine at which point it would be great,” he continues.

At just under 12 minutes long, Alison Chernick’s new short The Artist is Absent (a reference to Marina Abramovic’s performance retrospective “The Artist is Present”) is a crash-course introduction to the world of Margiela. Very little is known about the Belgian fashion designer—over the course of his career, he chose not to interact with the press—but Chernick pulls memories from many of Margiela’s friends, contemporaries, and admirers. We learn that Margiela’s mother liked to break down and reconstruct furniture, in much the same way as her son did with clothing. Patrick Scallon, Margiela’s former communications director, explains that obscuring the faces of models in look books was more a question of money (or lackthereof) than a purposeful ploy to draw more attention to the clothing.

The Artist is Absent, which was produced by and is currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, is not a “fashion film.” Chernick affords Margiela the same respect as her previous subjects in the world of contemporary art, Jeff Koons (The Jeff Koons Show, 2004) and Matthew Barney (Matthew Barney: No Restraint, 2006). “To me, Martin is very much an artist,” Chernick says over the phone. “He takes his clothes to the next level and his designs aren’t based on just the principle of the runway, it’s very much an art.”

Chernick’s work is not limited to non-fiction. The New York-based filmmaker is currently working on a docufiction feature. “It’s another way to see the truth,” she notes. “To see it embellished—picking something relatable and reflecting on that from real life.”

EMMA BROWN: What made you decide on Martin Margiela as the subject of your film?

ALISON CHERNICK: As a filmmaker, you always want an enigmatic subject—one who’s multi-layered and fascinating. The organic unraveling process of a documentary lends itself to that conundrum of having this enigmatic figure; somebody who’s complicated and challenging. There’s no footage of Margiela, so that was yet another challenge. Of course, I love his clothes. He is a real iconoclast. His clothes are provocative, forward thinking, and sentimental at the same time. All of that together drew me into wanting to do a documentary on him. I had just finished doing several documentaries on artists. After I did the one on Matthew Barney, I was done documenting artists for a while, but I always said to myself, “The one person that I would still do is Martin Margiela.” Here we are.

BROWN: When you started out, did you have an idea of what sort of access you’d be able to get? Did you know that you probably couldn’t interview Martin himself, or were you hopeful?

CHERNICK: I met one of his head designers Goran Pejkoski who introduced the idea of making a film to Martin. Martin approved after having seen some of my previous subjects that I took on and I ended up getting the exclusive rights. It seemed like he believed in it. It was really supposed to be a feature but it ended up being a short for various reasons. It feels like the right length. I also didn’t go into his personal life; I wasn’t interested in that. It was really just about the work. Had it been an hour and a half film, then yes, I would have pursued working with him directly, but at this point, I was just respecting his craft and his disappearance.

BROWN: What materials did you start out with, and what was your approach to shooting? Did you want to shoot as much as possible and then edit it down?

CHERNICK:  There wasn’t so much to shoot because we were really going through the history. The Maison gave me a lot of awesome footage. My job was curating who I wanted to interview, and cherry-picking from those interviews the best way to tell the stories. I didn’t know how I was going to tackle it without having footage of him, but once you get into the edit room, the story really finds itself.

BROWN: Was everyone you wanted to speak to cooperative?

CHERNICK: Yes. People are such fans of Martin and they have such respect for him—that was the easy part. I went to Antwerp, to Brussels, to Milan, to Paris and I got what I needed. Had it been a feature, there would have been 20 more people I would interview in New York, but we certainly had enough people to make a short film. I interviewed about eight or nine people, and we probably used about six. I interviewed Renzo Rosso from Diesel who bought Margiela, and we decided in the editing room that we weren’t going into that part of the story, the more business side

BROWN: When you have a figure like Martin who is so admired by so many people, how do you go about paying tribute to him without making a glowing film about him?

CHERNICK: I think the skill of an interviewer is to pull out the most relevant, the most honest, and the most truthful information and bites and opinions. It’s my job to find a story within that. I had the same [situation] with Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney, where people that are close to them, they’re never just going to say, “Oh, they’re so wonderful.” They’re really going to explain and elucidate as to why they are so respected. Those answers usually run pretty deep, so I never really had the problem of the simplicity of the love letter; it always became more complex as interesting humans tend to be. There was enough to talk about that was interesting about Martin’s work that it didn’t become this congratulatory film.

BROWN: Was there one moment in the history of Margiela where you thought, “This is Margiela at his peak”?

CHERNICK: I think from the get-go. I’m not sure if that was a peak for him, but he really was onto something from day one. We opened the film with one of his really early shows in the suburbs. He was already using things from everyday life—trashbags, seatbelts, and turning shoulder pads inside out. There’s something very sentimental about the way he would use things from his roots—our roots—or from his grandmother’s closet and really transform them. You feel this sense of sentimentality, yet it’s very authentic. He’s almost like the anti-designer—it’s very poetic.

BROWN: Do you think there could be another Martin today?

CHERNICK: It doesn’t seem like it. It seems like in celebrity culture, what he did was so inventive that it was part of the times.

BROWN: Do you ever get writers block?

CHERNICK: Not if everything is there. Then it’s just a matter of time, trying different things, figuring out what doesn’t work. It’s trial and error, and when it does work, the marriage between two bites next to each other with certain footage is like, “Boom!” That’s when you know it works and you’re on a roll.  Figuring out the entry point is always challenging, but once you get there— especially when it’s an interesting subject—you move through it.

BROWN: Do you remember the first documentary you watched?

CHERNICK: I don’t know if I remember the very first, but I remember being very influenced by D. A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles and the cinema verité boys, back in the day.

BROWN: Albert Maysles said something about how the reason his subjects trusted was because they knew he’s never going to use something that would hurt them. I know that when I interview someone, I want to become both compassionate and as objective as you can be. How do you deal with that as a director?

CHERNICK: It’s exactly as Albert was saying: the more safe you make somebody feel, the truth is going to come out. As a director, if I’m doing an interview, it’s great to let them know that I’m on the same page, or that they’re safe and I respect them, and then usually you get the most honest answers.

BROWN: You mentioned you were close to Maysles before he passed away. What was the best advice he gave you about filmmaking?

CHERNICK: When I was doing the Matthew Barney film and we were getting financing, people used to ask me, “What’s your angle?” That spurred a conversation with him. I said, “How would I know? I haven’t gotten on the ship yet, on the whaling vessel on the coast of Nagasaki,” and he said, “Isn’t that so ridiculous? It’s like asking an infant what they want to be when they grow up. You don’t know until you get there.” [That realization] just allows you the freedom of the unknown; it allows you to feel secure going into a space relying on your instinct, your vision, and your directing capabilities to make the best of what you have. When Albert put the stamp on that, “Of course you’re not going to know the film you’re about to go make” —that was the most liberating.