He is one of the most influential and enigmatic designers on the global fashion stage. An anomaly in an industry that places enormous value on the image and accessibility of its personalities, Mr. Margiela has maintained an astonishing elusiveness. He refuses to grant face-to-face interviews and has rarely been photographed, he does not take a bow at his shows, and all correspondence from his atelier here is traditionally written in the plural form with the signature “Maison Martin Margiela.” This policy has led Mr. Margiela to be called fashion’s invisible man. His influence, perhaps as great as that of any living designer, is less often questioned than is his very existence.
But his impact is even more obvious on the designers he has influenced, including Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen and everyone else who showed pointed shoulders over the last seasons. Azzedine Alaia recently called Mr. Margiela the last individual vision.
A graduate of Belgium’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts and a former assistant to Jean Paul Gaultier in Paris, Mr. Margiela was among a group of designers from Antwerp who caused a shift in fashion in the late ’80s by tearing apart and reassembling garments at the seams, introducing techniques that would have a lasting impact on everything from streetwear to haute couture.
Mr. Margiela’s runway shows have been alternately electrifying or humorous or sexy or just plain weird, as when he introduced a hooflike shoe in 1992 that has since become a Margiela signature.
Many people have seen him, and in fact longtime store buyers and editors often recognize him sitting in the audience at his shows. Tall and classically handsome, he wears his own version of a uniform, often a tight black sweater in the winter or a T-shirt in summer, with Levi’s and a dark cap pulled down low over his eyes.
His decision to cloak himself in fashion’s shadows was made several years after Mr. Margiela formed his company with Jenny Meirens, a Brussels retailer, in 1988. He answered some reporters’ questions and was photographed until the mid-’90s, when, in reaction to the growing celebrity culture that had given rise to supermodels and designers who were household names, he suddenly stopped talking.
In the ’90s, as Mr. Margiela developed a loyal following, his silence created great curiosity, but also a mix of resentment from magazines that refused to cover his collections because the designer would not meet with editors, and respect from those who admired his position.