Exploring Margiela's Genius: An Interview with Alison Chernick

photograph courtesy of Chernick

photograph courtesy of Chernick

How do you make a documentary about a subject who never shows his face and insists on being interviewed only by fax? When the subject is Martin Margiela and his eponymously named cult label Maison Martin Margiela, the legend alone is enough material. In the short documentary The Artist Is Absent, an obvious riff on Marina Abramović’s highly present retrospective performance at MoMA, documentarian filmmaker and writer Alison Chernick explores the myth, the legend, and the genius that is Margiela. Indeed, Margiela was a pivotal and controversial fulcrum in the world of high fashion – upcycling car seatbelts, blonde wigs and winter gloves, he created garments that defined sartorial rebellion and he made fashion adventurous. Starting with his breakout collection in 1989 and ending with his abrupt departure in 2009, the collections produced by Maison Margiela defied convention. The documentary, which has been produced by the Yoox Group, features the likes of Jean Paul Gautier, Raf Simons, and Geert Bruloot, who is largely credited with discovering Margiela and his talents. In the following interview, Chernick, who has created award-winning documentaries exploring artists like Matthew Barney and Julian Schnabel, talks to Autre about her first fashion documentary and her journey unlocking the mystery of Margiela. 

Autre: You’ve done a lot of documentaries about major contemporary visual artists, like Matthew Barney and Julian Schnabel, what was different about making a documentary about a designer versus making a documentary about an artist?  

Alison Chernick: A documentary on a fashion designer comes with an innate rhythm, a visual aesthetic, a beat that gives the footage fluidity as fashion is so much about body movement.  Fortunately for me he also is a complex and intriguing character so the film can also offer some deep commentary as well. A film on a visual artist is a totally different beast, often more esoteric with less of a natural rhythm.

Autre: What did you personally learn or discover about Margiela through the making of this documentary?

Chernick: What an original thinker he was. He was a leader, a provocateur, a maverick, a sentimentalist…the anti-designer. 

Autre: There has been a recent wave of documentaries about designers, why do you think fashion is being noticed more and more outside of the fashion world?

Chernick: Fashion is accessible to the masses and that’s why fashion films have such a large following. Everyone has to wear clothes; therefore each can connect to this material, literally, in some form or other.

Autre: If you were able to sit down with Margiela, what would you ask him?

Chernick: I'd chat with him about his new paintings - he's been painting and I look forward to seeing them.

A rare 1992 photo of Martin Margiela. Archives Villa Noailles

Autre: Have you always wanted to make documentary films?

Chernick: I sort of fell into it -- but there is an endless wealth of material to document, so there is never a shortage of topics -- its all pending accessibility

Autre: Can you name one documentary that really floored you, a documentary that made you want to make the same kind of films?

Chernick: How about docufiction? I often find that fiction can often get to the truth before documentary…I was floored by Hirokazu Koreeda's Nobody Knows. I’m also a big fan of Maurice Pialat. The Cove was pretty mind-blowing. Capturing the Friedmans was also was riveting. 

 Autre: Are there plans to making a feature length Margiela documentary?

Chernick: Not sure…not as of right now, but there has been talk.

Autre: What do you hope the audience watching the documentary will learn about the designer?

Chernick: I hope it will inspire artists to put fear aside and think outside the box, lead and don't follow. Follow your instinct. 

Autre: What’s next?

Chernick: Docufiction!

The Artist is Present will see its premier on Yoox – a premier fashion destination. There will also be selections from Margiela’s past collections available for purchase. You can explore Alison Chernick’s previous films on her website. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper