“I wanted to change certain things that I didn’t agree with in the fashion system. Shows and sittings and press, all details like this. In every step we made, we wanted to have our own strategy.”

In the current whirlpool of our increasingly corporatised fashion industry, visionary creativity is often reduced to individual authorship. This authorship is individual because it is the entity that is most easily instrumentalised when, say, taking up roles as creative directors at major international fashion houses — just look at the abrupt break-up of Parisian brand Vetements’ collective spirit as only one of its members, the Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, was appointed at Balenciaga. It is individual because in fashion, what is fetishised and mythicised is the maker, the genius, the couturier. The modern fashion designer is largely understood as a kind of lonely artist accidentally placed inside the machinery of capitalist consumption, the latter of which rarely receives any attention and certainly not accolades. But of course, behind every great designer story, there’s an even greater business story. For better or for worse, avant-garde design’s strength lies in its impact on everyday lives, and through consumption.

One of such stories is that of Jenny Meirens. The Belgian businesswoman co-founded the most important brand of the 90s, Maison Martin Margiela, and ensured its financial and creative viability for almost two decades. Having defied fame to an even greater extent than her business partner (who famously never gave an interview, and whose absence at his own brand was only realised a few years after his departure), Jenny was the quiescent backbone of an entirely new way of doing fashion — a legacy whose immensity only continues to expand today in fashion schools across the globe. As I try to explain this to her over the phone on a sunny day in Spring, overwhelmed with the fact that she’s within communicative reach, Jenny states, humbly: “Thank you. Thanks a lot.”

But in fact, Jenny’s story begins much earlier, as she was already an established name in the Belgian fashion industry before the fruitful synthesis with Martin Margiela (then still a student at the Royal Academy in Antwerp). Entering the booming textile industry of Belgium through her marriage, she ran a notable concept store in Brussels in the 80s with prominent avant-garde Belgian and European designers; most notably, there was also Yohji Yamamoto. “I was very interested in the Japanese when they arrived,” she recalls clearly — so much so that she opened and operated an exclusive Comme des Garçons franchise in Brussels only a few years later.

She first met Martin when she sat in the jury of the Golden Spindle, the famous state-sponsored design competition hosted by the Royal Academy in Antwerp, conceived to promote Belgian designers and the textile industry. “Antwerp and Brussels were quite different: there was more happening in Brussels than in Antwerp at that time,” she recalls. “Several experimental dance groups were setting up in the city, so there was a lot going on in the music industry. But on the fashion side, more things had been happening in Antwerp.” The Antwerp Academy instituted its famous fashion department in the 1960s, but rose to national and international prominence under the tenure of fashion educator Mary Prijot in the 80s, leading to the graduation and international export of the Antwerp Six in the same decade (notably, Jenny refers to the group as the Antwerp Seven, referring to the uncredited member Margiela). In her six-year term, the fierce educator oversaw the training of Dries Van Noten, Marina Yee, Dirk Van Saene, and Ann Demeulemeester amongst others (Demeulemeester won the inaugural Golden Spindle in 1982, the year of Bikkembergs’ graduation) — and of course, Martin Margiela, who Prijot once claimed “was strong from the very beginning.”

“Although he never won the competition, it was through there that I met him several times, and came to know him better,” Jenny explains. “Afterwards, he was very interested in the way I did my shop, and he would often visit it in Brussels. I organised exhibitions and shows, and each time, he would come. That’s how we became friends, and started talking about different things.”

“Fashion business doesn’t have to be a compromise on creativity. I think it’s really a total misunderstanding with young people today, who think that being more commercial means being less creative. Actually, it should be the opposite.”

Meanwhile, Margiela had begun assisting Jean Paul Gaultier in the early- and mid-eighties, and found himself positioned in the spectacular epicentre of the Parisian high fashion world, then at the height of sartorial glamour (“I already knew he was good, but I didn’t realise to what extent,” Gaultier famously said later on. Ironically, Gaultier was to replace his former assistant as Hermes’ creative director when Margiela stepped down in 2003). But in 1987, he returned to the store in Brussels to propose to Jenny a serious offer. “He wanted to start his own company, and he proposed to me that I should join in the creation of it,” she retraces with some amusement. “I was concerned, but said yes immediately.” And so began the Margiela brand, which was to transgress and redefine the very definition of fashion in the last decade of the 20th century. Not without struggle, though: Jenny admits that Martin was more concerned with making than with doing business. “He was not interested in the business side. Not at all. The opposite! He was convinced, because he came from Gaultier, that we would immediately find an investor who would pay for everything. I told him immediately that it would not be possible. Obviously it didn’t happen, so I told him that we needed to start a small company instead. He never was interested in the business. Every decision, he left it to me.”

Yet, despite this disinterest, business strategy lies at the heart of Margiela’s conceptual oeuvre. As the pinnacle figure of the 90s anti-fashion movement that redefined sartorial understanding of construction, shape, silhouette and materiality, embedded into his (or rather, their) practice was also a strong subversive critique of the fashion system as a whole. As a seasoned buyer and fashion industry insider, Jenny developed through her collaboration with Martin a way to subvert the professional and communicative structures of clothing. Famously, it was in the 90s that Margiela and Meirens held fashion shows in circus tents; incorporated brass music and running school children in the presentation of the collections; asked editors to negotiate their own seating at shows based on level of importance; and most significantly, completely removed labels on their garments to counter the fetishised authorship of high fashion. “A lot of things I did by intuition,” Jenny admits as we discuss these moments. “It was my own opinion, and I wanted to change certain things that I didn’t agree with in the fashion system. Shows and sittings and press, all details like this. In every step we made, we wanted to have our own strategy.” Looking back, these initiatives, remembered and forgotten, were an equally important constituent of the brand Martin Margiela. “There was no strategy behind it as such. We only wanted to have more democracy. We wanted everyone to experience fashion in the same way.”

While it seems harmful today, democracy was a far outcry in an industry that is historically and notoriously elitist, classicist and hierarchal. Pre-high street, the consumer experience of high fashion was reserved to a select few; as an industry structured around an archaic system of Paris couturiers in the 1800s. “With democracy, it was not only about the way the clothes were shown, but I think really in the way that the whole company worked,” Jenny adds. “The people who were working in the different departments had more to say in every decision. The people we brought in to work in the studio as stagières [interns] would become head of commercial affairs after a few years. There was this very human approach on all levels.”

Discussing these early strategies of communication and branding, Jenny remembers the complete synthesis of making and communicating fashion. “On every detail, Martin asked my opinion. We collaborated a lot on certain things. With the clothes themselves, I attended the fittings and he often asked my opinion. The rest of the branding, we decided together – and certain things I decided on my own,” she laughs amicably.

Overall, Jenny finds today’s constructed gap between art and commerce, or fashion design and fashion business, to be a large misconception. “I think the commercial was at least as important as the collection itself,” she states. She was never in doubt that the strength of the brand Margiela lay in the multidisciplinary collaboration between Martin the designer and Jenny the businesswoman; approaching and playing with every aspect of their brand with equal enthusiasm and innovation. “Fashion business doesn’t have to be a compromise on creativity. I think it’s really a total misunderstanding with young people today, who think that being more commercial means being less creative. Actually, it should be the opposite.” Here, Jenny’s daughter Sophie, a long-term Margiela employee and current tutor at the Flanders Fashion Institute, joins in: “Thinking creatively about business was all Jenny’s input. She had a creative way of thinking about business. Together with Martin they decided to do things not just like what was in fashion, in the way you do a fashion show. It is less known because they were less public, but even the showrooms were controversial; the organisation and presentation of the clothes was very new and personal.”

Jenny and Martin staged their first show in Paris in 1988 to raving reviews, and received the prestigious ANDAM fellowship the year after. Catching the momentum of the Antwerp Six (who had invaded London’s Olympia Hall fashion fair two years earlier) and enjoying the aftershock of the so-called ‘Japanese Invasion’ into Paris a decade earlier (permitting a whole new form and language of fashion to be shown and worn), it would seem that fashion was ready for their subliminally subversive vision. But as we discuss these early years, Jenny far from romanticises the efforts that went into setting up a highly conceptual fashion brand. “There was a lot of struggle in the beginning,” she underpins. “There was not just one difficult thing. It starts with the clothes, it starts with production, it starts with the way we did fashion shows. Everything. A lot of struggle.” The duo would work closely together, planning every move of the brand from all aspects and perspectives. “We would fight until the end,” she simply states. Did she ever consider quitting, I ask her politely? “No, never,” she replies promptly. “I believed in it. For the long term, I believed in it. But I was very conscious that the way we did it, it would take more time.”

We discuss the golden rules of fashion business, and what advice she would give to young practitioners starting their own brands today. As with Martin and herself, she underlines the invaluable knowledge that comes with working for someone else – regardless of their similarity to you – before beginning one’s personal endeavour. “The best you can do is to work for somebody else for a couple of years,” she tells me. “To learn and listen to what is going on there. And then, to realise that if they want to start their own company, it will be very difficult the first years. At least five years. The best advice is to be extremely realistic. And to find a particular way of doing your way; to find your identity, and to make it strong. The stronger it is, the better it is. And apply this identity not only to your collection, but throughout your complete business.”

“The best advice is to be extremely realistic.”

And somewhere along the line, success did arrive. Jenny felt this as the workload increased, and their partnership grew into a larger corporate structure. “There was so much to do that every person had to have their own responsibilities, and you cannot do everything together. You start needing to do your own area with your own people.” Furthermore, in 1997, Martin assumed the role of creative director at Hèrmes. Increasingly, Margiela became the ultimate name of the new millennium.

Jenny sold the Margiela brand to Renzo Rosso’s OTB Group in 2002, 14 years after staging their first show in Paris. For some time, quintessentially for Martin’s absent authorship in his name-sake label, it was uncertain whether he was still involved with the brand; finally, in 2009, it was publicly announced that neither Martin nor Jenny any longer had any affiliations with the brand. Martin was, however, fully involved with the Maison until 2008, when he concluded his career with the show of the company’s 20th birthday. According to his long-time photographer friend Marina Faust, who is the only one to have documented his entire career, Martin did not renew his contract with Renzo Rosso in 2008; Rosso decided not to announce this to the public for quite a while, which created ‘a kind of limbo situation’.

In many ways, 2002 marked the beginning of the end for 90s avant-garde anti-fashion, as well as the idyll of independent fashion production; the noughties instead saw the rise of the fashion conglomerate, a system so extremely prevalent today. Jil Sander terminated collaboration with her namesake brand in 2004, 75% of which was by then owned by the Prada Group; Helmut Lang sold his company in 2005 to holding firm Link Theory; and in 2013, Ann Demeulemeester left her eponymous label owned by BVBA 32, never to return. “I understand everyone who leaves fashion – no problem,” Raf Simons expressed in a recent interview, sympathising with his Belgian predecessors that would rather leave than to lose independence. He quit Dior weeks later, reportedly “for personal reasons”.

Her vast experience as a shop-owner before entering the fashion business gave Jenny the knowledge and awareness of how retail and consumerism works. And while Margiela was and remains famous for its extremely loyal following amongst consumers, she emphasises that this precious relationship was built through long-standing collaborations with stores. “Back then, shops would watch us for one to three seasons and then, when they finally started buying, they would buy for a very long time,” she explains. “For a lot of shops and brands, our businesses grew together. We built our business with the shops, and the shops built their business with the collection of Martin – amongst others, of course. There was certainly that need for business to grow mutually.”

This mutually gratifying partnership between independent retail spaces and independent designers was the foundation for a unique commercial eco-system – one that permitted the aggressive flowering of specialist avant-garde design in Europe with small but devoted followers. This landscape has, without exaggeration, completely changed today, not least because of e-commerce, but also due to fashion belonging to more people. “The business has changed so much,” she reflects. “Today, it’s all about a concept store where they continuously want to bring new things because their customers can find everything on the Web. The business side of fashion has changed so much that it’s impossible to compare, really.”

“Back in the day, you would have buyers who would really invest in collections. They would even need a few seasons to educate their customers. It was a long-term story. But now, through all this input from all different mediums, I think the stores have changed completely. And of course there’s the competition from the big groups. I mean, how many designers are able to run their businesses independently?” Jenny elaborates. She explains fashion’s ‘vicious circle’, in which designers are forced into selling their brands to holding groups due to a lack of support from stores; however, this rapid up-buying of young designers makes it difficult for stores to initiate a relationship in time.

As Jenny expresses, the gap between art and commerce is in fact a misunderstood relation. Rather, it’s a question of independence. As we discuss Margiela and the many other brands of his generation, the subject falls on conglomerates again. Is it a viable strategy for doing fashion design? “It depends,” Jenny says cautiously, before correcting herself: “But if you work for a company, you’re always dependent on that group. And a group is automatically going to set limits. So I think if we’re talking about innovative designers, then you need to be independent. And I think that’s what a lot of people are missing today. I think that’s why it’s been quite a while since we’ve had something new and really exciting in fashion.”

“I think if we’re talking about innovative designers, then you need to be independent. And I think that’s what a lot of people are missing today. I think that’s why it’s been quite a while since we’ve had something new and really exciting in fashion.”

Jenny, however, is hardly in mourning, and as a 71-year old grandmother of three, she enjoys the life she found after several decades in the fashion industry. “I have been working a lot, and I try to enjoy life now,” she attests with a certain humble pride. She is thankful as I compliment her for the overwhelming imprint of Margiela as today’s lingua franca of forward-looking fashion, from the BA studios of Central Saint Martins to the couture ateliers of Paris. She does not follow any fashion brands as such, but her insider knowledge and industry savoir-faire is hard to conceal even in retirement. “I’m very happy about my life. I know that I would not be able to live without fashion, but I had to leave. I love what I did then, but I love my life too now.”

I ask again: any favourite contemporary designer?
“I don’t have one. Honestly speaking.”

Words Jeppe Ugelvig