Being a designer is one thing, but building a fashion brand from the ground up is a whole other ball-game. Going from a solitary mode of creation in the attic room to running a company where interns, assistants and designers need to be managed alongside a press department, administration and a retail team, it is needless to say one must be pretty skilled at pulling several strings simultaneously to make it work successfully. Building a team that speaks the same artistic language is one of the most crucial things for any designer wanting to steadily grow a legacy; hence, having somebody on board who is able to translate one’s vision into a space is not something to overlook.

Shop in Hong Kong

Martin Margiela is arguably one of the designers who comes to mind quickest when thinking about brands that have a distinct architectural language. One thinks of the serene, white headquarters, or the stores across the globe which are little worlds of their own. Most of the latter were envisioned by Eduardo Dente in close collaboration with Margiela himself. From 1997 until 2013, Dente has continually posed himself the same question for his work at the fashion house: “How to remain ourselves without falling into something more typical?” Not one to shy away from a challenge, Dente transformed shoebox-size stores into disco balls and created tiny castles overnight.

For the occasion of the upcoming Margiela exhibition, opening this weekend in the MoMu in Antwerp, we reveal the first half of our interview with the design manager.

“One thing is a garment, and the other is a space.”

I wanted to ask you about your career – you have a very mysterious LinkedIn [laughter]. You studied in Cordoba, is that where you’re from as well?

I was born in Argentina, yes. And I studied economics for a few years, and then I switched to communications.

So you never studied anything ‘creative’ or ‘visual’?

No, not at all.

How did you then end up at Margiela?

I moved to France, and after a few years of not knowing what I wanted to do, I got in contact with the company at the beginning of 1997. It was a very short term contract; I was hired to take away the decorations in a showroom and to prepare a new showroom, mainly painting chairs and tables etc. Then I started to have more short term contracts, mainly in the press office, where I worked on the organisation of fashion shows and other ordinary assistant tasks. Fortunately, this was during the retail development of the company, so Jenny Meirens, Mr Margiela’s partner at the time, asked me to start thinking about retail installations. In the beginning it was only in department stores, in France, and another one in Tokyo, but that’s how it started. I think I was in the right place at the right time. And I think the company didn’t seek to hire – how can I say this? – like a formal interior designer or architect. They just saw something in people that could be good for the brand, and that’s it.

Shop in Ebisu, Tokyo

Was it Jenny Meirens who had the talent to see those possibilities in young people?

I think so. As I told you, I shared my time with the press office and the studio, organising the collection. Then, for these first two projects in department stores, there was an external architect who did the plans, so I was the link between the department stores and the architect. The architect then moved to a different city, so it was me who started to do the interior design. Then there were other people hired, and I became the manager. It was slow progress, but steady, and it was not difficult for me to understand the style of the company. I was backed up by Jenny Meirens and slowly started to work directly with Mr Margiela.

“How to remain ourselves without falling into something more typical?”

You said that it was easy to understand the Margiela aesthetic, were you already sensible to fashion?

I think so. I knew the brand since I was in Argentina.

So you must have been following the fashion scene closely?

No, not at all actually. My friends in Paris and Argentina were very much into fashion, and I heard about the brand through them. When I first saw pictures I found it quite weird. Not something I expected as beautiful [laughter]. Then I got into the company with a contract, and you start breathing a certain energy. It’s very important to learn things on an everyday scale – it’s not something that’s imposed as a general direction. Nothing was planned actually. When the company really started to have their own shops – the first one was in Tokyo – everything was conceived by Mr Margiela and I was helping him in logistics, choosing furniture for example. We went to Tokyo together, so I started to very spontaneously understand the brand. In my case, it was a lot about intuition. They would say “Okay, we need a certain amount of tables,” but there was no brief about the period or the taste, I just understood that it had to be anonymous. That’s why we went to a lot to flea markets and the Salvation Army etc. Everything was homogeneously put in terms of white, and it came a lot through intuition. In the beginning I had to have my decisions approved with pictures, but very quickly I went to places to buy furniture or get inspiration by myself, and I learned to propose projects to Mr Margiela myself instead of waiting for his brief. This happened when he became very busy with the collections and the development of the new menswear collections, and the accessories and so on. I had to adapt myself to his timetable, and sometimes we realised it was more economical to prepare my ideas and let him validate them – or not [laughs] – and I would develop the projects in a more autonomous way.

The few times a proposition did not work (but fortunately this didn’t happen a lot), it was because of the organization of the space, the placement of each collection regarding its value towards another. Curiously, many times we were confronted with spaces in which the most interesting area was more at the back, and thus, sometimes we had to display (and Mr Margiela “resigned”) the secondary women collection more at the entrance of a shop, which looks quite illogical.

“We never quoted someone, we never tried to reproduce a certain period of design. We never talked about art, although we were constantly inspired by it.”

It’s interesting how you describe the Margiela company growing so naturally. I don’t think that would be possible today – there is less space to grow slowly.

That’s a very interesting remark Aya – I wonder if nowadays this person like me, without a formal training, or even experience, could have had the same opportunities. I don’t think so. Things are so well structured (or badly structured, doesn’t matter). That is part of our economy of time and management, to want to fix things immediately. I think the curious thing with the brand is that people didn’t expect the retail (the autonomous shops) to develop so fast. It went so fast, we had so many projects at the same time… but the anti-economical thing was that for every project we had to do something different. It was so fun! We were playing with materials and ideas. It was a very unorganised exercise of repetition. Unorganised repetition, but nothing chaotic. Once a friend – a designer – said to me: “You know Eduardo, what is funny about the brand is, when you go to a place you designed, it looks like you just came over during the night, and you’re ready to pack everything up and leave again.” And it was true! We never had any heavy work in the spaces – in that way, we were already different from most of the brands that existed at the time. I liked this idea of spontaneity. Spontaneity was crucial in almost every project, every realization of retail design. I think we operated like a baroque machine: combinations of disparate elements that reach harmony through contrast, in this quasi-chaotic repetition. Once the practical and mandatory matters were solved, it was more a “dressing” of the space. The idea of gathering distinct elements strengthened this idea of spontaneity.

All the decorations had to be seen as something secondary, because the most important were the collections. In the showrooms, we provided a service to our own colleagues or partners to show the heart of the collections. It was very important to keep it balanced, and not to show ourselves (the design team) as too artistic, or too much into the architecture of the time, or too much into the design of the moment. We learned how not to boast or show off ourselves. The most important thing was the product. Everybody in the team learned a lot. When I started hiring people (I had a set decorator, architect and so on), it takes you some time to get into the mood. We found very quickly, with this attitude, not to do something too modern, or too defined by a certain period in the past, but to put those things together and to find a certain harmony with the furniture.

It is true that the clothes always come first. When you enter a shop the interior isn’t in your face, but when you look further, you definitely notice it. Like the trompe l’oeil, for example.

[Laughs] That is true! The idea of the trompe l’oeils existed already, but was never captured in the right way. We first started using it very simply to cover an ugly door in the company. I liked the idea of a certain punk aesthetic and street art. The original one was done on photocopy paper, not real wallpaper, so it had wrinkles when you applied the glue, like a poster in the street. It had to be… not very nice, you see what I mean? It had to be like a spontaneous gesture. Then we started doing that in a more panoramic way, it was something that came – I cannot find the right synonym for spontaneous but I think it’s the right word – it had to be effortless. But it’s nice that you mention the trompe l’oeil, which shop did you see it in?

“We had to make sure not to become a slave of the past.”

I’m from Brussels, so that’s the shop I know well.  

Ah, that shop is very small. That was a peculiar project because it was one of the first shops after Tokyo, and it was a partnership with the store owner, who put a lot of energy into the interior as well. It was also good to appreciate the perception of the brand from outside, something that happened to me multiple times with other partners and other people who did the other lines. It was interesting, and sometimes it was difficult for me to balance the perception from outside with my own perception. The owner in Brussels, for example, had the collection for years before she opened the shop. But it was this kind of negotiation between the external perception and our own work. It was a very interesting exercise in adaptation – to the moment, to the change of taste, to new expectations towards the brand, and how we could develop projects in different cities in the world, sometimes purposefully not taking the cultural context into account. Mr Margiela once said to me: “The important thing is that a shop, the general atmosphere, must be seen as something French, because we are a French company.” That was a very interesting brief, but making a shop in Hong Kong, making one in Osaka, New York, London, was very interesting for me who’s not French (so I have my own perception of what should be French). For me it was something surrealistic: we were in Asia, in North Europe, in the States, so how do you get your own identity from that city? The client must feel transported away, so you must work on the perception of people, if you see what I mean. They have to be astonished.

Shop in Brussels

Another friend of mine said about the first shop in London: “I was walking around and there was something weird, I immediately felt like I was in a familiar place, and then I realised it felt like my childhood.” This boy was born in France. That was really a nice compliment. That he had that weird feeling, something he couldn’t put into words, and that I gave him this feeling using a couple of doors. In other projects as well, an installation with the Cité de l’Architecture in Trocadero and ELLE decorations for example. It was very graphic, a lot of grey and black, and silver; it was quite strict, yet somebody said that the space was feminine, and I was very happy with that comment because the company was known as women’s fashion. You see what I mean? When we had to prepare spaces for the women’s collection, the space had to be in a certain way feminine as well. That a woman could feel comfortable in a space designed by men. We had to think about energy. This was very subtle – some visitors even asked for their money back because there was nothing to see.

“Margiela always wanted visitors to say – “Oh my god! These people are crazy, look what they put in their space.” He wanted an effort to think about something, not necessarily spectacular, but ironic.”

That energy doesn’t just come from the decoration, but also from the location. Do you agree?

That was definitely a strategy in the past, to choose shops in more unexpected locations, which also was the solution to a certain economic problem. I think this has changed today, but again, even when the locations were in main streets, or close to main streets, the quality was… how to remain ourselves without falling into something more typical?

I think it relates back to this idea of negotiation. Everybody has a strong abstract idea about what Margiela means. When you translated his ideas to the interior, was it guided by Margiela? Or was it about you looking at his work and interpreting that?

There are two things. My team and I found ourselves exploring a couple of things that we saw in the collections, but one thing is a garment, and the other is a space. To consolidate this, I came to the idea to have a strict matrix, at least until 2008, or a few years until after Mr Margiela left the company. We had the advantage to work with him directly – taking pictures of inspiration together, looking at model scales to have an idea of the space – so the translation came from him directly. When I showed him something to do in a space, he was the art director; he guided us. He would sometimes say: “This idea is very beautiful, but it’s not us.” It was very interesting to work with the intuition and the energy, something that had to match with the company. That’s an exercise you learn over time, and later you feel free to propose new things.

Unfortunately there were always technical limitations, and we often had to work with an official architect for legal reasons – because we’re a fashion company, we couldn’t always do changes to a building. But it was interesting to match the profile of an external architect, who is used to doing things in a certain way, with our crazy ideas. The development of our projects was about negotiation: legal matters, city halls, authorities, and so on. It was very interesting because you learn what is possible in every country, and it gives you limits, which is very good.

Going back to your questions, I didn’t see the collections to get inspired, because the collections are unfortunately only one season and a space has to last more years than a single collection. With Mr Margiela, we were never immediately concerned for one or several collections.

Words Jorinde Croese Interview Aya Noël Images Courtesy of Eduardo Dente