Tuesday, June 28

how does nom*d do it?

How does someone sell Maison Martin Margiela in a city at the bottom of the world, almost 20,000 kilometers from Paris? At some point in the 90s, when Margarita Robertson visited Margiela’s showroom, Martin Margiela himself momentarily lifted his veil of elusivity to ask her this very question. 

Centered on a deconstructed high-end and vintage aesthetic, Robertson’s label NOM*d is iconic in New Zealand. Its influence can be distinctly felt in Dunedin, the small South Island student city where Robertson also runs PLUME – a high-end fashion store that sells Rick Owens, Margiela, COMME des ĢARCONS, and, of course, NOM*d. 

In Dunedin, well-informed students, artists, and those interested in maintaining a gothic edge can often be found wearing NOM*d socks with low-cut Doc Martens, monochromatic layers of non-gendered clothing (often NOM*d or from PLUME), and multiple chunky silver rings and necklaces. Here, Robertson’s taste has inspired an entire fashion uniform.

Determined to highlight and recognise Robertson’s thirty three years designing and tastemaking, the Dunedin Public Art Gallery put on a show, called 3.33.12, to celebrate Robertson. For a month this year in a large, dimly lit room on the second floor of the gallery stood twelve meticulously styled mannequins – elevated above onlookers and to be studied from all sides.

The clothing on display was collected by Robertson over three decades from fashion capitals Tokyo and Paris, and, somewhat unexpectedly, Dunedin.

Projected on the wall behind the display were three films by Richard Shaw, Max Bellamy, and Laurent Soleran. The films, shot in each city, depicted looped montages of public spaces, people, and cityscapes the streets of city. The constant movement and diegetic sounds behind the mannequins give them life and context.

On the wooden floorboards beneath the clothing display was a thick and uneven layer of salt crystals. And partly submerged in the salt were three more small screens that showed archive footage from fashion shows (catwalks and behind the scenes) around the world.

Each outfit was layered with multiple textures and striking details that took several revisits in order to fully admire. Despite the time, location, and design differences the clothing appeared to be aesthetically related, connected by similar visions and intellect, and not specifically feminine or masculine, as if made for a type of human who nobly transcended constraints.  

The first two outfits were COMME des ĢARCONS from 1983 and 1998. One was a bricolage of cream-white pieces, while the other outfit’s most alluring detail was a Noir Collection double-breasted polyester jacket with lurex-gloved sleeves that fell like shadows behind the mannequin’s hands. These outfits represented Robertson’s encounter with the label when she visited Japan and the powerful influence of its clean, minimal design on her own. 

An outfit by Yohji Yamamoto from 1985 followed, then a black coat-dress and red skirt by Zambesi from 1984, which is another important New Zealand label created by Robertson’s sister. This ensemble marked Zambesi’s emergence onto the scene as a complete label. 

Three outfits by Margiela (from from between 1996 and 2000) showed off an incredible array of textures and design techniques. Like COMME, Margiela’s conceptual exploration in his designs was pivotal for Robertson. Another outfit was also was mostly Margiela except an oversized, black-wool blazer by Vetements, who Robertson described as “the new kid on the block,” although the label has been around for a few years now. 

The other featured designers were Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester. The outfit by John Paul Gaultier was by far the most colourful and included his famous tattoo-mesh long-sleeved nylon t-shirt and high-heeled sneakers.

On a Friday in March a crowd gathered at the gallery to hear Robertson speak about her collecting. As the room quietened, Robertson appeared with two hosts in the slither of space between the audience and the display. She had smokey eyes, drawn-in eyebrows, and dark lipstick. Her white hair was pulled back off her face in a tight plait. She wore all black, of course. 

Robertson's look is always consistent: she seems like a somewhat feminised Karl Lagerfeld, or perhaps a goth-punk with a penchant for high-end fashion. Her dark, utilitarian style does not at all reflect her personality, which is bright and youthful – a bundle of constant laughter and modesty. Choosing to make a living off her store and label in city far from any major fashion centers, failure may have been inevitable if she was anything but gracious.

So, how did Robertson triumph and not fail over the past thirty three years? How has she consistently sold labels like Margiela and COMME in Dunedin? And how did she not end up moving elsewhere in New Zealand or overseas? 

It would have never been smooth-sailing for the designer, but everything about this show brings me closer to understanding how she did it. Answers can be found in the dedicated crowd that turned up to hear her speak, the impeccable attention to detail and global design trends that is evident in the displayed outfits, and the curiosity and loyalty that took Robertson on fashion adventures far and wide, but always, eventually, led her back home.


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