There are too many ironies in the whole John Galliano-to-Maison Margiela story that compel—but that would require writing a book on this long saga. For now, I can say that the house’s founder, Martin Margiela, was known as fashion’s “invisible man”. On the complete flipside, up until the last few years, perhaps there was no more visible designer in the fashion industry than Galliano—not just in personality, but in his wildly theatrical and flamboyant work.
With everything that has happened since the designer’s drunken anti-Semitic rant and ousting at Dior, which is now the stuff of fashion lore, Galliano’s personality and work are slowly taking on the low-key mien that is the hallmark of the Maison Margiela label. This was made clear last night at an exclusive event in London’s Mayfair, where Maison Margiela held a civilized, low-key affair to celebrate the 5AC, Galliano’s first handbag for the house.
The bag was shown on the Spring 2016 catwalk, but hasn’t been written about much since, and, well, it should. Even in the overcrowded space of luxury bags, there is room to talk about this one, if only because it tells a story. The company calls the 5AC a “subverted, modern classic”. It has already been papped on the arm of Amal Clooney. (Her stylist, Lexy Roche, happens to be Galliano’s beau. There’s a delicious irony to a human rights lawyer carrying Galliano, but I won’t go there.) The bag itself is so austere that I’m guessing even Mr. Margiela and his abstemious Antwerp Six colleagues are probably thinking “WTF?” It has no bells or whistles. Rather, it is clinical, almost antiseptic, and it is simply beautiful.
The 5AC derives from Internet 133t speak, an early tech language that encodes the French word sac. The house didn’t use that terminology to puzzle customers, but to reinforce the bag’s futuristic qualities. The design itself has discreet details, starting with the extended “incognito” removable lining, which can be pulled outward and kept that way to create another silhouette if the mood strikes. You can also give the round handles a miss and use the detachable shoulder strap to turn it from a tote to a shoulder bag to cross body bag. Now, that is handy.
The pre-embossing leads to a sumptuous grained texture and though there are the clinical white and serious black versions, I love the iteration with hand-painted white splatters—a teeny tiny touch of the old Galliano combined with a study in restraint. So no pom-poms, stickers, or emoji’s, but instead, brass hardware that includes a subtle engraved padlock and key, as well as five mismatched base studs that protect the bag from everyday wear-and-tear. That, by the way, is essential when you lay an expensive, especially white, bag onto any surface, be it restaurant table or an Uber seat. Handcrafted by artisanal specialists in Florence (what luxury bag isn’t these days?), each one took over eight hours to make. But that does become clear when you see and touch it, and that is what accounts for the starting price, which is just shy of $3,000.
We all know that Renzo Rosso, whose holding company OTB owns Maison Margiela, is a genius. So it’s no wonder he would want to add another It bag to his stable, when one considers that accessories constitute 30 percent of the world’s luxury market. But what’s exciting about this bag is something larger—the 5AC is a representation of Galliano’s final stage of a complete shift of aesthetic, and maybe even state of mind.
Re-invention is key to surviving in the cutthroat business that is fashion. And with this bag, that box is ticked. This is less an accessory than a signal that a new Galliano is here. Well, sort of here. Like his predecessor, “The Invisible Man Margiela”, Galliano wasn’t at the event last night. Which is great. Better off working in the studio, or gym, or at home with Netflix, than hanging out at a London cocktail party.
Karl Lagerfeld once said wryly “If you are not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the arena. Fashion is sport now, and you have to run.” Galliano was born in Gibraltar and with that Spanish influence, has bullfighting in his DNA. Not only has Galliano re-entered the arena after a prolonged period of sincere penitence, but has done so with a clean and sober aesthetic, which translates into brilliant designs. For that, I have to applaud him.