The surrealists used to play a game called Exquisite Corpse, in which each artist would contribute an element to an image, fold it over, and pass it on to someone else who would then add his or her bit with no knowledge of what had been done before. At the end of it all, there'd be some screwball composite that would inevitably betray an unpredictable internal logic.
What better analogy for the house of Maison Martin Margiela's Artisanal collection is there than the Exquisite Corpse? The recombinant elements of today's presentation strung together a grab bag of extraordinary bits and pieces that ultimately composed "a collective memory of Haute Couture" (or so claimed the show notes). But, typically, it was not the grandeur but the detritus of Couture—the fabric offcuts, the embroidery samples—that the collection celebrated.
Artisanal's modus operandi is alchemy: Turn a bagful of bottle tops into a shimmering skirt, stitch a handful of embroidered Van Gogh irises into an exotic sheath dress, and collage swatches of cashmere collected at trade fairs into a caftan. Or sew a mess of coins "sourced in various dressing-table drawers and from flea markets across Paris and Brussels" onto a flimsy wrap of fabric to make a jingly-jangly gypsy skirt. The ingenuity was enthralling; the fetishistic detailing of every hour, every bead or sequin slightly less so than usual, perhaps because the collection itself felt a little thin to begin with. It may be simply that the novelty has worn off. Or else the clothes themselves were less enthralling, more arbitrary than before. That was definitely the case with the lobster embroideries and the aluminum "I Love You" party balloon re-created as a crystal bustier.
And yet there was still a peculiar, irresistible romance in these clothes. A Paul Poiret coat trimmed into a gilet, a Line Vautrin brooch on a white cotton shirt it's like wearing history, which is, in a way, what Artisanal is all about. But it comes with a condition: You have to impose your history on the history of the materials.