Thierry Mugler, Provocateur

French fashion designer Thierry Mugler passed away on January 23 at the age of 73. The first major retrospective of his work opened in 2019 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is now on view through April at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.
Thierry Mugler and Jerry Hall, Paris, 1996. © The Helmut Newton Estate

“Paris chic by way of Planet Krypton” is how Vogue once described Thierry Mugler’s aesthetic. Thierry-Maxime Loriot, curator of the retrospective Thierry Mugler: Couturissime, calls the style “a kind of futurist version of the New Look with a touch of fantasy and fetishism.” Mugler amped up the hourglass silhouette favored by Dior and elicited the same feminist criticisms as his predecessor had half a century earlier. Like high heels, though, his fashions can be viewed both as restrictive and as empowering. The designer has argued for the latter: “In my work I’ve always tried to make people look stronger than they really are, like superwomen or supermen. I’ve often been told how much more self-confident people have become when they wore my designs.”

Now 70, Strasbourg native Thierry Mugler began his career as a ballet dancer, which shaped his body-conscious approach to design and also his sense of showmanship. After moving to Paris at 20 and then leading a nomadic life as a freelance fashion designer, he created his first line in 1973. Called Café de Paris, it was already unapologetically Muglerian – ultrafeminine and architectural, eschewing even a whiff of flower power. His collection included short dresses in chamois, in those days used only for cleaning glass. Actress Lauren Bacall picked one up, becoming his first celebrity client. The use of unconventional materials would remain a consistent theme in his work. The first designer to embrace colorful faux fur, he would go on to incorporate silicone, rubber, plexiglass, chrome, and PVC into his creations.

In 1978, Mugler opened his first boutique in Paris. Conceived by the world-renowned French designer Andrée Putman, it was covered in gold-colored tiles for full glam effect. That same year, he hired photographer Helmut Newton to shoot his first advertising campaign. Newton became so annoyed by his micromanaging that he suggested Mugler do the job himself. While the two would collaborate frequently over the following decades, Mugler did indeed take Newton’s advice and branched out into photography.

Helmut Newton for Thierry Mugler, Vêtue/Dévêtue, Vogue (Paris), 1996. © The Helmut Newton Estate

The big-shouldered power suit and supermodel era of the 1980s and early 1990s were Mugler’s heyday. His client list ranged from Ivana Trump, who would buy the same outfit in a dozen colors, to David Bowie, whom he dressed for concerts and videos as well as for the singer’s wedding to Somali model Iman. With more than a hint of the dominatrix, his designs took their inspiration from comic books and science fiction, robots and vintage American cars.

Mugler became famous not only for his clothing, but also for the way he showcased it. “I always felt fashion wasn’t sufficient in itself,” he has said, “and that it had to be shown in a musical and theatrical setting.” His défilés were true spectacles where one might just as easily hear Beethoven as Kraftwerk. Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and other supermodels strutted the catwalk, as did drag queens and celebrities.

In 1984, to celebrate his label’s ten-year anniversary, he staged a 60-model extravaganza at Paris’s Zénith arena; 6,000 people attended, 4,000 of whom paid their way in. A few years later, he would satirize the “heaven” (catwalk) and “hell” (backstage) of fashion shows in a supermodel-studded video of the George Michael song “Too Funky.”

Yasmin Le Bon on stage at the Palladium, London, 1997. © Alan Strutt 
Jerry Hall, Les Insectes collection, haute couture spring/summer 1997. © Dominique Issermann

In 1992, Mugler presented his debut haute-couture collection and also launched his first perfume, Angel. Intended to sum- mon up cotton candy, chocolate, and other childhood treats, the best-selling fragrance incorporates ethyl maltol, originally a flavoring agent, and is as distinctive as its signature star-shaped bottle.

Mugler’s 1997 Les Insectes collection – nip-waisted, patent-leather “ant” suits, a spectacular, feathered butterfly dress for the finale – showed him at the height of his creative powers and helped inject new energy into the Paris couture scene. Yet by 2002, the winds of style had shifted. Mugler chose to walk away from the fashion grind, but true to his showman’s spirit, he continued to work on special events. These projects have included designing tour outfits and consulting on staging for Beyoncé and costuming performers for the Cirque du Soleil’s first adults-only show, Zumanity.

Danie Alexander, Jeu de Paume collection, haute couture spring/summer 1998. © David LaChapelle

The first major survey of his œuvre, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime reveals Mugler to be so much more than a relic of the era of conspicuous consumption. Emphasizing his multidisciplinary creativity, daring innovations, and enduring influence, the exhibition brings together more than 140 ensembles dating from 1973 to 2001, along with accessories, videos, archival materials, and some hundred works by Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, and other greats of fashion photography. The high-tech galleries explore themes such as “Gynoid Couture” and “Metamorphosis.”

The latter is perhaps the most Muglerian of all, applying both to his work and to his personal life. Today, he goes by the first name Manfred and has transformed himself nearly beyond recognition through plastic surgery and bodybuilding. As he told the New York Times, “I used fashion to express myself as much as I could. But at some point, it was not enough.”

Thierry Mugler: Couturissime
From March 2 through September 8, 2019
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

From September 30, 2021, through April 24, 2022
Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

Article published in the March 2019 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.