In the fantasy world of Thierry Mugler, it is difficult to say where imagination ends and fashion begins. Opening March 2 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime, uncovers his fearless, breakthrough aesthetic. More than two years in the making, this retrospective features 150 Mugler designs created between 1973 and 2014, including never-before-shown styles and extensive costuming. Over 100 rare prints from top photographers memorialize his singular approach to fashion. The exhibit’s intricate staging echoes Mugler’s ingenuity with a 4D hologram entry and galleries dedicated to his Macbeth stage costumes, Helmut Newton collaborations, Metamorphosis animal-inspired pieces, and sci-fi Futuristic & Fembot Couture.
Since his ‘70s fashion debut, Mugler shocked runways with bold silhouettes and avant-garde stylings. In the decades since, he has courted varied otherworldly themes: full-body robotic armor for Fall/Winter 1995 and a tire-textured dress and butterfly gown for Les Insectes Spring/Summer 1997. Even his most glamorous pieces are tinged with the exotic as seen in the ombre-metallic scales adorning his La Chimère gown for Fall/Winter 1997. Modern fashion influencers regularly tout styles from his archives, perfectly in step with current culture. Cardi B memorably wore his Venus oyster gown—as well as a Peacock crinoline performance piece and a white shawl dress and fringed gloves for her Grammy acceptance—at this year’s awards. Miley Cyrus also donned a vintage Mugler power suit at the event, showing that his artistry endures as a major fashion reference.
Mugler’s colorful, body-conscious attire—often crafted from futuristic vinyl, latex, metal, and faux fur—could only be upstaged by the spectacle of his fashion shows. Full-scale theatrical productions with DJs, sound technicians, and lighting experts set the scene for cyber-chic designs and smokescreen effects. “Mugler belongs to a category that does not exist anymore, creators, couturiers who saw fashion as an art form,” exhibition curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot tells CR. “There was an incredible freedom of creativity during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s with less emphasis on the commercial and public image pressures of today that came with fast fashion and social media.”
From his earliest years, the Strasbourg-born designer (b. 1948) was innately creative, and studied a range of drawing, classical dance, and interior design. He moved to Paris to pursue dance but soon after, steered his ambitions towards fashion. He began working with Parisian boutiques and then moved on to larger ready-to-wear collections across Europe. Recognizing his natural talent for design, Mugler devised his first personal collection Café de Paris in 1973 and established his eponymous fashion house the following year.
The designer’s inimitable styles appealed to fashion consumers and critics alike. In striking revisions to classic design, his clothes combined structure and sophistication with an ultra-modern edge. Championed by the influence of Melka Tréanton, Mugler ascended as a design wunderkind, achieving broad-reaching status and acclaim throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. For the house’s 10th anniversary, he staged a grand “super-show,” which was attended by more than 6,000 viewers. “Mugler created from his own fantastic world,” Loriot explains. “He wanted to offer a fashion that could give the choice to people to become whatever they dreamt of, to transform people with fashion, to stage the daily lives of people. He believed in the power of garments to let you live your own fantasy.”
Ever-evolving, Mugler added menswear and couture to his repertoire, and also endeavored into film, video, and advertising. He found ready success in costuming, designing the unforgettable black gown Demi Moore wore in the movie, Indecent Proposal. Like many exceptional creators, Mugler’s reputation preceded him and he was known for an often-uncompromising approach. He famously over-directed Helmut Newton on a photography shoot—to the extent that Newton handed Mugler the camera and told him to take the photos himself—which Mugler did. He continued to explore the art of photography, ultimately publishing two books of his own work.
Mugler’s interests in fashion and music combined when he and George Michael worked together on the music video “Too Funky.” Their infamous creative clashes produced two different versions of the video, one composed to each director’s ideals. Among the breathtaking couture in both editions, Mugler’s motorcycle bustier for Spring/Summer 1992 is a centerpiece of the video—and a significant moment in fashion history.
Fragrance proved another arena where Mugler intuitively excelled. His Angel scent—named for a blue-hued star he saw in the night sky—was tested in over 600 formulations before Mugler decided on its precise alchemy. Angel’s culinary notes defined a new “gourmand” genre of perfume that has since become its own industry category. Several other Mugler fragrances have followed, including Alien, Womanity, Angel Muse, and the Mirror collection. Wildly successful, the scents Angel and Alien produce more than 0 million in annual sales.
In the early 2000s, Mugler stepped away from fashion and reinvented himself. He altered his appearance and physique and retook his given name, Manfred. He has suggested that these changes were prompted by a physical and spiritual return to his identity. Since then, he has followed his creativity into other areas. He worked on short films with actresses Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche. He has designed costumes for a host of musicals, concerts, operas, and the theatre, including Comédie Française, Festival d’Avignon, and Cirque du Soleil. Mega-stars including David Bowie, Diana Ross, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Céline Dion are amongst his costume and dress clientele. Mugler has also collaborated on projects with leading filmmakers, architects, photographers, and artists: Dominique Issermann, Guy Bourdin, Herb Ritts, Peter Lindbergh, David LaChapelle, and Pierre & Gilles.
Continuous transformation is at the core of the designer’s principles. His architectural cuts and elegant styling pioneered a new space within the world of fashion. “I think it is inspirational and fascinating that Mugler was not influenced by fashion or trends,” Loriot says. “His designs are timeless and he is an icon in his originality.” Well-ahead of ‘80s empowerment, Mugler envisioned a strong, independent image of women and his intrepid designs gave light to that reality.
Innovative contemporary designers like Viktor & Rolf and Iris van Herpen show nuances of Mugler’s effect. For Kim Kardashian’s barely-there gown at the Hollywood Beauty Awards, and her Grecian goddess look and corseted minidress for the Couturissime preview, Mugler was her designer of choice. Decades after his creative journey began, he remains as present and relevant as ever. Mugler continues to inspire through his endless pursuits of metamorphosis and rediscovery.
Thierry Mugler: Couturissime is on view from March 2, 2019 to September 8, 2019 at the The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
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