Before buzzwords such as “wearability” and “practicality” knocked the wind out of fashion’s sails, a creative visionary named Thierry Mugler sought to empower women by dressing them like superhero femme fatales. The comic-book fantasies this French designer dished out fuelled many a fashionista, at a time when we were ready for something stronger, sassier and more aspirational in our closets.
Mugler, a former ballet dancer, soon became the go-to favourite for David Bowie, dressing the gender-bending pop icon in a sequin mermaid gown for his 1979 Boys Keep Swinging video. By the mid-1980s, Mugler was presenting theatrical extravaganzas based on his outrageously themed collections, featuring unconventional materials such as chrome, rubber, vinyl and faux fur. In 1992, after collaborating with George Michael on his Too Funky video, he launched his first fragrance, Angel. It remains one of the world’s bestselling perfumes to this day.
The creeping commercial minimalism of 1990s fashion didn’t jive with Mugler’s flamboyant tastes, however, and in 2002, he left his label and moved to New York to focus on costume design, with gigs that included the Zumanity show for Cirque de Soleil and designing costumes for Beyoncé’s I Am … World Tour.
This March, a retrospective of Mugler’s monumental work, including more than 140 eye-popping ensembles, will go on display at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts. Curated by Canada’s Thierry-Maxime Loriot, under the direction of the museum’s Nathalie Bondil, the Mugler show, entitled Couturissime, not only promises to pack a powerful nostalgic punch for seasoned fans, but should also serve to inspire younger fashion lovers. “It’s important to show the younger generation what freedom is,” Loriot says. “I think it’s something we’ve forgotten, because now, both in fashion and art, it’s less about talent and being creative and different, and more about popularity.”
Though Mugler had his share of critics over the years who felt some of his pieces, such as his dramatic corsets, were exploitive, Bondil and Loriot are adamant that Mugler’s work was always meant to celebrate the female form and is especially worthy of examination in the age of #MeToo. “He was always respectful of women,” Loriot says. “His vision was never cheap or vulgar. And he managed to show elegance in new ways." Cardi B’s red carpet look at this year’s Grammys, an archival look from Mugler’s 1995 couture collection that has the wearer exploding out of a sleek black column in a shimmering bodysuit, illustrates how the designer’s look is resonating with creative women today.
I sat down with the legendary 70 year-old designer, who now goes by the name of Manfred Thierry Mugler, at the museum in Montreal last fall, just after the details of his retrospective were announced.
What did your background as a dancer teach you about the power of fashion?
It’s all about guts. As a dancer and as a teenager, I didn’t really know my style. Nothing was pleasing me in terms of clothes. But even as a child, I was writing scenarios and creating plays. I directed my first play when I was 11, and it was Macbeth.
When I was a kid, I was always playing with cardboard and pencils, playing music, making up songs and poems, creating sculptures with clay. I was looking for my own style, going to the flea market and finding things second-hand. Then, when I went to Paris to work with a ballet company, I learned about the stylists who would do the costume sketches. They were really fashion designers, but no one was hiring designers at that time. I thought these “stylists” had a great life. … They made money and woke up at 11 in the morning! And I wanted a job that would allow me to dream up really big shows. So in one night, I did 40 sketches. I sold them and that’s how my fashion design career started. It seemed easy, but I eventually realized that the hectic schedule of being a designer, having to do eight collections a year, was blocking me from doing other fantastic show business projects.
What sorts of projects?
It was painful when I had to turn down a video for Cher, at the time when she was really on top. And I had to turn down directing a video for the dear Miss Aretha Franklin. I also had an agent in [Los Angeles] who got me the opportunity to work with Bette Midler, who I adored. But as you know in the music business, they call you and you have to be ready in three weeks. Because of my fashion obligations, it all became too much.
How did you manage to stand up for yourself as an artist and a creator?
Honestly, I took a bit of an easy way out. I just didn’t show at couture. And after a while, the people who bought my label decided to hire someone else. And I said, “Whatever. You know, we have to say goodbye.” So I kept the perfume, but stopped doing the collections.
You came along at a time when sexual mores were changing and women were starting to rise up and become empowered.
I dressed women as beautifully as possible in order to give them the power of beauty.
Did it upset you that you had your critics?
I just thought they were wrong. Most of the time they made me laugh and I felt sorry for them. I have no time for foolish people. If they weren’t smart, I wouldn’t give them an interview the next season. But when the critics were smart, I learned from them and had to admit they were right. And I promised myself to do better next time.
Your influence is felt strongly on runways today. How does that make you feel? Are you proud to have inspired a look?
I think it all depends on the context and it depends on the way it’s done. But believe me, I see it every day.
Fashion has turned into such a mega machine. I’m happy this retrospective exhibit will turn kids on to the way it once was …
It’s touching really. That was my first feeling when I rediscovered some of my creations all these years later. There’s humanity in these pieces. You see them up close and you realize that beyond all the clichés and beyond the futuristic feel and the amazing effects, there is a reality there of passion and patience and human work and human sweat. That’s when people will realize the true beauty of the pieces.
What would you say to a young creative artist, an aspiring designer perhaps, in today’s climate?
It depends on how talented they are. If they’re heavily repeating the directions that have already been so abused, I’d say, “Why don’t you try boiling it all down to your own essentials?” And if you still feel there’s something really there, I’d say, “Clean it up. Make it yours essentially. And then nourish your essentials with your desire of freedom.” But these kinds of creative talents are very rare these days, because they just understand the business as a big money-making factory and they forget the handicraft. They forget all the hard work – the discipline.
Couturissime opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts March 2 and runs through Sept. 8.
This interview has been condensed and edited.