With its angular star-shaped bottle and coordinating top, Angel perfume by Thierry Mugler made the French designer a household name in the early 1990s. The heady sweet smell with notes of tropical fruits, vanilla, caramel and chocolate “invented the so-called ‘gourmand’ category” in the fragrance world,” Mugler told The Hollywood Reporter. “Angel is simple. I wanted anyone wearing it to provoke desire and the wish of others smelling it to eat them.” But for many of the millions who bought and adored the perfume, little was known of Thierry Mugler the ballet dancer turned fashion designer, who simultaneously adorned and celebrated the female physique.
Now with stars such as Cardi B and Kim Kardashian West donning Mugler designs in the first two months of 2019 and a just-opened retrospective of his work, the designer is having quite a moment. Produced at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts MMFA in collaboration with the Clarins Group and Maison Mugler, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime opened Saturday and will run through Sept. 8. The exhibition shows the many facets of Mugler’s work, which produced extremely radical and forward expressions in fashion and haute couture.
According to the designer who in 2003 stepped down from his namesake design house — helmed since last year by Casey Cadwallader — and forged a new identity as Manfred Thierry Mugler, the MMFA’s director general and chief curator Nathalie Bondil “immediately got that we could stage my creations in a new way, giving them a new look and mixing all my universes in one. Logically, I couldn’t refuse!” He added in a press statement: “There is no future without a past, so I hope that this exhibition will inspire in its visitors a new creative future.”
The timing couldn’t be more perfect, given Cardi B’s major red carpet moment at the 2019 Grammy Awards in the archival Birth of Venus dress from Mugler’s infamous 1995 Cirque d’ Hiver couture show. The Bronx-born singer wore the vintage seashell-like gown, thanks in part to stylist Kollin Carter and the premonition of Manfred: “I always thought this particular dress from my biggest show ever, the 20th anniversary show, would have a second life with a new face to embody it. She came to me as her dream to wear it and, as I love her personality, I knew that she would be the one. Actually, she wore four of my archives that night!”
Then Kim Kardashian West wore a precariously breast-baring 1998 vintage dress to the recent Hollywood Beauty Awards, and arrived at the celebrity-packed exhibition preview party in Montreal wearing a pink sheer Grecian Mugler gown with a molded gold corset, later changing into a white sculpted corset minidress.
But famous for the sake of being famous was never Mugler’s motivation. “Celebrities I work with are usually super women and men who transcend the day-to-day routine and are open to speaking to anyone and not only to the fashion world. I like to enhance their natural skills, make them discover new facets of themselves and give them strength to face the world,” Manfred told THR. “Beyoncé is a ‘stage beast,’ a super hard-working artist with intuition. She was ready to be ‘Muglerized,’ and we crossed paths at the right time. When we met, it was just obvious that we had a lot in common, a devotion to perfection, and it all happened very naturally.”
Beyoncé donned a custom patent leather corset by Mugler last year as part of her On The Run II tour, and also wore Mugler looks featured in the exhibition during her 2009 I Am World tour.
Realizing the work of a futuristic fantasy designer such as Mugler was no easy feat. The exhibit was conceived as an opera in six acts with settings as theatrical and imaginative as the couturier. Tasked with this was curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot, who was brought into the project by Numéro editor-in-chief Babeth Dijan, who knew Loriot’s work on Jean Paul Gaultier and Peter Lindbergh exhibits.
“He basically invented fashion shows as we know them today, before they were presentations,” said Loriot. “Courrèges used music in the 1960s, but Mugler really developed the idea of staging fashion with themes, groups of models, guest celebrities, storylines and a soundtrack made for the collection.” An army of personalities inspired Mugler, from Diana Ross, Tippi Hedren and Julie Newmar to popular New York drag queens and porn stars.
In total, the exhibit features over 150 outfits including several never-seen-on-display styles that were made over the span of 37 years from 1977 up to 2014, when Mugler was making custom styles for celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Liza Minnelli, Celine Dion, Beyoncé and French actresses Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche in self-directed short films by the couturier.
An opening section, “Macbeth and the Scottish Lady,” focuses on Mugler’s work for La Tragédie de Macbeth, shown for the first time since the 1985 Comédie-Française production at the annual summer Festival d’Avignon in France. That staging was technically not the designer’s first: “I staged my first Macbeth at 9 years old with friends of mine, and I never stopped!” he told THR. “Being a professional ballet dancer helped me a lot to be conscious of the body and, since then, I have kept directing.”
Mugler’s costuming for Cirque du Soleil’s 2003 cabaret-style show Zumanity also put a focus on the human form, given the acrobatics as well as the provocative theme. Many of the body-conscious costumes were airbrushed to make the body appear semi-nude or naked.
The “Metamorphosis” room explores the designer’s fascination with flora and fauna, especially iridescent insects that inspired such creations as the iconic La Chimère dress, while “Futuristic and Fembot Couture” showcases fantastical designs that nod to sci-fi glamour, crafted from materials such as glass, plexiglass, PVC, faux fur, vinyl, latex and chrome “in his high-tech, industrial couture atelier labs,” according to a press statement.
Sourcing the photography for the exhibit was “a tour de force to dig through negatives finding the right images; some forgotten, some sent to magazines and never returned,” says Loriot. But with names such as Guy Bourdin, Karl Lagerfeld, David LaChapelle, Steven Meisel, Mert & Marcus, Sarah Moon, Herb Ritts, Ellen von Unwerth and many more on display, it was worth it. An entire gallery is devoted to Mugler’s work with the late photographer Helmut Newton.
The exhibit also includes video and film clips that show Mugler’s work on the seminal fashion music video “Too Funky” with singer George Michael that featured supermodels Linda Evangelista, Tyra Banks and others wearing the infamous motorcycle bustier, which was practically a childhood dream.
“As a child, I would escape from school to go to the theater and spend my entire day looking at the silver screen,” Mugler told THR. “I know this deeply gave me a sense of aesthetic and staging. Hollywood at that time was about perfection from actresses to directors, costume designers to scenarios. When it came to staging my own beauties in my shows and videos, of course I wanted to make my own dreams come true. Life is definitely a stage.”
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