The ultimate showman

We celebrate the sexual futurism of Manfred Thierry Mugler – with insights by those who knew him best
By Bailey Slater | Fashion | 29 January 2022

Above: Thierry Mugler FW83

The world of fashion has got off to something of a sombre start in 2022, losing some of its best and brightest stars not even a month into the year. Manfred Thierry Mugler – famed for his otherworldly couture and devastating power suits – is the latest name sadly leave us.

A revered showman and an industry veteran, Mugler’s fashions were truly extraordinary, out of this world even, as if he was clued into a frequency light years away from planet earth. Best-known for his extra-terrestrial couture deities, sexy-femme bots and technicolour powder-puffs, this was a force who could fashion up a dramatic and infinitely sexy ensemble from the handlebars of your brother’s big-wheeler, which he actually did during SS92 – complete with wing mirrors, brakes and a beaming headlight that would lead model Niki Taylor (and later, Beyoncé) straight into the style stratosphere, but more on that later.

Mugler viewed the body as a site of true transformation, a space where his forward-thinking vision and technical know-how truly took form. But his vision was far more encompassing than all he sent down the runway, spanning photography, set design, perfume making and countless other creative endeavours. “Why would anyone only want fashion?” he once told Tippi Hedren on the topic of his lavish shows. For him, beauty was everywhere, and the bigger, the bolder, the better. He was never interested in confiding all this in a select few, either, and famously cut through fashion’s velvet-rope to let the world (well, 6,000 people who happened to be in Paris) in on the action for his label’s tenth anniversary in 1985. 

A true designer of the people, here we delve into some of Mugler’s greatest career highs, with insights from those who knew him best.

Above: Niki Taylor at Thierry Mugler SS92

It began in Strasbourg

Mugler’s love for performance manifested at a young age. While his peers might’ve been playing ball or kiss-chase, the precocious designer busied himself with self-made theatre shows and the art of acrobatics. A fixation, or rather fascination, with the human body, saw him vigorously train his own through professional dance, joining the National Rhine Opera at age fourteen, and years later, see him travel to India to learn Kathakali – a classical form of Indian dance that combines miming and singing with elaborately decorated costumes and bold make-up; to say this experience would influence his larger-than-life design aesthetic is an understatement.

Mugler would go on to study interior design at The Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts, moving to Paris in his early twenties as he embarked on the first steps of his design career. Then, three years after debuting his first collection, Café De Paris, the designer caught the eye of Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche co-founder Didier Grumbach in 1976. Before the formidable businessman headed up the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, Grumbach had founded Créateurs & Industriels, acting as an integral business brain that shaped the careers of Issey Miyake, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and of course Mugler, whose label he co-founded in 1978. Left in charge of the label’s development – “which allowed Thierry to fly off to places like Greenland and be creative” – the two wasted no time at all making Mugler a household name.

Above: Thierry Mugler FW83

Changing Tides

1980s Paris was truly a sight to behold for the fashion world. Kawakubo, Miyake and Yamamoto were changing the game with their shapely minimal wears, while the likes of Mugler, Claude Montana and Azzedine Alaïa existed at the other end of the spectrum, pushing the boundaries of gender until they could go no further. It was in this period that Mugler earned the title ‘Godfather of Power Dressing’, turning formalwear on its head with his devastatingly tailored suiting. He fitted blazers with razor-sharp lapels, voluptuous sleeves and exaggerated shoulders that practically screamed glamour, and gave trousers a streamlined drama CEOs could only dream of. 

Nine years I was a muse for the house of Mugler, and every single item from the corset under the garment to the glove, shoe and even the scent leading to the glorious garment was architecturally and sensually designed to transform the wearer into a better self that enters the room with poise, presence and drama,” model Dianna Brill tells us exclusively. “He was generous like no one I had ever met, wholeheartedly giving me the feeling of being the most adored woman in the room – and I was not alone in that feeling.”

Above: A polaroid of Dianne Brill and Mr Pearl at fittings for Thierry Mugler Haute Couture FW95

To Mugler, women were real-life superheroes, and so putting on a Mugler suit was tantamount to armour, bestowing on the wearer a layer of confidence and bodily autonomy that looked to the forms of the future. “He really changed an idea of proportion,” renowned stylist and consultant Paul Sinclaire elaborates, “and created a new silhouette in the same way.” Describing a jumpsuit the showman had made for him at this time – “a strange grey flight suit with exaggerated shoulders and pale yellow piping” – that made quite the splash at a wedding in Marblehead, Massachusetts, Sinclaire believes that to truly take in what Mugler and Montana were doing at this time, you just had to be there.

Thierry Mugler Haute Couture FW97, via Luis Venegas

Couture came calling

With the ‘Battle of Versailles’ (recently depicted in Netflix’s Halston) putting French design on fashion’s proverbial back-foot in the early seventies, couture in the capital needed a new face. Mugler himself wouldn’t stake a claim on this world until 1992, sounding off against his former flatmate, Claude Montana, as the two set about breathing new life into the traditional runway format. Disregarding the stuffiness of the old-guard, the designer made headlines as he showed his girls how to truly live for the moment, imbibing them with a tangible confidence as they brought his wildest sci-fi fantasies to life. As camp debauchery abounded from each breathtaking spectacle, sexy insects (SS97), pearlescent venuses and leotard-wearing glamourbots (both FW95) suddenly became par for the course.

Luis Venegas, the prolific Spanish publisher behind queer titles such as Candy Transversal and EY! Magateen, recalls working for the couturier at this time with great fondness. “I was barely a teenager, but he was already a legendary name,” Venegas tells us, who was in charge of Les Instectes’ intricately decorated gloves. “He was a master in the making of the clothes. He knew technically what could be done, or how to push the limits to make things that hadn’t been done before, but in a way that would be relevant and possible at that time.”

His fondest memory however, came after the show, when Mugler gathered the entire team to watch the spectacle on a television, surprising Venegas by slipping on some spectacles for the occasion. “It was a bit like your father reuniting the family and looking at a family album of a wedding or something.”

Totally on beat

Before he turned Lady Gaga and Cardi B into bonafide style icons, and a little after Disco Queen Diana Ross ruled his runway for SS91, Mugler collaborated with George Michael on an arts-meet-fashion moment that could’ve only been devised by the gay gods. The pair had come together to raise funds for AIDS research with a video for Michael’s single Too Funky, with Mugler storyboarding and directing the project himself. The designer wanted to show both sides of the fashion coin, from the hysterical backstage warzones to the cool veneer of glamour and confidence that charged through the curtain by way of his debut couture collection. Enter Linda Evangelista, Connie Fleming, a latex-clad Julie Newmar and the rest of 90’s fashion jet-set, all tasked with seeing the project to its beautifully, tantalising end.

After exceeding the production’s million-dollar budget just days into shooting, the two majorly butted heads over who could call the final cut. Michael was confident they had the shots, while Mugler felt they hadn’t even scratched the surface. After an explosive argument, the pair made up hours later, concocting the final result we know and love today after two further days of shooting. Though Michael ultimately had the final say, Mugler’s Director’s Cut did end up surfacing on Youtube a few years back, trading in the singer’s clear-cut sequence for a far more frenetic display… cavorting models included.

(Left) Anna Bayle and Tom Lust wear Paillettes Polaires by Mugler in Disko Bay, Greenland, 1987, (right) Dauphine de Jerphanion wears Veuve de l’Air by Mugler in Paris, 1986.

Storytelling on film

Mugler’s runways were one thing, but his imagery? A whole different ball game. Aware that his penchant for the dramatic translated best on film (Mugler had actually wanted to be a director long before he got into design), he approached his many creative outlets with a truly unparalleled gift to tell stories. “I dream in images,” he told one Editor upon the release of his 2020 photobook, Manfred Thierry Mugler, Photographer. Charting the designer’s lifelong quest for beauty with self-shot campaign images – featuring that colossal glacier shot from the arctic plains of Greenland (above) – and rare cuts from his personal collection, there’s perhaps no greater indication of the size and spectacle of his work in print today.

Above: Kim Kardashian in Mugler at the ‘Camp: Notes on Fashion’ Met Gala in 2019, via Instagram

A star-studded allure

Years after his label shuttered in 2003, an entire generation of stars were still ensconced by the French designer’s otherworldly creations, from Lady Gaga to Beyoncé. The former’s stylist, Nicola Formichetti, would end up as creative director of the house from 2010-2013, and the latter would work intimately with Mr. Mugler himself on the costumes for her I Am… Sasha Fierce tour, tuning an entirely new audience into his oeuvre in the process. As these things go, at the end of another passing decade, the likes of Cardi B and Kim Kardashian would also enter his illustrious archive, resurrecting a slew of heart-stopping red carpet moments that propelled Mugler back to the fore of public consciousness.

Fashion archivist Kim Russell (a.k.a. The Kimbino) is still enamoured by the dripping crystal look Mugler devised for Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala appearance, an ode to Sophia Loren, that was cinched and scrunched in all the right places thanks to the designer’s longtime collaborator, Mr Pearl. “Years had went by, decades even, and he showed us that he STILL had that magic,” Russell effuses of the show-stopping look. “There were no limits in terms of creation, money (from what we knew), and he made it seem like there was no pressure to be a cash cow like so many brands today.”

Finding allure in his limitless oeuvre, Kimbino believes that Mugler’s whole body of work is enough legacy to last a lifetime, a spirit that is wholly one of one. “It fed our favourite designers today and even some who have passed on,” she elaborated. “There’s a silhouette he’s left behind – there’s a standard.”

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