On the night Cardi B became the first female solo artist to win the Grammy for best rap album, she emerged on the red carpet in a kitsch, shell-pink satin couture gown like a bodacious Botticelli Venus. Later that evening, she performed in a sheer cheetah print catsuit, complete with detachable peacock-feather tail.
Both boldly sexy outfits came from the archive of French provocateur Thierry Mugler who, despite having left the fashion industry more than 15 years ago to pursue other creative projects, is generating more headlines than most designers still in the business. Perhaps that’s because his unapologetically assertive vision speaks to the moment’s renegade mood.
Mugler, a former dancer, founded his fashion house in 1974 on an ethos of freedom and female empowerment, referencing everything from 1940s Hollywood costume design to Flash Gordon and the natural world. Combining the haute and demi-monde by bringing latex, rubber and PVC from fetish into the fashion mainstream, he sculpted clothes with extreme hourglass curves that shaped a generation and redefined power dressing.
He may still lend clothes from his 7,000-item archive to select stars, but for years, Mugler, now 70, turned down retrospectives at major museums in London, Paris and New York. Eventually, however, he agreed to open the archives, working with curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on an exhibition, “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime.”
Loriot contends that Mugler’s designs are timeless, but admits that the timing is opportune: “They correspond to a whole aesthetic that re-centered women,” he said. “And I think that’s especially appealing in this political time – to see this image of women who decide what they want to be, not what they have to be, being in control of it all.”
“Couturissime” assembles more than 140 haute couture and ready-to-wear garments created between 1973 and 2001, as well as stage costumes and accessories. They’re showcased alongside photos of his work by greats like Helmut Newton, Lillian Bassman, Jean-Paul Goude and Dominique Issermann.
“For me, it was important to put it in a social context with collaborators who see how relevant his work is now,” the curator said of thematic staging that progresses like acts in an opera.
Following a Macbeth-themed room, a projection of the supermodel-studded “Too Funky” music video that Mugler directed for George Michael plays on a wall above the famous motorcycle handlebar outfit from the video. Other screens loop footage of Mugler-clad performers like Céline Dion and Lady Gaga.
Images of New York club queen Susanne Bartsch, drag artist Joey Arias and models Tyra Banks, Stella Ellis and Pat Cleveland also line the walls. During the “Couturissime” preview party, they and other longtime collaborators joined the designer in Montreal to celebrate, as did Kim Kardashian, one of his more recent muses.
If the fun-loving Mugler has always been a celebrity favorite (“They choose me because they feel we are in the same field. I’m a showman!”), he also capitalized on their powerful cultural influence early on. Devotees and catwalk cameos ranged from David Bowie, Jerry Hall and Diana Ross to former French first lady Danielle Mitterrand, Tippi Hedren and Ivana Trump, who once sent teenage daughter Ivanka strutting down his runway.
That same celebrity love has been a driving force in the recent revival of interest. After seeing vintage Mugler pieces in the Met Costume Institute’s 2008 “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy” show, for example, Beyoncé was apparently smitten. The superstar soon enlisted the designer to contribute staging and costumes for her alter ego Sasha Fierce during the 2009 “I Am…” tour.
Transformation is another recurring theme. It’s one that extends to the designer himself, who now goes by the name Manfred and has drastically changed his appearance through reported cosmetic procedures and extreme bodybuilding.
So, it seems fitting that “Couturissime” culminates with transhumanism, his ultimate vision of the relationship between the body and technology, which is even more of a preoccupation today than it was when Mugler designed the retro-futuristic couture fembot that is arguably his most iconic creation. A mirrored vitrine and parallel mirrored walls reflect the mannequins to infinity, the multiplication effect evoking how Mugler used to put groups of models on the runway together like an army.
Whether on fembots or glamazons, do we need this army of assertive clothes more now than five or 10 years ago?
“We always did. To lie, to be fun and pretend that you’re somebody else,” Mugler said. “Or to have fun. Or to feel better. Or to be stronger. Or to have an armor. Or play with hypocrisy. It’s all at your service for what you need that day, that morning, that moment.”
“It’s also to put femininity at its place. Femininity is an incredible power,” he adds. “So let’s show it and let’s do it.”