MONTREAL — In 1984, French president François Mitterand summoned his country’s top fashion designers to a reception at the Élysée Palace. “Fashion is not simply something frivolous or even simply decorative,” he said addressing a crowd that included Madame Grès, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Thierry Mugler among others. “By creating fashions, you create forms of life, the pleasure of being, of coming and going. You inspire the many, you lend the seasons their colors, their continuity, their movement.”
An expert on visual seduction, Mugler has imbued fashion with such poetry for nearly five decades. A former dancer with a yearning for the theatre, his style combines operatic spectacle with the sumptuous delights of fabric. And for industry obsessives, his name belongs alongside other ateliers like Alexander McQueen and Gaultier who operate on a similar dark-fantasy frequency.
News that the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts would open the first retrospective of the designer’s work came as a surprise coup for the Canadian institution. Mugler, who retired from couture more than 15 years ago to pursue other creative projects, has a history of declining exhibition proposals from the world’s top museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paris’ Musée des Arts Décoratifs, and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. The French designer agreed to a Montreal exhibition because of the institution’s track record with the successful 2016 Gaultier exhibition, which ultimately traveled around the world.
Thierry Mugler: Couturissime gathers more than 150 haute couture and ready-to-wear ensembles created between 1977 and 2014 from collections around the world, including the designer’s own 7,000-item archive. The exhibition and catalogue are both the result of three years’ hard work by curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot to envelop Mugler’s oeuvre in the sociopolitical context it was made in.
Organized like an opera with multiple acts, the show pits the clothier’s signature aesthetic against prevailing design philosophies and cultural taboos. Sequins gowns and chandelier bodices. Elizabethan goths and BDSM queens. Bowie martians and scantily-clad Virgins. Android eleganza and fishy couture. Everything from pop culture to counter-culture became fodder for Mugler’s embellished visions of humanity.
The exhibition opens with a selection of Mugler costumes from the 1985 Comédie-Française version of Macbeth. Constructing 70 garments for the theatre troupe’s twisted version of the Scottish play, the fashion designer drew inspiration from Queen Elizabeth’s unique style, indulging in the more macabre themes and elaborate details of her clothes. Consequently, the majority of Mugler’s costumes weighed over 40 pounds each with bulky fabrics, metal stud embellishments, and elaborate farthingales. (No surprise that this production was also the Comédie-Française’s most expensive show in over 300 years.) Large and imposing, these costumes provide Macbeth with a sinister gravitas. Elements of death linger on each garment; for example, the dresses that the three witches wear appear to be scorched at the bottom — as if they were recently held over a blazing pyre.
But despite Couturissime’s initial impressions, Mugler’s work rarely evokes a funeral dirge. On the contrary, he is far more flexible in his attitudes, bending gothic overtures into pastiche, parody, and farce. These elements filters into his more lighthearted and humorous works, which often riff on American archetypes. One collection par excellence is 1992’s “Les Cow-boys,” which includes an ensemble featuring a devil-red bodice, crotchless chaps, and a cowboy hat — all dripping in ruby gemstones and crystals. (Try and convince me that this outfit doesn’t belong on Dolly Parton’s character in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.) For added effect, the exhibition designers have included a sequins double-cheeseburger. What’s more American than that?
For Mugler, a fashion show was never just a commercial presentation but a launchpad for his aesthetic ideologies. He was one of the first designers to employ supermodels and celebrities on the runway, turning his collections into must-see performance events that trumpeted Hollywood glamour and the myth of bodily perfection. But Mugler was also known to mix the socially sacred with the profane. He was a provocateur, inviting stars like Tippi Hedren and James Brown to the runway one day and showcasing the talents of drag artists and porn stars the next. (Oddly enough, in 1992 he even had a recently-divorced Ivana Trump share the stage with porn star Jeffrey Stryker.) Today, Mugler’s clients include personalities like Kim Kardashian and Cardi B.
What attracts people in the limelight to Mugler’s clothes? Perhaps it is the French designer’s capacity for absurdism and ostentatious design. Toward the end of Couturissime, there is a gallery staffed by a fleet of metal-clad mannequins. Assembled from his 1989–1990 winter/fall Hiver Buick collection, Muglers’s automaton outerwear was inspired by US automobiles from the 1950s, though there are obvious references to early-20th-century artists like Marcel Duchamp and Umberto Boccioni. Like convertible cars, Mugler clad his models in metal detachables and sheath gowns worn over minidresses. An aerodynamic “fender” bustier accessorized the look.
A hundred years from now, what will fashion historians say about Mugler’s legacy? Couturissime argues that the 70-year-old designer broke boundaries between performance and the runway; he brought kitsch to the forefront of couture while upholding the detailed elegance of his work. And by doing so, he made living sculptures out of his models.