The ballet dancer turned fashion designer Thierry Mugler has orchestrated many of the most extravagant and gloriously over-the-top moments in fashion history: Think Pat Cleveland dressed as the Madonna descending from the ceiling of Zénith Paris stadium or of a vamping Linda Evangelista in the iconic video for George Michael’s “Too Funky,” which Mugler directed.
While his wide-shouldered, wasp-waisted, body-conscious creations helped redefine the female silhouette in the late 1980s, his fashion shows were especially spectacular. They were productions that would break boundaries not just in terms of spectacle and budget but also in casting: The biggest supermodels of the day rubbed shoulders with musical legends, drag queens and even, in the case of Jeff Stryker and Traci Lords, who walked Mugler’s runway for an AIDS charity event in 1992, porn stars. “I never dreamed of being a fashion designer. I wanted to be a director,” Mugler tells T. “But fashion happened to be a good tool. It was a means of communicating.”
Mugler capped his fall 1995 haute couture show with a surprise appearance by the singer James Brown, who performed a medley of his greatest hits.CreditPatrice Stable
No show quite compared to Mugler’s fall 1995 haute couture extravaganza — marking his brand’s 20th anniversary — staged at the Cirque d’Hiver venue in Paris. Mugler created a monolithic white set consisting of two runways connected by a spiral staircase with the star-shaped logo of his best-selling Angel perfume as a backdrop. During an hourlong show, Mugler showed an unprecedented 300 looks on a diverse lineup of models from every era, including legends like Carmen Dell’Orefice, Veruschka von Lehndorff and his muse, Jerry Hall, alongside nascent superstars such as Naomi Campbell, Eva Herzigova and Kate Moss. The cast also included some of his favorite actresses, like Tippi Hedren and Julie Newmar, while the socialite Patty Hearst did a striptease. Mugler’s intention was “to show beauty through the ages,” and accordingly, the looks in the show ran the gamut from masterfully cut suits and glamorous evening dresses to a futuristic gold robotic bodysuit worn by Nadja Auermann. The show culminated with a performance by James Brown as confetti rained down and male go-go dancers gyrated. “It was like the Woodstock of fashion,” recalls the model Violeta Sanchez, who walked in the show.
And while Mugler — who now goes by his real name, Manfred — may have stepped away from his label in 2002 to concentrate on creative directing projects, his fantastical vision has been embraced by a new generation of pop stars, including Beyoncé and Cardi B, and designers, such as Jeremy Scott and Alexander McQueen, who have cited him as an influence. On the occasion of the designer’s first major museum retrospective, “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime,” which opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on March 2, Mugler and some of his collaborators recall the legendary 20th anniversary show.
Manfred Thierry Mugler, designer
The show was a challenge, but I liked a grand gesture. I was trying to break the rules! I’m fascinated by human beings who have honesty and authenticity — that’s most important to me. With my castings, I’m very honored and touched to have worked with so many personalities in my shows — they were strong clothes for strong people. On the show, we worked with the best — the best hat designer, Philip Treacy, the best corset maker, Mr. Pearl, so why not the best models?
Women like Jerry Hall are traffic stoppers — extremely beautiful living creatures who could really walk. I ended the show with James Brown, the god of soul, Mr. Sex Machine, because it was the right ingredient to balance the haute couture.
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I didn’t feel it at the time, but soon after the show, I realized it was the end of the era. Afterward, fashion became a branding, marketing thing. The model agencies started controlling the world, and it all became cheesy to me. Fashion was not the same media, the same emotional message between people. It was all about labels. I love a great label, but fashion is an art. For me, beauty comes from the freedom to dare to be different. It’s all about being extremely yourself. Beauty is not used anymore as an emotional link for people, which is not right, because beauty is one of the most important things in life — and the world — if you are taking the time to look at it.
The model Jerry Hall was a muse to Mugler, having modeled in his first runway show in 1978 and then later becoming the face of his Angel fragrance in 1995.CreditPatrice Stable
Jerry Hall, model and face of Mugler’s Angel perfume
Thierry loved women. Only love could grasp and hold all those glamorous iconic Hollywood images and fold them into fabric. He also understood the dark, the unconveyable, the unconscious, and he used it in his creations. He was timeless and ahead of his time. He knew all about gender fluidity and his clothes reflected the heat and sexuality of the late ’70s and early ’80s. I still wear his pencil skirts because they are so much fun! His 20th anniversary show at the Cirque d’Hiver was my personal favorite. It was pure performance art, full of fairy creatures and femme fatales. I liked the way there were go-go men in gold bikinis as our accessories! When I first met Thierry, he was wearing a “Star Trek” outfit. The last time I went to see him, at his Follies show in Paris in 2013, he peeked at me from behind the curtain — he did not want me to see how he had changed. He was still the Wizard of Oz, pulling the strings in the dark.
Mugler drew on his love of the work of legendary film costume designers, like Edith Head and Adrian, fusing it with his signature sculptural elegance.CreditPatrice Stable
Julie Newmar, actress who portrayed the original Catwoman in the 1960s television series “Batman,” and who walked in the show
The Cirque d’Hiver show was an extraordinary experience — only in Paris can they put on a production like that. Going to Paris to do the show, I felt like a girl from the farm in Ohio. It was like he was putting on an opera. Everything from his choice in music to having the most beautiful women in the world flown in for the show. My mom would never let me be a model, but, oh, did I appreciate what it takes to do what they do — they were spectacular. He created a rubber lace dress for me, which I later wore in the film “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.” He was the only designer who could do sex without making it vulgar.
Nadja Auermann, model who wore Mugler’s gold “Metropolis”-inspired bodysuit in the show
He told me once that when he was doing his designs, I was like the woman he was thinking about when he did his sketches. I felt very flattered, for sure. He adores the femininity of women, but he likes the woman to be in charge of the situation. You always felt very feminine but powerful at the same time in his clothes. His clothes were like architecture for the body — he has a particular way of structuring them to give you the best shape. With the gold robotic outfit I wore for the 20th anniversary, I remember having to do a lot of fittings for it, and at the show, it took a while for me to be sewn into the it. It was not that comfortable! But it was like armor: You felt everyone looking at you because it was so impressive. His shows were a unique universe of its own. He wanted to create his own world — it was a way for him to express his thoughts. In the ’90s, shows were more about dramatic choreography and performing. I was one of those models who liked to perform onstage, and it’s lovely to be part of a show where people can appreciate it.
Mr. Pearl, corset maker
I owe my career in Paris couture to Mr. Mugler. He was my university in all respects, sharing his incredible eye for the finest details. His thirst for the ultimate silhouette still haunts me. One could not help but learn many subtle and refined secrets. He taught me that every detail counts and must be executed to perfection. Mr. Mugler dazzled me with his light. We shared a passion for extreme beauty, pushing the silhouette to the maximum in the world of fantasy. Mr. Mugler always needed to push things beyond, to satisfy his vision of Planet Mugler, where there are no limits. I made two pieces for the Cirque d’Hiver show. The first was for the incredible Jerry Hall and was inspired by Jean Louis’s gowns for Marlene Dietrich. The second piece was for the gorgeous Dianne Brill, inspired by John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X” with a twist of Mae West — an exercise in tight lacing to create an extreme silhouette. The piece was in black duchesse silk satin and embroidered in vinyl, black jet and ostrich feathers. So two very different pieces, both extremely challenging and made in six weeks. His commissions pushed all boundaries in every sense. He was a very generous man, and I am eternally grateful.
Tippi Hedren, actress who starred in two of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movies, “The Birds” and “Marnie,” and who walked in the show
I was aware of his work from before because I was once a fashion model, so I was hip to the different designers. It was an honor to be asked to be in the show. Walking out in that satin dress with these satin birds on it with all those other models — that was exciting and wonderful.
Violeta Sanchez, former muse to Helmut Newton and Yves Saint Laurent who modeled in the show
The Cirque D’Hiver show was the fashion equivalent to the premiere of a Las Vegas show or a once in a lifetime rock ’n’ roll concert — the Woodstock of fashion. The presence of all those fantastic creatures that populated our fantasies and pop culture — the original Catwoman, the Hitchcock heroine, Veruschka, Patty Hearst, James Brown himself. This was visionary, a crazy collective dream come true. He was like the Tarantino of fashion. Manfred definitely was, and is, a director. He gave us characters and short stories, moments in a life, scenes from a movie. Like a good director, he had a knack for knowing the right thing to say to the right performer at the right moment. There was a vibrant energy in those shows — we all had a mission to be unforgettable, to be unique, to thrill him by being what he wanted us to be and more.
The makeup artist Kabuki with the model Veruschka.CreditCourtesy of Kabuki
Kabuki, makeup artist who modeled in the show
The first time I met him, I was dancing at Webster Hall in New York. He tapped me on the shoulder and said he was going to do a show and would I be in it? If I could pick any designer to come up to me in a club and ask to be in a fashion show, it would have been him! He was the ultimate in fabulousness — his sense of humor and camp was everything that was inspiring to me. I remember he was very kind to me — he called me when Tippi Hedren was having a fitting to come meet her, which was very sweet. Seeing models mix with porn stars and drag queens made it feel familiar to me because that was the world I came from. There was a family atmosphere backstage, but the night before the show you could cut the tension with a knife because there was so much you had to prepare. I remember asking about my outfit to start planning my makeup, and I was told it was all metal and pearls. It took up so much room, but it looked incredible. I remember using all of my willpower not to look down. If I had fallen over, I would not have been able to get up!