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Thierry Mugler’s Couturissme: Between Fashion and Fantasy

“Couturissime,” the exhibition that Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD) dedicates to retired couturier Thierry Mugler, is so much more than a fashion retrospective: It is a journey into a fantasy world, an exploration of a creative mind that shook fashion to the core and then moved on, but whose lasting influence is inspiring to this day.

Manfred Thierry Mugler, born in 1948 in Strasbourg, eastern France, began a career in ballet at the Opéra National du Rhin, while at the same time studying design at the Strasbourg School of Decorative Arts.

The young man soon left to move to Paris, where he channeled his boundless creativity into fashion, working as a freelance designer for several brands in France and abroad. It was the early 1970s, and the capital offered him not only sexual freedom (he was openly gay) but also the opportunity of working at the epicenter of fashion, with the ready—to-wear revolution changing the market for garments.

Mugler launched his eponymous brand in 1973. Never one to shy away from provocation, his silhouettes presented an ideal woman who embraced her sensuality and used it as a weapon. As the 1980s kicked in, shoulders and hips became oversized, while waistlines shrunk. His shows, long before the excesses of Victoria’s Secret, were as outlandish as Mugler himself.

By 1992, the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the governing body of French couture) invited him to present his first couture show. Designing clothes for a no expenses-spared clientele unleashed Mugler’s imagination even further. From sexy insects to sensual car bodywork, the couturier blurred the lines between fashion and theater.

Mugler and the Supermodels were a marriage made in heaven. Jerry, Linda, Christy, and Gisèle figured prominently not only in his shows but also in his ads, shot by the designer himself. They also starred, playing themselves, in the video of “Too Funky” by George Michael, directed by Mugler and staged as a satire on the craziness surrounding fashion shows. Many of the pieces worn for that clip are included in the exhibition. They are formidable technical feats: corsets designed by aerospace engineers, layers of silk tulle giving the illusion of fur, feather marquetry creating imaginary animals.

All the while, the shapes remind us of the pin-ups of times gone by, but Mugler has always refuted the notion that his fashion objectifies women: To him they are “sexual subjects,” embracing their looks with a certain dose of humor.

By the turn of the century, however, clothes felt too narrow an outlet to satisfy his creative needs, and Mugler launched his first fragrance, “Angel.” It would revolutionize the market, opening up a whole new category of perfumes, called “gourmand” because they take inspiration form the world of confectionery.

While “Angel” and the following scents signed by Mugler would be instant bestsellers (and have remained so to this day), losses in his fashion division piled up, until Clarins, the French beauty giant backing the designer, pulled the plug in 2003.

After what he felt as a deeply personal defeat, Thierry Mugler went into hiding, only to return a few years later completely transformed. Gone was the slender physique of his early days as a ballet dancer, in came 240 pounds of oversized muscles. Gone was Thierry, in came Manfred. Gone was fashion, in came everything else: perfumes, cinema, photography, theater, anything to distance his newly created persona from what he perceived had turned into a “brand,” the Thierry Mugler brand.

Unsurprisingly, the show, which was initially presented in Canada at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is as extravagant as Manfred Thierry Mugler and his multiple personae. It is a profusion of feathers, latex, metal, with outfits fit for models and celebrities. It is a tribute to the insouciance of the 1980s and 90s: colorful, over-the-top, entertaining.

At a time when fashion designers are stuck between the need for constant reinvention to boost sales and the urgency of sustainability, this show is a joyful distraction, as the garments feel more like theatrical costumes than real clothes for real people. It also underlines how ahead of his time Thierry Mugler was, and how much of a source of inspiration for a younger generation of fashion designers he still is.

“Couturissime” is on at MAD Paris (107 rue de Rivoli, 75001) until April 24, 2022.

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