A visionary couturier who came to fame nearly five decades ago, Thierry Mugler – who retired from fashion in 2002 – is celebrated in an exhibition in Paris that delves into his fascinating creative universe.
For years, Thierry Mugler refused all the major museums that wanted to host exhibitions on his work. He was not interested in opening his archives or looking back. When Babeth Djian asked Thierry-Maxime Loriot – who had curated Jean Paul Gaultier and Peter Lindbergh exhibitions – if he wanted to create a show on the French couturier, he jumped at the chance and approached Mugler with his vision. Instead of focusing on the past, Loriot took a different approach, imagining how Mugler would be presented today. “I thought it was impossible, but he changed his mind,” Loriot says.
Thierry Mugler: Couturissime, which opened in 2019 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is now headed for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris this month. It showcases a holistic creative universe, rather than serving as a chronological retrospective. “The concept came quite easily as Mugler had strong themes in his work,” Loriot explains. Mugler was open to seeing how he would be placed in context with collaborators like artists Michel Lemieux and Philipp Fürhofer, and Montreal-based special effects studio Rodeo FX, which created a gallery projected from a computer-generated forest. Maison Mugler and Clarins Group maintained the archives when Mugler left and the exhibition also includes exceptional loans from the Centre national du costume de scène in France for the Lady Macbeth costumes and other lenders like Neil Tennant from the Pet Shop Boys.
Organized in several acts like a classical opera, the exhibition presents some of the creations that solidified Mugler as one of the most daring fashion designers of his time, from the 1970s to 2002, including pieces worn by Kim Kardashian on the September 2019 cover of Vogue Arabia. With 95% of the pieces never having been exhibited or seen by the public, Couturissime gives visitors the opportunity to experience haute couture through timeless works that defied trends. The Insect and Chimères Collection – characterized by futuristic silhouettes with piercing shoulders, plunging décolletés, and surreal hourglass waistlines – and the Maschinenmensch Collection (“machine-human”) – presented with fully articulated robotic armor – prove that for the couturier, fashion goes far beyond wearing a beautiful outfit. “I wanted to get to the bottom of things, like music that needs tempo, a staging that needs rhythms,” Mugler says. “It was a ricochet that inspired me from one collection to the other.”
A true and singular artist, Mugler was born in the French Alsatian town of Strasbourg in 1948. He studied classical dance as a child and his passion for performance would ultimately permeate his entire career. He went on to study interior design and moved to Paris at 24, where he started making clothes for a boutique. He created his first personal collection a few years after and never stopped designing for nearly 50 years – the fruit of this labor amounted to no fewer than 10 000 pieces. Loriot had the mammoth task of narrowing the collection down to 150 for this exhibition. “It is a mix of ‘best of,’ surprises and classics, including Mugler’s use of non-couture materials like rubber, PVC, and plastic blended with precious materials,” the curator says. “Mugler also basically invented the format of fashion shows as we know them today. Before him they were presentations. Courrèges brought music to fashion presentations in the 1960s, but Mugler developed the idea of staging fashion, having themes, groups of models, guest stars, singers, storylines, and a soundtrack made for the collection. That is what made him stand out from everybody else. Mugler created his own image, his own world, and he even made a show open to the public, which was a first in France in 1984.”
Curating the photography for the exhibition was another challenge. “Most photographers went digital around 2003-2004. Mugler stopped doing fashion in the years before,” remembers Loriot. “It was a tour de force to go to all the photographers and ask them to dig through negatives to find the right images that had been forgotten. Some had been sent to magazines and the negatives never returned.” The result is more than worth it. Some of the greatest masters of photography are featured in the new exhibition catalogue made for the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, such as Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Guy Bourdin, Ellen von Unwerth, Lillian Bassman, Inez & Vinoodh, Paolo Roversi, and Steven Klein.
Loriot recalls Mugler’s reaction when the exhibition was unveiled. “It was the first time he had seen all his work gathered together. It was very moving – a lifetime of creation. But don’t get me wrong, he is not nostalgic at all of his past, he’s looking forward and was thinking about how he would make these creations today and modify them.”
While the fashion world sometimes seems reserved for the happy few, this exhibition makes it accessible to a broader audience. “The ones I want to convince are people like your father, brother, or neighbor,” comments Loriot. “Those who do not care about fashion or think it’s crazy.” He hopes they will discover a universe that thrives on creativity and craftsmanship, and stimulates on every level.
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Originally published in the September 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia