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Late designer Thierry Mugler's legacy of transforming fashion


Jan 24, 2022


Image: Kunsthal/ Reinier RVDA, 2019

French designer Thierry Mugler, who died on Sunday at 73, reigned over fashion in the late 20th century, helping to re-invent the catwalk as a place of fantastical and salacious spectacle.

In Mugler's hands, fashion shows became the province of wild animals -- models dressed up as reptiles, birds, and big cats -- and non-stop parties.

"I always thought that fashion was not enough on its own and that it had to be shown in its musical and theatrical environment," he said.

The inverted triangle of big shoulders and tight waists helped define the "power-dressing" of the 1980s, exemplified by Grace Jones and David Bowie (a frequent collaborator who Mugler dressed for his wedding to Iman).

Then there was the infamous motorcycle corset, replete with handlebar mirrors, or the all-body robot armour -- stretching the limits of what fashion shows could be.

His 1992 music video for George Michael's "Too Funky" crystallised the moment: an ultra-sexualised parade of top models, wild outfits, whips and torsos.

He and Michael famously fell out and Mugler often appeared to epitomise the stereotype of the fashion mogul diva.

"It was a nightmare," Christophe de Lataillade, his assistant and later head of Mugler perfumes, told the New York Times. "You had to be available night and day if he wanted organic apples or flowers."

Often his designs were derided as sexist and gaudy, but his influence gathered steam in later years as Beyonce and Lady Gaga enlisted Mugler to dress them for world tours.

"It was a sort of vindication," Mugler told the Times of the Beyonce tour. "Before, they said I was only about sex shops."

'I'm a superhero'

By the 2000s, he claimed fashion "was completely stifled by marketing and business" and turned away, reassuming his dropped first name, Manfred.

Of many metamorphoses, the most striking was his own body. Over the years he transformed from a strikingly handsome and svelte young ballet dancer to a tattooed, muscle-bound bruiser.

He insisted his facial changes were the result of surgery after serious accidents on the road and in the gym that "completely smashed" his features.

"After years of being a thin, charming dancer, I wanted to be a warrior," he told Interview magazine in 2019. "I'm a superhero, so it's normal to have the face of one."

He had cultivated his image from the start.

Growing up in Strasbourg, where he was born on December 21, 1948, Mugler created his own clothes as a teenager by adapting items from flea markets.

A place in a ballet company brought him to Paris aged 20, only to find he was more successful with his wardrobe than his dancing.

He worked as a freelance stylist for fashion houses in Paris, London and Milan, before creating his own label "Cafe de Paris" in 1973, followed by "Thierry Mugler" a year later.

"Dancing taught me a lot about posture, the organisation of clothing, the importance of the shoulders, the way you hold your head, the play and rhythm of the legs," he said.

'Fight for beauty'

But it was the showmanship that really grabbed people's attention. "Today's fashion shows are a continuation of what Mugler invented. The collections were pretexts for fashion shows," recalled Didier Grumbach, former CEO of Thierry Mugler.

For the 10th anniversary of his label in 1984, he held the first public fashion show in Europe. Six thousand people attended the rock concert-like event.

But nothing compared to the 20th anniversary celebration, staged at the Cirque d'Hiver with Jerry Hall, Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss and closing with a performance from legendary rock 'n roller James Brown.

He was also a pioneer and advocate for trans models, with Connie Fleming and Teri Toye walking his shows in the nineties.

The biggest commercial success were his perfumes, most notably "Angel" launched in 1992, which remains among the world's top sellers.

Cosmetics firm Clarins bought his label in 1997. They shuttered the fashion division in 2003 amid reports of tanking revenues, but reopened it in 2010.

Mugler's agent Jean-Baptiste Rougeot, who announced his death from "natural causes", said he had been due to announce new collaborations this week.

Mugler had basked in the success of a career retrospective, Couturissime, which is currently ending its world tour in Paris.

He told the Business of Fashion magazine just a few months ago that he was still busy and wanted to be "even more radical, to be more pure, just to live in beauty, and fight for beauty more than ever".(AFP)

Thierry Mugler