Manfred Thierry Mugler, the boundary-pushing French couturier whose glamazons and fembots helped define fashion in the 1980s and ’90s and who died earlier this year, famously hated retrospectives. “In the museum world, everyone knew he was against the idea,” said Thierry-Maxime Loriot, the curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the institution that finally convinced Mugler to reconsider.
They changed his mind, Loriot said, by promising that any exhibition wouldn’t be a boring chronological tour of clothes. Instead, it would “look at the big themes, and put his work in the context of what his clothes represent in the world of now: creativity and the importance of being different.”
That was in 2016; the exhibition, “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime,” opened in Quebec in 2019. Now, after stops in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Munich and Paris, it has finally landed at the Brooklyn Museum, the latest in that institution’s series of traveling costume mega-shows orchestrated by Matthew Yokobosky, senior curator of fashion and material culture at the Brooklyn Museum. These include such exhibits as last year’s “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams,” and 2018’s “David Bowie Is,” which have served to bring a glamorous new cool (and presumably new audiences) to the museum.
Sprawling over 16,000 square feet, “Couturissime” comprises a mixed media display featuring approximately 130 outfits plus sketches, photographs, videos, and even scent, with backdrops created by a host of scenographers including Philipp Furhofer and Rodeo FX, the special effects company that worked on “Dune” and “Stranger Things,” the better to reflect the immersive theatricality of the runway shows that made his name.
And though the world of now is very different than the world when the show first opened — not just because of the loss of Mugler, but because of Covid, Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and the war in Ukraine (among other global events) — rather than making the exhibition feel outdated or irrelevant, the developments actually serve to give it even more relevance than it might originally have had.
It may not be called a retrospective, but that’s semantics. It functions the same way: as a convincing argument for the importance of a career that expertly walked the tightrope where originality met camp, challenging old hierarchies and inspiring designers from Alexander McQueen to Gucci’s Alessandro Michele. One that was founded on many of the cultural values currently in vogue today.
The Fine Arts & Exhibits Special Section
“Mugler was a pioneer when it came to women’s empowerment and diversity, starting in the 1970s,” Loriot said.
Though in the years after Mugler sold his brand (Clarins bought it in 1997 and he left to fully embrace theatrical work in 2002), these values were increasingly overshadowed by the designer’s penchant for kitsch razzle-dazzle and his own increasingly outrageous self-image — muscles so big he looked like Popeye, if Popeye was an emcee at the Crazy Horse — he experienced something of a 21st-century renaissance thanks to his rediscovery by a generation of American pop stars like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Cardi B, who saw in his vision of female self-determination a kindred spirit.
This exhibition serves as a reminder of just how important he was as a link in the chain that got us to now, and how innovative his fashion truly was beneath the grandiosity and glitz. (Though the grandiosity and glitz is also awfully fun to see.)
The point is foreshadowed not just by the epigraph that opens the show — “In my work I’ve always tried to make people look stronger than they really are” — but by the first room, which showcases not a gown but a hologram of a gown: an elaborate gold cage built on a metal skeleton Mugler created in 1985 for a Comédie-Française production of “La Tragédie de Macbeth.”
The dress, worn by Lady Macbeth, was too fragile to travel, so instead the Québec artist Michel Lemieux preserved it in its embodied state via a ghostly image. The result frames Mugler’s vision of women as the engines of society and sets the stage for the series of rooms that follow — especially the next one: a study of the partnership between Mugler and his closest photographic collaborator, Helmut Newton. (Other photographers featured in the show include Guy Bourdin, David LaChapelle, Sarah Moon and Herb Ritts.)
Newton’s large black and white prints of dominatrix goddesses clad and unclad in “a world without men, or a world where men are just the accessories,” according to Loriot, surround two outfits, including a one-shouldered archival gown with a sheer tulle bodice and black velvet mermaid skirt that Kylie Jenner unearthed a week ago to wear to the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards — a late addition to the exhibition chosen, said Marion Bourdee, Mugler’s head of archives, to cater to “the younger generation that follows her.”
Along with a black suit bristling with crystal shards, it also sketches out the silhouette that became a Mugler trademark: an architectural, exaggerated line that built a temple out of curves, from battering ram shoulders to tiny waist and narrow skirt. Mugler, who danced professionally as a young man before switching over to fashion, had an almost clinical appreciation of physique.
He iterated this over and over again, as the following rooms make clear, in materials that ranged from the traditional (velvets, organza, silk) to the experimental and technically original: a beige mesh body-con dress covered in a fine mesh of rubber lace; a bustier constructed from glass or one covered in tiny ceramic tiles; belts that resemble car radiators; a peplum jacket seemingly made from tire treads; industrial fabrications merged with couture constructions.
To achieve the extreme effects he desired, Mugler enlisted specialist ateliers like the famous corset-maker Mr. Pearl, introducing his work to the mainstream fashion world. It was but one of the designer’s pioneering choices. He also embraced fake fur and printed leather rather than exotic skins long before being fur-free became a fashion-world mantra. Flirted slyly with rear exposure before McQueen introduced the bumster. Explored unisex dressing before the category existed, and trousers under dresses before TikTok trends were a glimmer in any influencer’s eye. Put drag queens on his runway next to Park Avenue doyennes. And believed wholeheartedly in the metamorphic properties of clothing: the way a dress can enable its wearer to become the character (animal, mineral, superhero) they imagine themselves to be.
Little wonder David Bowie, a chameleon of a rock star, went through a Mugler period. (His brightly colored suits form part of the celebrity section, which also includes looks worn by Diana Ross and Madonna.) Ditto George Michael, whose 1992 video “Too Funky,” co-directed by Mugler and featuring a variety of supermodels vamping in Mugler outfits, deservedly gets its own special showcase.
So does “Angel,” the perfume Mugler introduced the same year (’92 was also the year of his first couture show), and which was the first scent to dethrone Chanel No. 5 in France — in part because of its secret ingredient: the Pavlovian addition of a whiff of cotton candy. Three winged and diaphanous gowns, including one that transformed the model Pat Cleveland into a Madonna descending from the heavens for the finale of Mugler’s 1984 stadium show, situate the scent in the Mugler universe, though the attempt to frame further perfume bottles as sculpture is the one jarring note in the show.
There’s just no way around the inescapable scent of commerce, even though neither Mugler nor the brand’s current owner, L’Oréal, was involved in sponsoring the exhibition. Which finally and fully takes wing in the last room, dedicated to the natural world and the sartorial artifice it inspired: an organza confection with the squishy pulse of a jellyfish dangling silicon tendrils; a column gown open at the back into feathered butterfly wings; and, at the center of it all, La Chimère, perhaps the most elaborate dress Mugler ever made.
Featuring a rainbow of exactingly beaded scales that form the iridescent carapace of a mythic creature, it took thousands of hours to produce and is so complicated to put on, it actually travels on its display mannequin. When it appeared on the runway, it also proved nearly impossible to walk in, the skirt was so tight; a not unusual corollary to Mugler’s tendency to go to any length necessary for aesthetic impact.
Though the idea of trading freedom for effect may seem the literal antithesis of empowerment, that imagery helped clear a path in the collective imagination. Even if now it is the very definition of a museum piece.
Thierry Mugler: Couturissime
Through May 7, Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, (718) 638-5000; brooklynmuseum.org.