When Thierry Mugler finally permitted a museum to curate a retrospective of his work, it showed his exceptionally shapely contribution to fashion.
The exhibition, which opened in Montreal, Canada, in 2019 and transferred last September to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, was all about three-dimensional bodies with strong command and control, dressed to stress their voluptuousness and power. Even the photographs looked like sculptures. He did goddesses, empresses and superheroines. No gamines, waifs or ordinary women.
For a decade from the early 1980s, Mugler, who has died aged 73, was a definer of the mood of the mode in extravagant ensembles, and even more in his staging. Paris couture had ventured out into catwalk presentation in the 70s, but Mugler introduced celebrity guests, big performances, filmed inserts and amplification borrowed from stadium rock concerts, for entertainment rather than to shift clothes; 6,000 Parisians bought tickets for his 1984 spectacle at the Zenith, the city’s biggest arena.
Mugler’s designs connected with the capital’s cabaret tradition – later picked up by Broadway and Hollywood – of costuming showgirls as highly sexualised abstractions – woman as bird, animal, insect, car hood ornament.
Musicians recognised that a Mugler outfit could astonish an audience at a first entrance. “You can wear a uniform,” sang David Bowie in Boys Keep Swinging, 1979, and one of the uniforms he wore for its music video was a pink dress by Mugler. Diana Ross, Madonna and Celine Dion commissioned stage costumes from him; he tussled with George Michael for control of the directing of the 1992 video for Too Funky, featuring models in Mugler outrage-wear.
In a later generation, Lady Gaga and Cardi B chose gala appearance gowns from his archives, and after Beyoncé saw Mugler’s work in the 2008 Superheroes exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she ordered 58 outfits for herself for her 2009 I Am … World Tour, plus gear for the rest of its cast, and asked Mugler to help stage the shows.
He was free to make what pleased him rather than fretting about selling frocks because of a 1992 deal with the French multinational Clarins that had awarded him a 34% stake in his new perfume, Angel.
Its overwhelming ingredient was synthetic ethyl maltol, which had previously added praline and jam aromas to confectionery, so Mugler models prancing in vinyl, leather and tyre-rubber dresses and plastic corsets smelt like a patisserie. This first gourmand perfume in its box of twilight blue is among the all-time scent bestsellers, and subsidised his last, epic, fashion pageant at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris in 1995.
Mugler had been creating his own theatre and movie-based fantasy world since his childhood in Strasbourg, where he was one of two sons of a local doctor and his fashion-passionate wife. He hated home and school, although after he started dance classes at nine he maintained strict self-discipline to keep at it until he briefly joined the corps de ballet at the city’s Opéra national du Rhin in 1965.
Mugler’s real education came from a flea-pit cinema behind Strasbourg’s railway station, where he saw five films a day, many of them old Hollywood: the designer Travis Banton swathing Marlene Dietrich in leather and fur, Walter Plunkett glorifying Cyd Charisse into a rocket-thighed siren. Along with Mugler’s mother’s wide shoulders, Charisse’s form and poise were a lifelong inspiration, and he was thrilled when later she modelled in his shows.
Mugler was too lanky to be cast as a ballet prince and too weird in his flea-market outfits to pass without unkind comment in Strasbourg. He rejected Maurice Béjart’s offer to join the Ballet of the 20th Century, because it was based in Brussels, another conventional city, and went to Paris instead.
There his self-presentation was applauded and he earned money by selling designs to ready-to-wear firms. He did the same in Amsterdam, while living on a houseboat; he contributed to Tommy Roberts’s London pop art emporium, Mr Freedom; and he drove a van to Afghanistan and learned Kathakali dance in India.
But Mugler never turned hippy, and back in Paris in 1971 he was not in accord with the gentle naivety of current fashion. He had developed, through ballet, ideas about the body in movement and wanted to clothe it with striking simplicity, in grand, rather than little, black dresses. In 1973, he started his own first label, Café de Paris, and in 1978 opened a boutique on the Place des Victoires, showing collections with other créateurs de mode who produced exclusive clothes outside the world of haute couture.
Mugler’s were by far the most architectural, after the manner of the postmodern style, with cornice shoulders and girder heels, and the most raunchy, using pornographic tropes before body-consciousness was common, which provoked angry reaction from women who disliked his constrictions, restrictions and ideas about vulnerable female flesh encased in predatory shells (seen again in risque designs for a Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil cabaret in 2003).
He was fearless; as photographer for his advertisements, he led luggage-laden expeditions of models to tough locations, and crawled along a ladder stuck out of a Manhattan skyscraper window to snap models on the edge of building chasms.
The organising body of Paris couture formally asked him to show in 1992; he delayed a collection to tie in with the launch of Angel, and, inhibited by the rigid seasonal calendar, later dropped out. Mugler withdrew from fashion in 2002, just before Clarins, who had bought the rights to his name in 1997, closed his loss-making ready-to-wear brand.
However, his retirement, funded by Angel, Alien and other perfumes, was busy right up to the current Thierry Mugler: Couturissime exhibition, its core project to remake and redesign himself. First, he reclaimed his birth name, Manfred, then practised yoga and meditation, and morphed his lean frame into massive body-built tattooed muscles. After a jeep crash and a motorbike accident, he had reconstructive facial surgery, designing bone grafts to transform him from a “thin, charming dancer” into “a warrior”.