IMAGINE THAT YOU ARE A fashion stylist plucked from relative obscurity to take the reins of a storied French fashion house. Now imagine that, because of your reputation as costumer to the most Googled woman in the world, the entire fashion “editocracy” wants a seat at your first show. And that you have an ace up your sleeve: The fame monster herself, Lady Gaga, will be making her catwalk debut. What do you do? Do you go to any length to make sure your audience of über powerful tastemakers is instantly blown away? Not if you’re Nicola Formichetti.
Instead, when the newly minted creative director of Mugler unveiled his first women’s collection this past March in Paris, he lined the runway with a phalanx of Gothic arches that, from the side, looked like the skeleton of a prehistoric beast. However, for the fashion elite in the audience, the arches were an outright annoyance, obscuring their view of the clothes—a problem about which no reviewer failed to grouse. What they didn’t realize was that the effect was entirely intentional. Through the lenses of the cameras photographing and recording the show, the arches formed a fantastic frame. And it was the video—which has since been watched by some 120 million people, thanks in part to Formichetti’s savvy Twitter campaign—that the neophyte designer cared most about. “I wanted all the younger generation out there to have better seats than Anna Wintour,” he told me a few weeks later, fiddling with a cigarette in the kitchen of his loft in New York’s TriBeCa. As he sees it, the set was designed expressly for the most powerful people in fashion, and they saw the show perfectly.
THAT’S NOT TO SAY that the clothes he presented were beside the point. The lean and sexy collection of boleros, corsets, bodysuits, and sheaths was a smart balance of old-world refinement (wool, silk, fur) and futuristic fetish (neoprene, latex, silicone). Even the view-deprived critics had to admit that Formichetti’s designs—tough and tight, with perversely nipped waists and Mugler’s famous peaked shoulders—had the potential to energize a new customer base for the house, which has always been known for its glamazon silhouettes and outrageous presentations. (During his heyday, Thierry Mugler, who now goes by the name Manfred, routinely turned his models into cyber-vixens, otherworldly insects, and PVC-clad dominatrices.)
At 34, Formichetti doesn’t exactly qualify as a wunderkind, but he does represent a new breed of designer—one who realizes that 21st-century fashion success has less to do with what’s going on in the atelier than what’s happening on the Web. “It was Gaga who told me all about Twitter,” said the designer, who has 67,000 followers on the social-networking site. “She reads all her messages, and sometimes she sends ones back. She really thinks about what people say. Fans don’t lie. They just tell you what they really think, and they see details that even people in fashion don’t. I love the idea that you can talk directly to a designer or an artist in this way. We don’t need anyone else in between. We don’t need these marketing people. We don’t even need magazines!”