How Fashion Legend Thierry Mugler Finally Got the Museum Retrospective He Deserves

Thierry Mugler is not one to dwell on the past. Fittingly for a designer preoccupied with the idea of metamorphosis, he has not been afraid to remodel himself. For starters, Mugler, whose futuristic brand of otherworldly, hard-edged glamour ­mesmerized the fashion world in the 1980s and ’90s, changed his first name to Manfred more than a decade ago and transformed his once lithe physique into the hulking frame of a circus strong man—or, as a New York Times reporter described it in 2010, a “240-pound spectacle of muscle and nipple and tattoo.” As a creator, he has likewise changed tack, going so far as to quit the fashion industry for good, in 2002, and switch over to show business.

But he has remained constant on at least one front: Over the years, Mugler has refused the entreaties of museums around the world, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, in Paris, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. So no one was more surprised than Nathalie Bondil, the general director and chief curator of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, when Mugler agreed to meet, in 2014, about the prospect of a retrospective of his far-ranging contributions to visual culture. Bondil flew to Berlin, where Mugler had moved and was preparing to launch The Wyld, an intergalactic Vegas-style show that he created and directed for the Friedrichstadt-Palast, a revue theater. “Within no time he had agreed to do it,” Bondil recalls. “It was such a coup. You can see a Van Gogh at pretty much any major museum in the world, but good luck getting up close to a Mugler original.”

Gisele Bündchen, in a metallic number from 2018.

Photograph by Luigi & Iango.

The result of their collaboration, “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime,” opens in Montreal on March 2 and is the first major exhibition of the onetime dancer who has led a dizzying pas de deux with fashion since he arrived in Paris in the late 1960s. Curated by Thierry-Maxime Loriot, who first suggested the idea to Bondil and organized the show under her direction, it features more than 150 outfits made between 1977 and 2014, including stage costumes for the likes of Beyoncé, and never-before-seen videos, archival documents, accessories, and sketches, as well as his more recent designs for neo-burlesque extravaganzas such as Mugler Follies and Cirque du Soleil Zumanity.

“A lot of the time these exhibitions about the past look like ­funerals,” says Loriot, who was responsible for lauded surveys of the ­designers Jean Paul Gaultier and Viktor & Rolf, and the photographer Peter Lindbergh. “At the end you’re wondering whether the person is alive or dead.” It’s an opinion that Mugler, who recently turned 70, shares. “Sometimes these shows even smell of death,” he says. “But what Nathalie and Thierry proposed was the opposite of nostalgia. If anything, they had to stop me from trying to tweak my old designs, because I did not want to be precious about the past.”

Costumes for the cabaret show Mugler Follies.

Christian Gautier/ © Manfred Mugler.

In his effort to bring to life Mugler’s passions and obsessions, from Old Hollywood to transhumanism—and in order to lure “the Netflix and Tinder generation”—Loriot tapped Michel Lemieux, of the Quebec multidisciplinary duo Lemieux-Pilon 4D Art, to create an augmented-reality hologram that greets visitors as they enter. Rodeo FX, a special-effects company whose credits include Game of Thrones and Blade Runner 2049, has conceived a mythical digital environment for a gallery titled “Metamorphosis” that showcases haute couture pieces inspired by the animal kingdom; and the German artist and set designer Philipp Fürhofer has designed the “Couture Androids” room, using his signature mirrors and neon. “I have always gone for it in my work,” Mugler explains, “so the exhibition should, too. It’s going to be an explosion.”

Mugler is holding court in a conference room at the museum in Montreal. It is a freezing winter day, but he is dressed in a short-sleeve shirt that barely contains his carapace of a torso and reveals a tattoo of an oversize snake coiling around his right arm. His casual camouflage-print trousers and high-top sneakers of no discernible provenance ­suggest he might have just come from the gym. But the only things he is lifting this morning—and delicately, at that—are some of the iconic outfits that will be on display in “Couturissime,” including the Butterfly Wing strapless sequined gown embroidered by the corset maker Mr. Pearl and worn by Jerry Hall in the haute couture spring 1997 show, and the Cyborg chrome bodysuit from fall 1995, made in collaboration with the designer Jean-Jacques Urcun. The latter, Mugler points out, required six months of intensive work in his ateliers. “That would never happen in today’s fashion world,” he laments. “It’s a faster-faster-faster popularity contest. It’s literally about being liked.”

The model Audrey Marnay, in a gown from the spring 1997 haute couture Les Insectes collection.

© Paolo Roversi.

A lot has changed since Mugler’s PVC-clad intergalactic dominatrixes stalked the runways and seemingly every elevator smelled of his best-selling fragrance, Angel, but he can still be relied on to dish. “They got that from me” is a recurring refrain. When I ask him if he cares for any of today’s designers, he gently impels me to rephrase the question. “It’s obvious the answer is no,” he says, eventually conceding that he is a fan of Iris van Herpen now that she has dialed back the conceptualism and remembered that “fashion is about the wearer, lady.” And as he prepares to show me the handiwork on the Motorcyle-Fairing, an ensemble comprising a hand-painted Plexiglas bustier, fringed leather shorts, and a matching Budweiser garter worn by the model Emma Sjöberg Wiklund in the Mugler-directed 1992 video for George Michael’s “Too Funky,” he can’t help himself. “The troubles, the drama I had with that one,” he says, referring to his much-publicized falling-out with Michael over the direction of the runway-themed video, which led to two different versions being released and a lifetime of acrimony. “It was supposed to be about how there is a bit of heaven and hell behind every fashion show, but he made it just into hell.”

The model Emma Sjöberg Wiklund, on the set of George Michael’s “Too Funky” video, 1992.

© Patrice Stable/Thierry Mugler.

As the photos and video clips in the exhibition attest, Mugler has fared considerably better with other celebrities and has been an instrumental part of their mythologizing, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) his penchant for controversy. The siren dress that David Bowie wore in the 1979 video of “Boys Keep Swinging” led to plenty of pearl-clutching, but it cemented his position as the reigning androgyne on the scene (and a decades-long working relationship with Mugler, who dressed the singer for his wedding to Iman); the Mao-collar jacket that then French cultural minister Jack Lang wore—sacré bleu!—to the national assembly in 1985 scandalized the old guard (one pundit described him as a “vaguely Islamic clergyman”) but established Lang as a modern agent of change; and the black gown with a graphic neckline that Demi Moore wore in Indecent Proposal in 1993 heralded the arrival of a new Hollywood glamour-puss.

Not that the show is one big parade of his greatest hits. It opens with his little-known costume designs for the staging of Macbeth by the Comédie-Française at the Festival d’Avignon in 1985. Mugler stole the show even then: One of the costumes for Lady Macbeth—a dress of cabochon-studded sky blue duchess satin weighing almost 75 pounds—came crashing down toward the end of the play, causing more than one critic to assume that the dramatic interruption had been intended. The headlines the next day were, ­THIERRY MUGLER—director!

The model Carolyn Murphy photographed in (and out of) Thierry Mugler for Vogue Paris, 1996.

© The Helmut Newton Estate.

In 1978, on the set of his first advertising campaign with Helmut Newton, Mugler was so meddlesome that the famously controlling photographer handed him his camera and told him to take the photos himself. Mugler obliged, and some of those images are among the extraordinary photographic work on display throughout the exhibition, alongside iconic advertising and editorial photographs of Mugler’s designs by Guy Bourdin, Herb Ritts, Dominique Issermann, and Newton, whose foundation is lending out the master’s photos to an outside museum for the first time. The remote locations and unbridled scale of Mugler’s own photography bear witness not only to an era when fantasy and fetish were the last word in chic, but also to a moment in time when big ideas were supported by outsize budgets.

Sketches for looks from the spring 1992 Cowboys collection.

© Thierry Mugler.

Mugler admits that he sometimes entertains the idea of reentering the fashion arena for one last hurrah—showing the kids how it’s done—but he says the realities of today’s fashion world quickly bring him back down to earth, even though he still has more forward-thinking ideas than he knows what to do with. Such as? “A dress that uses technology to react and change according to compliments! Can you imagine?” He pauses. “But, unfortunately, you cannot do glamour on the cheap.”

Related: How Thierry Mugler Always Transcended the Fickleness of Fashion