Praise the Lord and pass the glitter lipstick: Camp is back. Trendy young people everywhere have embraced irony, fashion designers have embraced trolling, and even the Oscars red carpet seemed to be about having fun rather than exhibiting conspicuous good taste. Soon, the Met Gala will honor our kitschy forefathers and mothers in the exhibit, “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” No wonder Thierry Mugler is suddenly relevant again.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Mugler was the king of over-the-top style, but his archival pieces have started popping up everywhere recently. Cardi B wore a dress from his 1995 Couture collection to the Grammys, and Kim Kardashian West has recently worn not one, not two, but three of his dresses — two to a retrospective of his work in Montreal. So who is this guy, anyway?
The French designer started his label in 1978, and joined the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (the people who decide whether or not you’re couture) in 1992. The Mugler brand today is best known for its fragrances, especially Angel and Alien. But Mugler left a larger impact on the fashion world. He was part of an generation of designers like Jean Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana, and Christian Lacroix who produced high-voltage, theatrical runway shows. The man once made a six-months-pregnant Pat Cleveland float her way to the runway in a cloud of smoke, for God’s sake.
His 1995 couture show — the one Cardi B’s Grammys dress came from — was equal parts futuristic and Disney villain, and included cameos from Tippi Hedren and Patty Hearst. These wild shows set the stage (no pun intended) for later designers like Jeremy Scott and Alexander McQueen.
But as theatrical as Mugler was, his work was equally sexy, with corsetry and fetishistic elements appearing frequently in his designs. He created Demi Moore’s LBD in Indecent Proposal, costumed George Michael’s “Too Funky” video, and outfitted Beyoncé’s “I Am…” tour — all very sexy instances. Kardashian West seems to be exploring this part of his archive in particular, which makes sense in an era of Fashion Nova and bodycon Instagram style. Lady Gaga was also a big fan back in 2011, during her Born This Way era (RIP).
In 2003, Mugler’s label went under, though it was revived in 2013 without his involvement. Since he left the company, he’s designed for musicians and partnered with Cirque du Soleil. But Mugler the person is equally as fascinating as Mugler the designer. He was notoriously difficult to work with because of his strong personality (he and Michael didn’t get along, and the environment on set became one of “hysteria, lots of smoking and raw nerves.”) He told Vice, “My clothes are sexy and avant-garde and as I wrote and said in Robert Altman’s Prêt a Porter, ‘It’s all about getting a great fuck, darling.’”
Between 2003, when his label went under, and his public reappearance in 2007, Mugler reinvented himself as a body builder and changed his first name to Manfred. In 2010, the New York Times described his muscles as “so bulging as to impede natural movement.” The same story reported that Mugler spent three hours in the gym a day and employed a personal seamstress to make clothes that fit his inflated new form. As strange as this was, it felt like an apt reinvention for a man who referenced metamorphosis and physical contortion in his collections.
As for Thierry Mugler the brand, these days it’s designed by Casey Cadwallader, who seems more interested in how women dress for their lives than in high drama. But as stars like Cardi and Kim look for new ways to stand out, and as fashion falls more in love with camp, the archival pieces designed by Thierry himself feel more relevant than they have in a long time.