Designer Thierry Mugler revolutionized couture in the ’80s and ’90s with his robotic femme fatales, then sold his namesake line and vanished from public eye. But now he’s back, thanks to Cardi B and Kim Kardashian West — who recently dipped into his archive — as well as a new retrospective of his work, “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime,” which just opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
The French designer’s clothes melded fantasy, futurism, and unabashed sex appeal, winning the devotion of the era’s flashiest celebrities (Ivana Trump was such a loyal customer that she once walked his runway). A classically trained former ballet dancer, he believed in theatricality, staging his runway shows as hour-long performances long before the days of McQueen and Galliano.
His cabinet of curiosities was a performer’s dream with its endless anthropomorphisms. Everyone from David Bowie to Lady Gaga has had their Mugler moment. Demi Moore wore Mugler upon receiving that Indecent Proposal, while Kim Basinger was advised to in the fashion industry satire Pret-A-Porter.
“Couturissime” marks the first time many of Mugler’s archival pieces have been shown to the public since their runway debuts. Superstar curator Thierry-Maxime Loriot — who’s known for his 2011 global smash hit show about Jean Paul Gaultier — likened the process to unearthing buried treasure. “I think [Mugler] was fearing a funeral exhibition, but I have a more collaborative approach,” he says.
Indeed, the 150-look show is a symphony of couture, visual effects, and theater. It’s split into Mugler’s many modes, from couturier to perfumer to photographer, including his collaborations with Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. It also features costumes designed by Mugler for La Tragédie de Macbeth, shown for the first time since 1985.
Walking through the exhibit, it’s hard not to imagine what might look good on Cardi B — the reality star turned rap queen whose own metamorphosis is happening before our very eyes. Here are some of the Cut’s suggestions.
A Couture Cutout Wonder From Fall 1995
Cardi dipped into this collection for the Grammys, emerging from a clamshell on the red carpet before performing in a peacock jumpsuit, but it feels like a butt-cleavage moment was sorely missed. Mugler’s cheeky (sorry) approach to sexuality has been well-documented — this 1994 conversation with feminist art theorist Linda Nochlin, during which she suggests that his pieces transformed women from sex objects to sex subjects, is an interesting read.
A Hot-Rod Bustier From Spring 1992
This masterpiece has already been given plenty of high-profile love, appearing on model Emma Wiklund in George Michael’s “Too Funky” video (directed and outfitted by Mugler himself) and on Beyoncé in the promo for her “I am Sasha Fierce” tour. But it deserves another kick at the proverbial can for Mugler’s exquisite melding of masculine symbols with hyper femininity. Plus Cardi could always wear it if “Motorsport” gets a sequel.
A Fiery Bustier From Fall 1988
No one personifies “red hot” in this moment quite like Cardi B, which is why a flaming bustier made of synthetic gemstones is just the thing for her next video. Mugler frequently took inspiration from the femme fatales of comic books he adored in his youth. “He was always attracted to the woman in the sexy dress silently killing the enemy,” says Loriot.
A Full-Body Haute Couture Insect Gown From Fall 1997
Mugler championed the idea of anthropomorphic fashion, whether he was turning his models into cars, robots, or the creature from the black lagoon. The collection was particularly inspired by Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and Microcosmos, a documentary that followed the secret lives of insects the year prior.
A Crystal-Covered Couture Catsuit From Spring 1998
This catsuit is the physical manifestation of “Came through drippin’.”
A Rhinestone Cowboy Suit From Spring 1992
My god did this collection have looks! The very same season Mugler gave us the motorcycle bustier, he also created this hand-embroidered cowboy suit of crystals, semi-precious stones, and gold hoops. The corset was made in collaboration with famed corset-maker Mr. Pearl and was worn on the runway by Connie Fleming, one of the first transgender models to ever walk Fashion Week. In my mind, Cardi wears this for her first feature-film role as Nomi Malone in the Showgirls remake I will personally direct and co-star in as Cristal Connors.
A Couture Robot From Fall 1995
The fembot is an idea Mugler has revisited so many times that it has its own section in the exhibit, but this iteration is perhaps its defining moment. “It completely changed what haute couture is supposed to be,” says Loriot. At the time, couture was dusty, dominated by the old school and due for a shake-up. Much like the “best rap album” category at the Grammys, which just crowned its first female winner in Cardi B.