French fashion designer Thierry Mugler, whose iconic clothes graced the frames of David Bowie, Grace Jones, Michael Jackson, and Madonna as well as those of modern-day stars Lady Gaga and Cardi B, died January 23 at home in Vincennes, outside Paris, at the age of seventy-three. The news was announced on his brand’s official Instagram account. Mugler rose to fame in 1973 after establishing his own label, for which he created fantastic, often highly architectural designs that emphasized the wearer’s form in a frequently titillating fashion. A self-professed modifier of his own body via various means, he was one of the first designers to send models of all shapes, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and genders down the runway. Among his many achievements in a career spanning some fifty years were his design for Demi Moore’s black evening dress in the 1993 melodrama Indecent Proposal, characterized as the “most famous dress of the 1990s”; his construction of Kim Kardashian’s clinging crystal-and-latex “wet couture dress” for the 2019 Met Gala; and his 1992 creation of Angel, one of the most popular perfumes of the last century.
Mugler was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1948 to a homemaker mother and a doctor father. After spending his teen years as a dancer with the Ballet du Rhin, Mugler moved in the late 1960s to Paris, where he designed for various fashion houses. His clothes of this era boasted a silhouette that was broad of shoulder and narrow of waist, referencing the glamour of 1940s Hollywood and presaging the wild, futuristic fembot designs on which he would make his name. In 1973 Mugler launched his first collection; by 1978, he had opened his first Paris boutique. The wide padded shoulders of his early designs became one of the benchmark looks of the following decade, during which time he worked extensively in plastic, latex, and other materials typically associated with fetish wear. For his spring 1981 ready-to-wear collection, he dressed male and female models in abbreviated cloth playsuits attached to which were hard, metallic-looking breastplates and cummerbunds, the former complete with nipples and the latter evincing six-pack abs. Perhaps one of the most talked-about culminations of his fascination with structured and sexy forms was his 1989 molded plastic bustier that showed every curve of the model—former underage porn star Traci Lords—who strutted onto the runway in it at a 1992 AIDS benefit. Across the top of the airbrushed garment’s peaked cups was the designer’s name, an obscenely shiny liquid scrawl.
The ’80s and ’90s saw Mugler’s career peak, almost impossibly so with his creation of the Angel scent, which at one point outsold Chanel No. 5 in France and today remains one of the world’s bestselling fragrances. During this time, the presentations of his ready-to-wear collections became ever more theatrical, with a 1995 effort earning the title “the Woodstock of fashion.” For this show, held at Paris’s storied Cirque d’Hiver and celebrating the Mugler brand’s twentieth year, the designer showed more than three hundred looks and brought onstage a variety of performers ranging from socialite and former Symbionese Liberation Army hostage Patty Hearst, who did a striptease, to funk and R&B legend James Brown, aka the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, who sweated his way through a medley of his greatest hits as multicolored confetti poured from the ceiling.
Just two years later, beauty conglomerate Clarins purchased a controlling stake in the Mugler brand; by 2003, Mugler had announced his retirement from fashion and Clarins had shuttered his ready-to-wear brand owing to its lack of profitability. Mugler, who began calling himself Manfred, continued to create fragrances, launching the successful Alien in 2005; he would go on to release several more perfumes, including variations on the Angel scent. Mugler’s work on his own body continued apace as well: a 2019 piece by Tippi Hedren in Interview magazine was accompanied by a group of photos showing the then seventy-one-year-old bodybuilder to be in spectacular shape and wearing only a combat boots and a tastefully placed black silk handkerchief.
Mugler additionally directed videos, including that for George Michael’s 1992 “Too Funky” and the advertisement for his own Alien scent. He also designed costumes for a range of theater productions. “For me, it was obvious,” he told Hedren. “Why would anyone only want fashion? There are the costumes, but there’s also the environment, the lights, the moment. Now I’m a photographer, too, and I love music. Fashion was very easy for me, so I said, ‘I have the power to make big shows.’ The music, the sets, the light, the attitudes—it all helped to tell my story. Something I say to young people is, ‘Be clear what you want to say. Make sure that people get it.’”
An exhibition of Mugler’s designs, “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime,” was mounted last year at Paris’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, where it remains on view through April 24. The show traveled from the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montréal, where it was 2019’s most-visited show in Canada.