Thierry Mugler: Couturissime
November 18th, 2022–May 7th, 2023
200 Eastern Parkway
Brooklyn, New York 11238
“I always felt fashion wasn’t sufficient in itself,” Manfred Thierry Mugler once said. “My only true vocation is the stage.” The statement might have seemed strange had it come from almost any other fashion couturier. But for anyone even peripherally familiar with the late French titan, it serves as the quickest possible summarization of a career that transcended fashion – beyond a designer, Mugler was a creative revolutionary whose five decades of innovation through fashion, photography, and film constantly beckoned for the rest of the world to catch up with him.
The Brooklyn Museum’s Thierry Mugler: Couturissime, the fifth and final stop of the exhibition’s worldwide tour and the first since Mugler passed away in January, honors that sentiment by presenting him as a singular visionary who created for a world unbound by reality; one invented and fully realized by his designs. The scale of its ambition is breathtaking in itself. Couturissime weaves the designer’s trademark inspirations of fantasy, the natural world, high glamour, sci-fi, eroticism, and feminine power into a retrospective that faithfully and comprehensively embodies the surrealist universe imagined by Thierry Mugler.
Mugler’s first major artistic triumph was his subversion of 1960s and early 70s hippie fashions into the now-legendary “Glamazon,” a direct contrast to the “flower power” styles of the time. The Glamazon, which he debuted in the late 70s, mythologized Mugler’s idea of the chic, sophisticated, and hypermodern woman through dramatic pieces that left almost nothing to the imagination in the figure. Cleavage-baring dresses closed into corseted wasp waists while jackets rose intimidatingly high and sharp in the shoulders, completed with dagger stilettos and oversized hats that hid the face.
However, Couturissime saves Mugler’s earliest subversion for later, opening instead with a full-scale hologram projection of a scene from the 1985 Comédie-Française production of The Tragedy of Macbeth. Mugler was given the highest budget in the state theatre’s history to design the costumes, which were characteristically angular, armor-like, and so heavy that he had to convince the actors that their weight was a necessary reflection of “the fragility of the character.” A series of conceptual sketches occupies a nearby wall, each an example of Mugler’s cellular understanding of anatomy and bodily movement.
Mugler began studying ballet at the age of nine, joining Alsace’s Ballet du Rhin company by 14. The resulting precision and attention to the body’s mechanics are evident in his designs, more than 130 of which are on display throughout Couturissime. They are unfathomably intricate and often seem to exist as their own biological entities, even on the mannequins. This is especially true of the nature-inspired collections “Les Atlantes” (Spring/Summer 1989), “Les Insectes” (Spring/Summer 1997), and “Les Méduses” (Fall/Winter 1999). The exhibition groups them together in its “Metamorphosis” gallery, which is so immersive that it arguably feels more akin to an haute couture jungle safari than an installation in a museum. Moving projections on the surrounding walls teem with foliage and insects as the clothes emulate them in stunning detail; a reptilian pantsuit stands across from gowns of organza hand-pleated into giant fish gills. The “La Chimère” dress that turned Yasmin Le Bon into an extraterrestrial, crystalline mermaid in 1997, one of Mugler’s defining masterpieces, is appropriately front and center.
The literally chrome-plated “Futuristic & Fembot Culture” gallery celebrates the other side of Mugler’s fascination with transhumanism. Instead of animals and insects, the collections here, beginning with “Sirène Galactique” (Spring/Summer 1979), rebuild women into impenetrable cyborgs. The metal and PVC Maschinenmensch outfits of the 1991 “Diana Ross, Superstar” and Fall/Winter 1995 collections are featured most prominently, the former accompanied by a 2009 David LaChapelle portrait of Lady Gaga in the Metropolis robot suit that she later wore in the music video for “Paparazzi.”
Beyond the couture, Couturissime is stashed to the ceiling with cultural memorabilia that Mugler either inspired or collaborated on himself. He maintained countless friends, collaborators, and dedicated admirers, many of them legends themselves, in the art and pop spheres – there’s an entire gallery dedicated to his collaborations with celebrities, from David Bowie to Madonna, and another featuring the virtuosic photographs of Helmut Newton. The Muglerized work of other photography giants, including but certainly not limited to Karl Lagerfield, Ellen von Unwerth, David LaChapelle, and Guy Bourdin, is also interspersed throughout the exhibition. There’s so much evidence of the depth and extent of Mugler’s impact that there likely could have been a show of comparable breadth without the clothes themselves.
Crafting a retrospective that even comes close to capturing the spirit of an artist of Mugler’s caliber can be a precarious feat. Luckily, Couturissime’s expansiveness is justified by its effort to embody everything Muglerian that it can, and the effect is spectacular. And even though it is a retrospective by definition, it still feels ironic to apply that word here – never in his 73 years did it seem that Thierry Mugler knew what it meant to be stuck in the past, and Couturissime shows us why he never will be.
“Thierry Mugler: Couturissime” is on view from November 18th, 2022 to May 7th, 2023 at the Brooklyn Museum