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The Last Metamorphosis of Mugler

The designer, who died on Sunday, was an icon of a golden age in fashion.
Thierry Mugler attending a fashion week party in the 1980s in Paris, France.
Manfred Thierry Mugler attending a fashion week party in the 1980s in Paris, France. (Getty Images)
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When I sat down with Manfred Thierry Mugler for a Business of Fashion podcast last October, he was in a buoyant mood. His perfume Angel, still one of the five best-selling fragrances in the world, had recently moved from Clarins to L’Oréal and he was excited to work with them. And his career retrospective “Couturissime” had just arrived at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris on the latest leg of its world tour (it’s there till April).

He claimed he’d always designed clothes to last forever, like a classic painting or sculpture, but the onrushing tides of fashion’s seasons meant most of them hadn’t been seen, bar the odd YouTube video, since they first appeared in his shows decades ago. Mugler was grateful that they’d been brought back to life in a setting where the sheer amount of human endeavour that went into his creations could be fully appreciated. It was, he pointed out, what he’d spent his life doing “with dedication and total passion.”

Now, with the shocking news of his death on Sunday, I’m glad he got to see his work celebrated to such spectacular effect, especially when such comprehensive exhibitions are usually posthumous affairs.

Decades ago, he’d already decided that fashion wasn’t enough. So, around the millennium, he walked away, taking back his first name Manfred to signal his new chapter. He went on to create shows for the likes of Cirque de Soleil and Beyoncé. The only fashion outfit he designed in the past two decades was the “wet look” dress Kim Kardashian wore to the Met Gala in 2019. Mugler imagined her as an antique goddess rising from the waves of Malibu, an image which underscored one of his enduring fascinations.

Metamorphosis was probably the great theme of his life and work. Inspired by the natural world, his clothes wrought extraordinary transformations, making gorgeous otherworldly hybrids of human, animal and insect. His own metamorphosis was equally radical. He transformed his body, once dancer-lithe (ballet was an early ambition), into an almost parodic Hulk-like mountain of muscle. If hard work and dedication to technique were his professional pillars, his own body was their fleshy embodiment. It was, he told me, his proudest personal achievement.

Still, Mugler, who turned 73 in December, was busy making other plans. He wanted to be “even more radical, to be more pure, just to live in beauty, and fight for beauty more than ever.” He claimed he loved getting older “because I’m more childish than ever,” which sounded incongruous when delivered in his subsonic, gravelly growl. Mugler lamented that he’d spent his life in a rush, living all over the place, filling warehouses with stuff and moving on. He insisted that if you want new things to happen in your life, “you need to empty your drawers” (a surprisingly quaint turn of phrase, especially odd when delivered in That Voice). And to do that, you needed more time. So the piece of wisdom Mugler was keenest to impart was this: “Don’t lose time!”

Now time’s lost him, though I suppose one way of looking at Death is as the final metamorphosis. Anyway, “Couturissime” offers thrilling proof that there is an afterlife for a genius like Mugler. Audiences will be marvelling at the man for as long as there are institutions happy to show his work. And there are still all those warehouses, all those drawers to empty!

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