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Mugler & Alaïa: They’re Alive!

Casey Cadwallader and Pieter Mulier prove that iconic design signatures can be rewritten for a new age.
Model Eva Herzigova walks the runway during the Mugler Autumn/Winter 2023 fashion show.
Model Eva Herzigova walks the runway during the Mugler Autumn/Winter 2023 fashion show. (Getty Images)

PARIS and ANTWERP — My couture week started with a synchronicity, so it’s only fitting it should end with one. Even if the houses of Thierry Mugler and Azzedine Alaïa were not technically part of the couture schedule, their presentations were a slambang climax to the week. In life, Thierry, before he re-incarnated as Manfred, was so supportive of his friend Azzedine that he was acknowledged as an architect of his success. In death, their standard bearers are Casey Cadwallader at Mugler and Pieter Mulier at Alaïa. I have no idea if they’ve ever met, but this season showed that both designers are not only acutely sensitive to the legacies they’ve inherited but also more than up for the challenge of transmuting those legacies into something vibrant and relevant for an audience who are far away in time and place from the OGs.

Cadwallader is the fifth person to take on the Mugler brand. He only met Manfred a few times before he died a year ago, but they got on well enough that the formidable man mountain growled, “I think you might be the one, kid.” There was nothing about the show on Thursday night to suggest Manfred’s judgment was wrong. “We appreciate a lot of the same things,” said Cadwallader. “Movement, different expressions of gender, extreme transformations. Manfred took people and turned them into characters and my big difference is that I make them a supersonic version of themselves. What it means to be a powerful person is different now. People dress to make themselves feel hot rather than turn a man’s head. Bareness and showing curves is about self-pride.”

There was an orgy of both — bareness and curves, I mean — but Cadwallader talked about “rolling two dynamics into one” with this collection: hard edge on one hand, romance on the other. Biker leather, meet black lace. “I’ve always had an aversion to lace, but the thing you have an aversion to is the thing you need to try because maybe you’ll do it differently.” And he did. Lace became a defining element in his exploration of bareness and curves. More volume and draping too, dressier, but still sporty in the cut “because I want clothes to hug the body in a certain way, I want women with breasts and women with butts and women with hips to be able to wear the clothes and still have them be formfitting and move with them.”

Cadwallader broke the internet with his videos during lockdown. On Thursday night, he chose La Villette for his first physical show in three years. It’s a massive venue familiar to those who once trekked to the outskirts of Paris for Gaultier, Galliano and McQueen. He said he’d invited lots of kids from the city. “I want people to hoot and holler. No stone cold faces. I want a little drama.” And Cadwallader pulled off a remarkable feat: a proper, knock-down-drag-out spectacle in the grand Mugler tradition, but techno-updated for much darker times. Models stormed down one side of the arena, then rode a dolly back down the other, posing furiously while cameras tracked them from all angles (the “buttcam” being a vital part of the rig). A huge screen at the back of the arena relayed the results.


The audience became part of the performance, just the way Cadwallader had hoped. Real Housewife Lisa Rinna was in the front row. When late-night talkshow sensation-cum-Mugler model.

Ziwe Fumudoh broke the fourth wall and came looking for her, it was the best moment of the past week. The sass, the savagery, the high pony whiplashing in mock fury. You crave that at the frontiers of pop culture. Or Pose’s Dominique Jackson as a blonde spider woman stalking past in lace body and black corset. Or Arca doing Arca, Omahyra doing Omahyra, before the slam dunk, Amber, Shalom and Eva Herzigova, Cadwallader acknowledging the power of legend, like Thierry bringing Jerry Hall or Julie Newmar or Tippi Hedren onto his stage. Yes, it was camp but that’s also the naked power of fashion to make memories and hold them forever, sacrosanct. A kind of profane church, in other words.

Mugler got the power. So did Azzedine Alaïa. His peerless exaltation of the female form induced ecstasy in his acolytes — and posed a serious challenge for anyone brave enough to step into his shoes. On Friday night, Pieter Mulier cracked it with a simple but bold solution. He showed the new collection in his own apartment on the 21st floor of Riverside Tower, a landmark piece of brutalist architecture in his hometown, Antwerp. Azzedine’s own at-home’s were legendary, from meals he’d cook for a chosen few to fully-fledged fashion presentations, a tradition Mulier continued. But he acknowledged that showing in his own home had opened up something for him. “It’s the most Alaïa I’ve gone and it was easier for me to do it because it was here. It was like I could do more Azzedine in my house than Azzedine in his house.”

It wasn’t so hard to analyse that seeming paradox. Mulier is a private person so sharing his new work at home with a small group of friends and industry professionals he felt comfortable with suited his personality. He also spoke about the general need for intimate connection, stilling the noise of this confusing moment in history. The invitation was a hand-written letter from him, personalised to each guest. The audience was seated on his furniture, some even perched on Mulier’s bed downstairs. And the soundtrack by his friends David and Stephen Dewaele, AKA 2ManyDJs, set the tone with Jeff Buckley’s sweet moan.

And all of that liberated Mulier to “do” Azzedine. The first looks — knitwear steamed into sensational shape, cut on the round, no seams front or back — channeled Alaïa’s curved tailoring from the 1980s. They were detailed with bugle beads, like pins, after a famous Jean-Baptiste Mondino image from the same period. A fluted skating skirt similarly echoed an Alaïa classic, as did bandage dresses in black leather and silvery lace. Mulier captured the master’s fetishistic undertow with leather harnesses, and a mac and pants cut from patent leather netting. And there was a shade of… I call it mushroom, Mulier prefers dark camel, or dirty green, that will forever be Azzedine to me.

The 21st floor of the Riverside Tower is moulded from suitably brutalist concrete, so two “concrete” dresses of stone-look jacquard felt like Mulier acknowledging his own home. And the finale of full taffeta skirts with turtlenecks whispered the modern evening looks he explored as right hand man to Raf Simons at Dior. In other words, as successful as his new collection was, Mulier promises to be much more than Alaïa’s medium. The aftershow dinner, in the Rubens Room of Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts, finally casting off the shackles of an 11-year renovation subtly emphasized that promise. Walls hung not just with Old Master Peter Paul Rubens but also an idiosyncratic genius such as James Ensor are a reminder of the very particular cultural heritage in which Mulier is steeped. It already looks like it sits surprisingly well with Alaïa.

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