We caught up with the designer before his SS19 show and talked superheroes, George Michael, and legacies
Almost every surface of Casey Cadwallader’s square-shaped office in Mugler HQ is covered in something. There are drawings scattered across the walls and floor; carefully arranged photocopies of magazines; Tumblr-esque mood board images; big sheets of PVC with a kaleidoscope of materials and colours trapped beneath the clear surfaces.
Despite this being his first artistic directorship, this isn’t the American designer’s first time at the rodeo. While studying architecture at Cornell at the turn of the millennium, he landed an internship at Marc Jacobs, then the crown prince of the fashion world. That was the moment he caught the fashion bug. After graduating, he worked for Richard Chai and Narciso Rodriguez, and he says the latter was his truly formative experience.
“That’s where I went to school,” says Cadwallader. “(Narciso) was an architect; it was all about line and construction. I was immediately confronted with another level of working. I remember the first time I saw a prototype. The way that he has markers and just changes every little thing. That taught me how to be a designer.”
Subsequent behind-the-scenes roles at Acne Studios and Loewe led him to Mugler in December 2017, known for its heyday in the 80s and 90s. Thierry Mugler – now known as Manfred — was a tour de force of big shoulders (Ivana Trump was one of his biggest clients) and spectacular shows that turned women into superheroines, insects, dominatrixes and even motorbikes.
By the mid-90s, Mugler had one of the best-selling perfumes in the world, Angel, and the brand’s signature fragrances still rake in the big bucks for Clarins Group, which now owns the label outright.
For an Instagram generation, his legacy is those show-stopping campy extravaganzas. Remember Beyoncé’s alter ego Sasha Fierce? She wore 58 custom Mugler outfits for her ‘I Am...’ tour. It’s fair to say that Mugler made clothes for the diva within. Cadwallader also created three completely custom looks for Queen Bey to wear during those hugely in-demand OTRII shows this year.
Mugler has been through a few creative directors that have brought the label to the 21st century. Growing up in New Hampshire, Cadwallader’s portal to the outside world was MTV and it was through that beacon of pop culture that he first interacted with the fashion house.
“I definitely have a sensational Mugler show in my memory,” he says. “Perhaps it was the George Michael video though,” he adds, referring to the 1992 music video for “Too Funky” starring Linda, Nadja, Tyra, Carla et al. “It was one of the things as a young gay boy in a very un-gay part of the US that was sensational and I would dance around to.”
Like any artistic director working for a brand that is so ingrained in living memory – let alone with a founder who is still alive – the weight of legacy can be a precipitous balance.
“What I did in my personal time was getting into the archive and looking at what other people had done with it and seeing how I fit into it,” explains Cadwallader. “I started to understand that Mr Mugler built a culture and a brand around his obsessions: dance, performers, spectacles, superheroes.”
“I’m not into superheroes and you can’t just fake it,” he continues. “I had to say I’m not him and I'm never going to be him. He’s impossible to fake. I don’t like to make a reference too literal. It’s connected to his dreams. If I turned a woman into an insect for the runway show, people would think I’m fucking crazy.”
Cadwallader’s world is different to say the least. One of his first ports of call was to get in touch with Samara Scott, a British artist living in Barcelona, who works with found objects and refuse to create seemingly chaotic surfaces and materials. Cadwallader asked her if she’d like to make a trench coat with him – the first of which appeared in the AW18 capsule collection and featured liquid trapped between PVC.
They’ve continue to collaborate for his upcoming SS19 show, his official debut – this time with a washed-up variety of cigarettes, bin bags, nails, and batteries sandwiched between the material. “I like camp things, but I don’t make camp things,” he explains. “Messy and wild is more my pursuit.”
There will also be tailoring designed to be deconstructed and somewhat unisex, as well as a softened rendition of Mugler’s signature corsetry. “He did corsets in a defining, rigid way,” says Cadwallader. “I’m into working with it and all the beautiful techniques involved, but to casualise it and make it a bit more comfortable. I want to make them so you can still sit down.”
He’s also keen to pivot the brand’s images of women to what it has been in recent years: all cigarette-heel vamps and perpendicular silhouettes and cheekbones; essentially, a campy vision of La Parisienne. “For me, the Mugler woman is not afraid to tackle her own destiny,” he enthuses. “It’s about athletes, bankers, businesswomen... I want them all to be a part of this place.”
“I’m less into just using ‘fresh faces’,” he says with a cheeky smile. “It feels a bit off to me now. It’s about keeping people around and building something.”
Case in point: his first campaign was a roll call of nine women shot outdoors in natural light: 90s catwalk superstar and old Mugler favourite Debra Shaw in a pink cape-drape dress with hoops and ankle boots; queer rapper 070 Shake in boxy texture-denim jeans with 16 spiralling seams.
It’s a fresh perspective for a brand we all know so well. And it’s only just the start.