The legendary designer known for fantastical couture shows and cyborgian warrior women has died aged 73
Manfred Thierry Mugler, who died on Sunday January 24, never truly lived in the present. He was a futurist, wielding his buckwild imagination to shatter the borders of couture, pop culture, and womanhood. “We are devastated to announce the passing of Mr Manfred Thierry Mugler,” read an announcement from the designer’s team on Instagram, which, according to a spokesperson was unexpected. “May his soul Rest In Peace.”
Born in Strasbourg, France, in December 1948, Mugler was a dancer before he was a designer, joining the ballet corps of the Opéra National du Rhin at the age of 14. For the following six years, Mugler spent most of his time either on stage or in rehearsal studios, before attending the Kunstgewerbeschule, an arts school in Alsace. He moved to Paris in 1968, aged 20, to work as a window dresser for the boutique Gudule, and began designing on the side, creating his first label Café de Paris in 1973. Backdropped by designers like Azzedine Alaïa, who took a sledgehammer to all the prissy silhouettes which had previously dominated womenswear, in 1978, Mugler opened his first boutique at the Places des Victoires and simultaneously launched his men’s line.
Mugler always had a “very hard time living in the world that is imposed upon us,” as he once said. “I dreamed of creating another world, to my scale. One that was my own.” Sure enough, he went on to define the look of the 80s and beyond – all padded shoulders, tiny waists, and flaring hips – which he famously paraded in hour-long, operatic spectacles. Coinciding with the rise of supermodel in the early 90s, Mugler’s women were divas, goddesses, and alien femme fatales, whose sole superpowers were presence and aplomb, seduction and self-assurance. Fashion may have become his calling card but his background in ballet was foundational in his understanding of the human body as something malleable and worthy of metamorphosis. As something that was beautiful, erotic, and grotesque.
He frequently collaborated with drag artists, trans models, and club kids, not to mention Naomi Campbell, who he dressed in chrome and fiberglass car bodies, Cindy Crawford in bondage bodysuits and nipple tassels, Linda Evangelista in sequinned wigs and gowns, and Eva Herzigova in a plume of red feathers. Only, the designer’s love of these kinds of vampy, sexed-up looks were deemed by some critics to be misogynistic, particularly his penchant for corsetry. Unlike his predecessors, though, Mugler’s designs did not oppress – they were symbols of power, control, and strength, expressed in metal, vinyl, latex, fake fur and diamantes, which transformed his women into something fantastical and trans-species.
Though his perfume venture, Angel, was wildly popular, by 2003 the Mugler maison was shuttered due to poor finances, driving the designer underground. As he stepped back from the catwalk, he completely disappeared from public view, reemerging four years later as Manfred, having embraced bodybuilding and plastic surgery, embodying a living, breathing Tom of Finland sketch. He told the New York Times in 2010 that he did not want to be recognised. “You don’t want to be reminded that you did this or you did that. It is disturbing,” he said. Without the runway, he soon became his own muse and model, turning his gaze inwards as he gradually upgraded his body into an extra-human or cyborgian form.
Despite formally retiring from fashion, Mugler’s warrior women dotted the landscape of entertainment until his death. His work with Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Cardi B, and Kim Kardashian repeatedly burst the banks of pop culture, forging some of the most recognisable and turbocharged imagery of contemporary culture. Be it on Sasha Fierce or at the Met Gala, Mugler’s taste for unbridled grandeur created breathtaking characters that merged the mythology of Old Hollywood with the ever-accelerating possibilities of science fiction. In the past couple of years, he offered up Cardi B as Botticelli’s Venus and Kim Kardashian as his own Cowbot creation, sparking a major renaissance in his designs among a younger generation. So much so that he was set to announce a series of upcoming collaborations, dovetailing with an exhibition in Paris, which is currently showcasing Mugler’s most definitive looks.
It was Casey Cadwallader, who has been at the helm of Mugler since 2017, who led the memorials last night. “Manfred, I am so honored to have known you and to work within your beautiful world. You changed our perception of beauty, of confidence, of representation and self empowerment. Your legacy is something I carry with me in everything I do. Thank you.” As the industry begins to take stock of the life and impact of Mugler, whose passing comes too soon after André Leon Talley, Virgil Abloh, and Alber Elbaz, we at Dazed are deeply saddened to lose such a foundational figure. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family, friends, and all who loved him – as well as anyone who ever felt inspired by his imagination.