It’s been 20 years since Thierry Mugler, the enfant terrible of 1980s and ’90s Paris fashion who turned fashion shows into rock events, stepped down from his namesake company. But he didn’t retire.
He designed costumes for Cirque du Soleil’s “Zumanity” show in Las Vegas, and for Beyoncé’s 2010 “I Am … World Tour.” He wrote, directed, and designed “The Wyld,” a stage extravaganza that premiered in 2014 at the Friedrichstadt-Palast in Berlin, “based on Nefertiti, the most amazing supermodel ever,” the 72-year-old said from his home in Berlin earlier this month.
But it has been pop culture’s recent embrace of Mr. Mugler’s eye-popping fashion — tailor-made for the Instagram age — that has thrust him back into the cultural conversation. For the 2019 Grammys, Mr. Mugler dressed Cardi B in three of his vintage glamazon pieces, including the 1995 Venus gown: a black velvet sheath that erupts at the waist into a pink satin scallop shell to frame a champagne-hued sequin bodysuit. And in 2019, he designed Kim Kardashian’s Met Gala look: a corseted confection of crystal-studded latex made to match her skin tone and looking as if it were dripping wet.
Nearly all will be on display in “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime,” a multimedia exhibition set to open on Thursday, during Paris Fashion Week, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. More than 150 pieces designed by Mr. Mugler from 1973 to 2014 are included, along with photography (he shot his brand’s advertising for decades), perfumes (most notably his best seller, Angel), music videos (he directed George Michael’s “Too Funky”), fembots and more.
“What Thierry Mugler did over four decades was so rich and varied — it is really the work of an artist who used fashion to express himself,” said Thierry-Maxime Loriot, the show’s curator and a former fashion model who has created exhibitions at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on Jean Paul Gaultier, Viktor & Rolf and Peter Lindbergh.
“Our intention was to make a celebration of his oeuvre rather than a nostalgic look back, and to show the young generation that you don’t have to follow trends to be successful in the creative industry,” Mr. Loriot said. “You can push the boundaries — and do so with humor, like Mr. Mugler.”
For years, museums have been after Mr. Mugler to do a retrospective of his work. He rebuffed them all, he said, because he is “not fond of” the pat chronological approach. Then, in 2016, the Montreal museum’s director general at the time, Nathalie Bondil, called. “She proposed to do a revisit of my work, more like a promenade, or an opera, with a rhythm and different mood in each room,” Mr. Mugler said. “Something more fun.”
“Couturissime” is all that. The exhibition, which opened in Montreal in 2019 and had popular stops in Rotterdam, Netherlands and Munich before landing in Paris, is divided into five acts, “like a classic opera,” Mr. Mugler said.
It has been spread across the two floors of the museum’s newly renovated Christine and Stephen A. Schwarzman Fashion Galleries, with the original theatrical scenography from Montreal created by a host of specialists, including the noted set designers Philipp Fürhofer and Michel Lemieux and the Emmy-nominated visual effects company Rodeo FX.
For example, the exhibition’s opening rooms, devoted to Mr. Mugler’s late 1990s collections “Les Insectes” and “Chimère,” have video backdrops of sylvan and oceanic scenes, with sounds of chirping birds, crickets and burbling water, all created by Rodeo FX.
The show then winds through various themes that regularly surfaced in Mr. Mugler’s work. Classic cars and motorcycles are reflected in fender bustiers, radiator belts and a black rubber skirt suit made to look like tires, while dystopian futurism is epitomized by a suite of metal and Plexiglas corsets and catsuits, constructed in the mid-1990s with Jean-Pierre Delcros, an aircraft bodywork specialist, and Jean-Jacques Urcun, an industrial designer.
Interspersed throughout are photographs of Thierry Mugler fashion, taken by Mr. Mugler as well as by Guy Bourdin, Jean-Paul Goude, Karl Lagerfeld, Dominique Issermann and David LaChapelle.
One gallery showcases the work of Helmut Newton, on loan from the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. Mr. Mugler hired Mr. Newton to photograph the first Thierry Mugler ad campaign, in 1976, and the two men collaborated for years afterward. “Helmut’s work was exactly my vision, my twin,” Mr. Mugler said.
The final room is dedicated to the Comédie-Française’s 1985 production of “Macbeth” at the Avignon Festival, with a hologram by Mr. Lemieux of a raving Lady Macbeth and seven of Mr. Mugler’s BDSM-meets-Renaissance Venice costumes.
“Every stud was specially made,” Mr. Mugler said. “The three witches were in nude latex.” Perhaps not surprisingly, “it caused a scandal,” he said with a laugh, adding: “My work was the biggest budget for the Comédie-Française since Louis XIV at Versailles.”
Mr. Mugler’s path to fashion was as unconventional and varied as his career. Born Manfred Thierry Mugler in Strasbourg, France — he goes by Manfred now — he studied classical dance as a child. At 14, he entered the corps de ballet for the Opéra National du Rhin while also studying interior design at the Haute École des Arts du Rhin, both in Strasbourg.
At 18, he moved to P
aris to audition for contemporary dance companies, but he quickly realized he could make a better living as a freelance fashion designer and started working for well-known French ready-to-wear brands such as Cacharel and Dorothée Bis. In 1973, he presented his first collection, and in 1978, opened his first boutique.
Through the 1980s Mr. Mugler became known for his exaggerated hourglass silhouettes, with linebacker shoulders, generous décolleté and serious spangle, and in 1992, he introduced both a couture line and Angel, a perfume with sweet notes of vanilla and caramel, a novelty at the time.
The scent was “like candy,” Mr. Loriot said, describing how Mr. Mugler wanted those who smelled it “to bite the wearer, like they were edible. It was a revolution.”
In 1997, Mr. Mugler sold his company to Clarins, the French beauty conglomerate. He was so occupied with the increasingly faster cycle of collections, he said, that he no longer had time for side gigs in theater and film. “Fashion was more about marketing and branding than a social connection with people,” he said. “I thought it was time put down my tools and go back to my original passion in life, which was staging.”
In 2002, he left the company. The following year, Clarins shut the fashion division to focus on the more-profitable perfume sales. Clarins revived ready-to-wear in 2011 and it has been led by the American designer Casey Cadwallader since 2017. Last year, L’Oréal bought the entire brand.
While Mr. Mugler said he was thrilled to see all the different strands of his creativity woven into one exhibition, it is “the fashion pieces — I cannot call them fashion; they are costumes for your every day mise-en-scène and the every day directing of yourself”— that made him most excited.
“I couldn’t believe I had done all that,” Mr. Mugler said.