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Obituary: Thierry Mugler, French fashion genius whose designs amazed and outraged in equal measure

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Thierry Mugler virtually invented fashion as showmanship. Picture by Remy de la Mauviniere

Thierry Mugler virtually invented fashion as showmanship. Picture by Remy de la Mauviniere

Thierry Mugler virtually invented fashion as showmanship. Picture by Remy de la Mauviniere

Thierry Mugler, who has died aged 73, was the unpredictable genius of avant-garde French fashion; his extravagant, futuristic designs reflected his background in theatre and his childhood love of film.

A former ballet dancer from Strasbourg, Mugler founded his fashion house in 1974 and, for the next 25 years, charmed, amazed and outraged in almost equal measure with sculptural, glamorous (and mostly impossible to wear) collections which aimed to “bring out the goddess within” every woman.

Mugler virtually invented the “runway extravaganza” — fashion as showmanship. Themes over the years included valkyries, catwomen, insect-women, angels, amazons, dragon empresses, cyberbitches and biker chicks. He believed that “elegance is courage and audacity” and was involved in every aspect of the production, “from the heels to the lashes, the storyboard to the music and sound effects. It was done like a movie,” he explained.

Above and beyond the showmanship he was credited with virtually inventing 1980s power dressing. His skirt suit designs, sculpted around a woman’s curves (if she did not have any, Mugler would simulate them with clever cutting), became a must-have for the upwardly mobile career woman of that decade.

Skirts, sometimes split to the thigh, were tight, slinky, and stopped above the knee. Jackets featured sharp shoulders and corseting on the waist. Set off with a pair of his stilettos, the effect could be devastating — S&M dominatrix meets the boardroom.

His catwalk extravaganzas were variously attacked as racist, fascist, sexist and fetishistic, and there was certainly something of the night about Mugler himself. He was famously photographed on his knees at the feet of a PVC-catsuited Jerry Hall, and once said that he saw a striking similarity between certain insects and women — because they were both vulnerable while being armoured predators.

The model Iman said Mugler creations should be worn with an “at your own risk” sign, “because, baby, you will attract the bad, the naughty and the dangerous”. (Her husband, David Bowie, wore Mugler designs throughout his career.)

Yet in otherwise dull fashion weeks, a ticket to a Mugler show was a must. Whatever else they may have been, they were never boring.

He was born Manfred Thierry Mugler in Strasbourg, France,iman on December 21, 1948. His father was a doctor, “very tall, very Germanic and severe”. His mother was a passionate follower of fashion with red nails and red hair “just like Rita Hayworth”.

But Thierry grew up a lonely, unhappy child. He found refuge in staging imaginary theatrical productions for which he designed elaborate costumes and sets, and in visits to a cheap cinema behind Strasbourg railway station.

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It was his primary school teacher who suggested ballet as an outlet. By the time he was 14, he had joined the corps de ballet at the Rhine National Opera, and left home to share a room with another dancer. At the same time he attended the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Strasbourg.

In his spare time Mugler would make clothes for himself or customise flea market bargains. He moved to Paris where he found that his clothes and outrageous looks began to attract a different kind of attention, earning applause from patrons at the Café de Flore. For the next few years Mugler, belatedly, threw himself into the 1960s scene.  

From the start, Mugler bucked the trend. When everyone else was doing droopy, floaty florals, Mugler, inspired by 1930s Hollywood costumiers like Edith Head and Adrian, went for film noir tailored suits, trenchcoats and little black dresses.

By the early 1990s, however, as power dressing gave way to grunge and minimalism, showmen such as Mugler were beginning to look dated, though he created the black dress worn by Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal (1993).

In 1992 he launched his first perfume, Angel. In characteristic Mugler style Angel broke all the rules. A blue fragrance with distinctive chocolate-caramel tones and a striking star-shaped bottle, it became one of the top-selling perfumes in the world, frequently ousting Chanel No 5 as the best-selling fragrance in France.

But in 2000 he bowed out of couture; the fashion line bearing his name became unviable and was closed down three years later.

Mugler continued to concentrate on the perfumes and on his second love, photography. He found a new outlet for his design energies in costumes for musical comedies, concerts, operas and the theatre.

Mugler, who was openly gay, became somewhat reclusive in later life, returning to his first name, Manfred. 

© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022

Telegraph Media Group Limited [2022]


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