The Kunsthalle is the address in Munich for art, cultural and epochal shows. Its builders are regarded as pioneers of new simplicity. The situation is completely different, however, with the garish and unruly haute couture creations of the French fashion designer Thierry Mugler, now over seventy years old, which are currently on display here. Our author and her fashion-loving friend visited the exhibition.
Ping. Ping. Ping. The rapid succession of incoming WhatsApp messages hints at impatience. I read: Dear friend, will you go to the Kunsthalle (art museum) with me? And then to Lenbachhaus (art gallery) and then to the Haus der Kunst (art gallery)? Great exhibitions!!!! When do you have time?
The next day, she arrives. Mask or not, my friend Stella simply can't wait any longer. As a theatre fan and passionate tailor and costume designer, the Thierry Mugler exhibition in the Kunsthalle is her first choice. And I'm going with her.
The retrospective presents Mugler's work in eight acts. “Acts” in reference to the fact that the fashion artist is also a full-blooded theatre performer. His time as a youthful ballet dancer in the ensemble of the Opéra national du Rhin in his home city of Strasbourg had a decisive influence on him. Even though he switched to the fashion industry at the end of the 1960s, it was the theatrical aspect of fashion that captivated him and, in which, he invested an infinite amount of energy. His fashion shows of the 1980s and early 1990s, in which he was also responsible for music, choreography and lighting, were legendary.
Even as early as in the first act, it becomes clear: The Mugler Fashion Olymp is no cakewalk. Wearing the Amazon and Robot Woman looks exhibited here in portraits and in the original requires “courage and nerves of steel” in the words of the master himself. Obviously, top mannequins are always happy to take on these strains. The superheroine gulf is displayed by star models such as Gisele Bündchen, Linda Evangelista, Toni Garn and Cara Delevingne.
Although I know that they do not earn badly, the sight of the half-naked women with a lot of metal weighted down with specific material cut-outs on their buttocks and breasts makes me grumpy at first. I don't think they look like they put these outfits on voluntarily. My friend Stella is now examining Mugler's futuristic metal suit up close. She recognises his borrowings from Fritz Lang's classic movie, Metropolis from the 1920s. She even knows the name of the actress who wore the original suit in the film: Her name was (appropriately) Brigitte Helm which means “helmet” in German.
“Don't be like that”, says Stella, “We've known that suffering is part of the fashion biz, and not just since the tearful re-styling of “Heidi's Girl” as seen during Germany's next Topmodel”. Then she explains to me that Mugler has been looking for a very long time for a method to adapt the rigid material of neck braces, helmets and breastplates to the body. She is fascinated by the perfect craftsmanship of the fashion designer. She studies his fashion sketches and her respect is particularly pronounced for the hard-working assistants on Mugler's staff. A nation of selfless experts who have perfectly executed the monstrosities of his imagination.
She pauses devoutly before Lady Macbeth's dress, pleated in countless layers, which is presented in a hologram installation in the fifth act of the exhibition. Mugler created it in 1985 along with over 70 other costumes for a performance of Shakespeare's famous play by the Comédie-Francaise. It weighs 35 kilos. “It's a back-breaking job to make something like this” she says from personal experience.
No, it's not that I don't have anything to do with fashion. For example, I know exactly what the colour red does to me. I own a whole batch of red shoes: a pair for every hard-fought battle.
In the exhibition, there is this purple floor-length robe with protruding feathers, glittering stones and sequins. If I could wrap myself in self-confidence, it would be with this dress. Sexually explicit (and not too much for me) is also the outfit with the lightning between the legs and the thunderstorm in the head.
Stella draws my attention to the many details with a smile. Thierry Mugler is notorious for his perfectionism. The reptile-look suit comes with matching lizard-eye glasses, the rocket pouch for the military-style, the rear-view mirrors for the motorbike corset and the leather thigh holder for the cola can.
By definition, haute couture refers to superior tailoring for an extremely wealthy clientele.
As to whether Mugler made the “décolleté derrière”, the half-naked bottom, the extra-wide shoulders and the wasp waist the trademark of his designs to help women feel strong is something we cast significant doubt on. However, heavy equipment, such as his “motorcycle suit” with integrated handlebars, hand brakes and chrome flashing exhaust system, is something that the woman has to bear, literally. Compared to that, a nude shoot with a Boa Constrictor is a walk in a park.
We marvel at art beings – half woman, half motorcycle – as well as costumes made of car tyres, borrowings from the realm of reptiles and insects and David Bowie in a frog green suit.
“I don't think for a moment Mugler was interested in dressing people” says Stella, “He was a wild artist. You can't really top his wild, crazy, decadent fashion any more; after that, the only thing left might just be to have plastic surgery.” But the full extent of the provocation, she says, can only be understood from the temporal context.
By definition, haute couture refers to superior tailoring for an extremely wealthy clientele. It was created in Paris in the middle of the 19th century and is protected in France. Only a very small, elite circle of tailors is classed among its members. A strict jury still decides on a candidate’s admission. Those in the club dictate what’s “en vogue”.
And then came, oh mon Dieu!, Thierry Mugler, and broke all the taboos of his time with his body-hugging looks in latex, lacquer and leather.
For a long time, conservative fashion houses like Chanel and Dior set the tone with their handmade creations made of luxurious materials. At the same time, the off-body garments of the hippies dominated in the 1970s. And then came, oh mon Dieu!, Thierry Mugler, and broke all the taboos of his time with his body-hugging looks in latex, lacquer and leather. The extravagant couturier's designs soon found a huge fan base. Celebrities like Diana Ross, Céline Dion, Beyoncé, Jerry Hall, Lady Gaga and even the notorious Kardashians not only wear his dresses and costumes privately, but even went on the catwalk for the master. “Mugler could get away with anything, everyone was at his feet” Stella says, not without envy.
In one of the first rooms, an orange jogging suit can be seen for which a full-grown gorilla must have been used to take the measurements. I explain to Stella my spontaneous interpretation of the exhibit. Thereafter, the years have not passed by without leaving their mark on Manfred, as Thierry Mugler now refers to himself again in today’s times (Manfred is originally his first name).
In one of the first rooms, an orange jogging suit can be seen for which a full-grown gorilla must have been used to take the measurements.
The handsome young man, who initially accepted his audience's advances light-heartedly in grey five-pocket jeans and plaid shirt, has long since ceased to exist. Manfred became ever more afflicted by the downsides of his overwhelming success. In order not to burn out completely, he retreated “peu a` peu” behind the armour of a carved exterior with broad chest, even broader shoulders and a boxer's face. The orange jogging suit is, for me, like a prototype, akin to a study for the changes that Mugler has (or had) made over the years out of need of protection. “I suppose so” Stella says.
After all, we spent a fun two hours following Mugler's wild ride through the fashion world from the late 1970s to mid-2010s. In the end, the question remains, which of all this would we ourselves like to wear one day? Well, I'd like to feel the luxury and slip into the one million sequin dress in fish look that Jerry Hall wears in one photograph and which is also originally displayed in act eight.
But the greatest luxury remains for us that we can meet again to visit art together, to enjoy it, to talk about it, to get excited about it and, of course, to play the role of smart arse when the opportunity presents itself (just being honest).
Obviously, Mugler's superheroine box has done something to Stella. She favours the outfits in the vengeance goddess style, like Lara Croft or Kill Bill. Finally, she decides – bodyshaming or not – and totally courageously for the most striking piece of all: the black-brown patterned, skin-tight biker's suit with integrated fire chair that Mugler created for Cirque de Soleil.
But the greatest luxury remains for us that we can meet again to visit art together, to enjoy it, to talk about it, to get excited about it and, of course, to play the role of smart arse when the opportunity presents itself (just being honest). Lenbachhaus, Pinakotheken, Haus der Kunst, there is still so much to do. I am waiting impatiently for more WhatsApp messages.
The exhibition “Thierry Mugler Couturissime” at the Kunsthalle will run until Feb. 28, 2021. More than 150 outfits, stage costumes, accessories, videos, design drawings and photographs from the fashion artist are on display. In addition to his own photographs, the exhibition also shows roughly 100 works by famous fashion photographers, most notably Helmut Newton (1920-2004). Tickets can be purchased on site at the box office or via the online shop. Unfortunately, the guided tour programme has been cancelled until further notice.