The designer reflects on the house's founder, the role archive plays in his work and the "Thierry Mugler: Couturissime" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.
The first time Casey Cadwallader saw "Thierry Mugler: Couturissime" — the buzzy museum retrospective tracing the highly influential founding designer's career — it was still the early days of his tenure as creative director of Mugler. (He joined the house in December 2017.)
"To see such a tour de force of his best things all side by side made me a little bit jittery," he says, adding with sarcasm, "I was like, 'Oh cool, this looks easy.'"
The exhibit first opened at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal in the spring of 2019, and has since traveled to Rotterdam, Munich and Paris. "Couturissime" is making its final stop stateside at the Brooklyn Museum, from this Friday, Nov. 18 to May 7, 2023. Even now, though, that nervous, "fear-inducing" wonder is still there for Cadwallader.
"I went and I was like, 'Damn, this is intense,'" he says.
Cadwallader is nearing his five-year anniversary at Mugler — a massive milestone for any designer, but especially one helming an iconic fashion house; it's a position with famously high turnover. A lot has happened during his tenure: In addition to reigniting interest in the brand, he's also made it a go-to for some of the most sought-after performers in the world, like Dua Lipa, Megan thee Stallion and Beyoncé. Meanwhile, its extensive archive has become a popular resource for celebrities like Cardi B and Kylie Jenner to pull from for big events. Then, more recently, Thierry Mugler passed away.
"I was much more in contact with him, and that was something I earned over time," Cadwallader says of Mugler, the man. "I had no idea that he was going to pass — no one did — so there was this amazing shock about, 'Oh, these conversations that were going to happen now aren't going to happen,' which was really hard."
"The other thing [is], he was always watching," he continues. "He was always on the sidelines, and I was always thinking about that. Now that he's passed, there's this really big shift where I more deeply understand my responsibility to take it forward. It's not that it wasn't that way before, but without him being there, it feels different. I really feel responsible for making the brand lasting, making the brand stronger, making the brand bigger, making sure that the brand's past is respected."
Cadwallader himself is a reverent student of the archive: As soon as he got to Mugler, he'd pull different pieces and examine them one by one. Even now, he'll go back to the source material — but he's very intentional about how he uses it.
"I made this deal with myself that I would look at it, take pictures, put it away and just let it come out of me the way that felt natural — that's my way of making sure that it's my version," he says. "I realized [the archive] was so extensive and there are so many different themes and ideas and materialities that I prefer to let my nose point in one direction, fall in love with something for a season — one, two, three things max — and digest those."
For example, Cadwallader might start with an embroidered corset from a decades-old haute couture collection. Through his lens, that inspiration becomes the starting point for a ready-to-wear corset made with "a laser-cut, ultrasonically-welded lycra, where it breathes and stretches almost like sport clothing."
"What I'm trying to do," he says, "is to bring those codes and make it much more wearable day to day... There's something interesting about shifting that materiality and the language that makes it hit people differently now."
Even that technique ties Cadwallader's work to that of the man whose name is on the tag: "He was obsessed with new materials. He did entire shows dedicated to faux fur or lycra or latex or whatever it was that was new — now, I'm just trying to do the same with what's offered to me in the modern world."
Renewed public interest in a fashion house's archive can be a tricky thing if the brand's still up and running. There's a risk that the storied history might eclipse the current vision. In the case of Mugler, though, the Casey Cadwallader era and the Thierry Mugler revival have coexisted, each attracting attention and renown in its own right — a rare, but obviously advantageous, phenomenon.
"The thing for me is that I love the archives so much and I respect it so much that I want everyone to know about it," he says. "I'm also not the kind of designer who came in and just did what I wanted. I became Casey at Mugler — I totally transformed myself because of that archive. I really believe in what the brand was in the past and that should be a lot of what it is in the future. Luckily, we got along, the archive and I."
Another through-line that connects Cadwallader to Mugler, the person, is a love of performance and performers, and centering them in their work. Dressing and designing for music artists was one of Cadwallader's priorities at the house — so much so, that he canceled pre-collections in favor of "special projects," like costuming a tour or working on music videos. So, Mugler only shows two seasons annually, spring and fall; the rest you see on stage.
"It says so much the way someone moves, the fact that they're performing — it exudes this sexy confidence," he says.
It's paid off for the brand, too: Mugler has gone viral time and time again for its custom looks for Dua Lipa's tours, its ongoing relationship with Megan Thee Stallion (Cadwallader even directed the music video for "Plan B") and many other artist collaborations.
"It presents itself as a calling card for the brand, because then people identify the aesthetics of the things that these people wear," he says. "I tried very carefully to interweave things, so that if you love Dua Lipa's couture outfit with 200,000 crystals on it, you might also like the leggings that don't have the crystals. It's trying to always make sure that when we put all that effort into those stage projects, there's something about the collection that's there."
This kind of work — which Cadwallader dubs "the new couture" — "serves as my laboratory," he says, "my no-limits, what-do-you-want-to-do thing, instead of the can-we-sell-this part of my brain." It's also something he takes very seriously.
"If you imagine, 'Okay, this is for Beyoncé — she better be able to dance,' because I'm not gonna be responsible for her not being able to dance," he says. "It's the same thing as doing someone's wedding gown: You're going to try your very best because you're giving this piece of work to someone's really important moment. It becomes a real love." (Cadwallader created a major after-party look for Chloë Sevigny's wedding in May.)
There are a few things that make a Mugler piece a Mugler piece. For one, Cadwallader believes it "should be identifiable from across the street." There are the aesthetic signatures, but it goes much deeper than that.
"There's an attitude to it that has to stay for me," he says. "The big thing overall is that Mugler is supposed to induce confidence. It's supposed to be something that you don't feel just so-so about. You're supposed to touch it and be like, 'Oh my God, this is crazy. This is so exciting.' By putting it on, you're not just being you right in the middle — you're being super-sonic you."
Historically for the house, that has meant emphasizing the body. More specifically, it's about "this very strong respect for the body, to always try to highlight it and make it look as strong as possible," according to Cadwallader. "That doesn't mean you have to have a certain figure. It means that you have to love your figure and how to work with it. There are simple things you can say, like a jacket shoulder has to be strong, the waist has to be nipped, the hip has to be curvy — but more than it being about those specifics, it's more about the feeling that it gives you: very sensual, excited, understanding of yourself."
He's done it so far with his Mugler ready-to-wear, which heavily leans on the form-fitting and the corseted, often working with a restrained color palette to really emphasize the garment and its silhouette.
"What I've been trying to do over these years is to be very, very strong with the aesthetics of what I'm doing so that they're very shocking and bare and special and thought-provoking," Cadwallader says. "Eventually, there's a lot of room to expand that DNA into things that are slightly easier to wear."
There's a lot on his dream board: accessories, swimwear, underwear, makeup... And as always, he's turning to the archive for inspiration.
"I'm really into decadent and wild textures," he says. "I've been looking at the things that are a little bit more mysterious what they're really made out of, so the 'Chimère' fish person with all the different colors [on display at 'Couturissime'] is fascinating to me at the moment."
Don't be surprised if you spot Cadwallader at the Brooklyn Museum (though, probably not for research): "My favorite thing to do is to watch people walk through and hear what they're saying," he says. "There's a lot of people who have no idea who I am. I'll follow this nice older couple through, and the things that they say are just hilarious."
Having the last stop of "Couturissime" be New York is "really meaningful," especially when considering Mugler, the man, and his legacy, Cadwallader argues.
"It's a city that was really important to Manfred — he lived here for 15 years, and it's always been a big inspiration for him," he says. "There's nothing like seeing it in person. It does its own dazzling."