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Tragedy of Two Titans

PARIS — Even giants fall.<br><br>That’s one of the tough realities of the designer business underlined by the pending shutdown of Thierry Mugler’s fashion operations and the ongoing struggles of Claude Montana. Although at the...

PARIS — Even giants fall.

That’s one of the tough realities of the designer business underlined by the pending shutdown of Thierry Mugler’s fashion operations and the ongoing struggles of Claude Montana. Although at the cutting edge of French fashion for most of the Eighties, a combination of factors — from an outmoded vision of women to personal strife — contributed to the undoing of two design greats.

So say retailers, former house executives and industry sources, who recalled with exhilaration the duo’s past glory days and with wistfulness recounted the dimming of such fashion stars.

Both designers declined to be interviewed for this article, as did officials at Groupe Clarins, which owns the Mugler name and has proposed shuttering the fashion house in the face of heavy losses and dwindling consumer interest. The 220 affected Mugler employees here convened last Thursday to hear more details about the proposed shutdown, which is a complicated matter in France given the country’s labor laws. Clarins will continue to market Mugler’s successful fragrance range, as reported. Sources estimate the fashion house was losing more than $10 million a year.

Despite their business problems, most observers agreed that at least the fashion legacy of both designers is secure. Their big-shouldered, wasp-waisted fashions — Montana’s tough leather babes and Mugler’s glamorous vamps — defined the go-go Eighties. They also helped set the template for modern designer stardom and raised the bar with their extravagant showmanship.

Didier Grumbach, president of Mugler during its heyday and a founder and former owner of the house, said Mugler did nothing less than “revolutionize” the fashion show, paving the way for the theatrical spectacles now expected from the likes of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.

Grumbach characterized Mugler as a superb “art director,” actually charting the plot of his shows as a cartoon strip and orchestrating every detail from the music and lighting to the choreography. A ballet dancer with delicate features and feathered hair before he first showed on the runway in 1974, Mugler approached fashion as a performance and spectacle from day one.

In 1984, he staged his collection at the Zenith nightclub in Paris, which sold entry tickets like a rock concert to some 6,000 people. “With him, the fashion show became a public event,” Grumbach said.

This story first appeared in the January 21, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Model Pat Cleveland walked for both Mugler and Montana in the Eighties and fondly recalled their creative genius and the chaos their shows unleashed. “The talent they had was hypnotic. It was mesmerizing to be in their presence,” she said. “They were very powerful.”

Asked what it was like to be part of it, Cleveland gasped: “Wow! Can you talk to me about the best feelings you’ve ever had? They put their souls into every stitch. There was so much passion. They saw something happening and they followed it to the end. They went all the way. There was no holding back.”

Indeed, Mugler’s passion took Cleveland to the ceiling of the Zenith, where she was lowered at the climax of the show cast as the Lady of Fatima, even though she was three months pregnant.

He also took her to the top of the Chrysler Building in New York for a photo shoot and told her to stand on the ledge. “The wind was blowing and it was night and I looked down at the traffic,” Cleveland recalled. “Then I looked at him and said, ‘I’m not doing it.’ But he got up on the ledge himself and we did it. He challenged me. That was the thrill.”

American retailers were also enthralled by the designers for many years. Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, recalled how she once shimmied her way over a barricade to get into a Montana show while wearing a Sonia Rykiel pencil skirt and high heels. As usual, it was worth the effort. “I remember the first Montana show I saw, there were models coming down the runway in black leather with Dobermans on leashes,” she said. “It was always quite dramatic and over the top. And Mugler was always charming and glamorous.”

Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, likened getting into a Mugler or Montana show in the Eighties — even with a ticket — to “landing at Normandy.” “At the beginning, it was utter anarchy,” he recalled. “They were the avant-garde of fashion, in color, shape and accessories. They were both part of the big-shoulder brigade, but Mugler’s was sharper and Montana’s was perhaps a little rounder. And Montana put leather on the map.”

In 1980, Bloomingdale’s reprised one of Mugler’s Paris shows in New York at Bond, a disco at 43rd Street and Broadway. “Early Montana shows were some of the greatest fashion shows I’ve ever seen. They gave me goose bumps,” Ruttenstein said. “Those two guys really helped keep Paris at the forefront of fashion for at least a decade.”

It is believed Mugler’s fashion business peaked around 1990 at about $60 million at wholesale. “The business was like a clock,” according to one source. “It had 12 very strong years and was very profitable.”

At the height of Montana in the early Nineties, the house was believed to generate some $80 million in sales — and up to $7 million in profits.

But then Mugler and Montana would soon commit a cardinal sin in fashion: they failed to adapt to the times.

“When someone like Helmut Lang appeared on the scene and obliterated the notion of the waist, Mugler and Montana were instantly obsolete,” said Florence Muller, a fashion historian based in Paris. “Mugler got stuck in his style and was unable to evolve out of it. Someone like Jean Paul Gaultier, on the other hand, was able to move forward because his fashion was not based on one silhouette, but more loosely on an idea of a style that could change with time.”

Montana and Mugler held highly idealized visions of women, which catapulted them to fame, but ultimately contributed to their decline. “Every woman has a goddess in her,” Mugler once said. “I like to bring her out.”

Montana, describing his fall 1984 collection to W magazine in 1998, said: What makes the clothes timeless is a perfect cut. That collection was a turning point for me. Often, when I look back at it, I say to myself that these clothes were completely contemporary for that moment and that many of them could be reworn without a problem today.”

But in the Nineties, the onslaughts of casual dressing, minimalism and separates chipped away at their image of women as pristine glamour goddesses.

Montana, for one, always “imagined a woman standing on a runway, impeccably dressed from her head to her toes, with matching gloves, shoes and a bag,” said one source close to the designer. “But he could never imagine her functioning in the real world.”

Scores of fashion brands have rejuvenated themselves with hot design talent, including Christian Dior under John Galliano, Gucci under Tom Ford and Chanel under Karl Lagerfeld. Montana and Mugler, however, held on to the creative reins too long, according to one Paris source. “It’s too late to reinvent them,” the source said. “They’re not at all plugged into today’s lifestyles.”

American retailers said both designers once represented big business: Montana primarily for leather apparel and knitwear; Mugler for structured suits and jumpsuits.

Georges Wichner, who was president of Mugler in the U.S. from 1992 to 1997, said Mugler’s collections, largely inspired by Old Hollywood, were “so right for the U.S. market.” At its peak, the brand was sold to about 60 doors in America, which is considerable given that it was a high-end, niche product. It did an estimated $12 million to $15 million at wholesale, representing about 25 percent of global sales.

The Mugler business hit its first rough patch in 1991, when currency fluctuations in Europe put a dent in business in Italy, Britain and Germany — all key markets for a company that counted on exports for 80 percent of its sales. Meanwhile, the minimalist movement in fashion deflated the designer’s motivation, and frustrations began to mount between him and Groupe Clarins, his longtime fragrance partner which assumed majority control of the brand in June 1997.

Clarins may have done a superb job launching perfumes like Angel, which remains a bestseller even after 10 years on the market. But the beauty company was flummoxed when it came to running his fashion business and dealing with Mugler’s volcanic talent, according to sources. Communications broke down and skirmishes multiplied. Mugler was said to oppose secondary lines and ad budget cuts; meanwhile, Clarins executives could not organize themselves around a man who often preferred to start working at 10 p.m.

To be sure, Montana and Mugler lived like rock stars. At the height of their fame, crowds would part when they entered a nightclub with their entourages. Both men were notorious partiers on a global scale, often leaving hotel rooms in shambles after a swing through New York or Tokyo. Their egos were healthy and sources said they sometimes behaved blithely towards even the most adoring editors and retail clients — not showing up for appointments or making visitors sit at their feet. Mugler once told W: “Of course, people may try to copy me, but it really doesn’t work. I am alone in what I do.”

Yet, for all their lifestyle excesses, neither designer was undisciplined when it came to their creative work, according to sources.

Both Mugler and Montana were famously headstrong, especially with creative issues. Grumbach recalled that Helmut Newton shot Mugler’s early campaigns — until he got sick of the designer bossing him around on shoots. According to Grumbach, Newton finally told Mugler: “If you want to direct me, you can do [click the shutter] yourself.” And Mugler would go on to photograph all his campaigns and several books.

“[Thierry] had an incredible vision that fashion had to be fun and very dynamic,” added Wichner. “The challenge was to run after him, to balance the excitement.”

Montana’s business, which was founded in 1979 and, unlike Mugler’s, was largely licensed, hit a financial crunch starting in 1993 when Japanese revenues and other royalties began drying up. Stores were closed and he filed for bankruptcy in 1997. Personal tragedy also played a role. Amidst widespread rumors of a drug problem, Montana’s wife, the American model Wallis Franken, who had been his muse for 20 years, committed suicide in 1996, jumping out the window of their Left Bank apartment.

Drug issues have also haunted Montana, with accusations stemming from former employees, friends, ex-friends and even business associates. “Why would anyone say that?” he responded in a 1998 interview with W. “No. Do I look like someone who could… no. Absolutely no. I say no, there are no drugs. There are no drug problems. Can you imagine that in a company people are taking drugs? Not possible.”

But the designer’s public profile vaporized in the wake of the tragedy — yet only shortly before, he was at the height of his profession. While designing couture for the house of Lanvin in the early Nineties, he received the esteemed “Golden Thimble” award two seasons running. Christian Dior courted him to take over top design duties, but he turned them down. Gianfranco Ferré was hired instead to replace Marc Bohan.

And then Lanvin showed Montana the door. The house decided it was losing too much money on couture to justify keeping it. Montana was informed he would have to leave hours after he showed his last critically acclaimed show. He was shattered and embarrassed.

The designer tried drumming up business at his eponymous house, but never managed to pull the trick. He insisted on remaining company president and running all aspects of the business himself. His sister, Jacqueline, even served as his publicity director.

According to several sources, the fact that Montana never had a strong business partner was a big factor in the business’ troubles. Ultimately, Montana had to sell the house, which is currently owned by French entrepreneur Jean-Jacques Layani. Montana currently serves as a consultant to a design team. Layani said his strategy is to slowly build the brand, which currently has about a dozen licenses for products including handbags, eyewear, ties and shoes. The house intends to buy out the license for its first fashion line this season. Its second line, Montana Blu, is also produced under license. Montana currently generates sales of about $30 million, but has no boutiques or U.S. accounts, Layani said.

“I was attracted to Montana because the name remains strong,” he added. “When you think Montana, you also think of a specific product: leather.”

Now approaching their mid-50s, both Mugler and Montana are said to have substantially lost interest in fashion in recent years. Mugler lives mostly in New York, partaking of its nightlife and taking on projects such as the costumes for an upcoming Cirque de Soleil spectacle in Las Vegas. However, even as the house winds down, Clarins officially insists that Mugler still designs the ready-to-wear.

Ivana Trump, who has walked the runway in a patent leather cat suit for Mugler and is one of the house’s biggest clients, told WWD last week she was “really disappointed” to learn that his fashion business was coming to an end. En route to Paris for the couture shows, which start Monday, she said she plans to hit the boutique to see what’s left to buy. “I have been a customer for 20 years,” she said. “I must have 4,000 of his suits in my closet.”

Trump praised Mugler for dressing “strong, independent women” in suits that are businesslike, feminine and, at the same time, have impact. “He gives you good shoulders, like an Yves Saint Laurent, nips you in the waist and gives a very sleek skirt,” she said. “I always feel extremely comfortable and confident in his clothes.”

Ironically, Mugler’s house is closing, and Montana’s is still struggling, at a time when their style might finally be due for a renaissance.

Didier Ludot, who deals in vintage couture in Paris, said he’s seen demand surge for pieces from Mugler and Montana in recent years. “When you see that happening, it usually means that their style is coming back,” said Ludot. “Designers are particularly keen on Mugler and Montana’s designs.”

Olivier Saillard, a curator at Paris’ museum of fashion and textiles, said designers who have been influenced recently by Mugler’s aesthetics range from Alexander McQueen to Jeremy Scott.

Noting the museum hopes to organize an exhaustive Mugler exhibit for 2005, Saillard said, “There’s a real reemergence in interest in Mugler and Montana.”