Can the house of Mugler rise to fashion prominence once again?
Groupe Clarins, which owns the brand and nurtures its thriving fragrance business, thinks so. Today it embarks on a new chapter in that revitalization, unveiling the first collection by creative director Casey Cadwallader. He is the fourth designer to assume that position since brand executives decided to reintroduce ready-to-wear in 2008 after shuttering it in 2002. He follows Rosemary Rodriguez, Nicola Formichetti and, most recently, David Koma, who left to focus on his own London-based brand.
According to Sandrine Groslier, chief executive officer of Clarins Fragrance Group and Mugler fragrances and fashion, Cadwallader arrived at a brand only recently committed to developing its fashion wing. She marks Koma’s arrival as the start of a serious effort to revive the business. “Before that, it was maybe more marketing, to push the fragrance.” Now, she says, “we are a start-up.”
Ceo and designer maintain that the Mugler brand has huge potential to marshal fashion as a conduit to greater cultural resonance, which would harken back to its roots and the broadly sophisticated approach of its founder. “Mugler was, of course, a fashion house, but more than a fashion house. It is complex,” Groslier says. “Mugler is more about an artistic vision of the world.”
The brand is indeed a complex one, its very specific aura — and most memorable imagery — rooted in the height of the Power Woman Eighties, a fashion movement of which Mugler was at the forefront and which has, in the communal fashion memory, assumed a vibe of camp. Yet Cadwallader cautions that to confuse Mugler’s impact with cartoon impressions of Eighties/Nineties overstatement is to misunderstand the designer’s import and power — and the sensitivity with which he read and responded to a critical evolutionary moment for women. In fact, Cadwallader says, the message inherent in Thierry Mugler’s work is incredibly relevant today, and goes beyond specifics of silhouette and stiletto heel.
“For me, Mugler has always been about female strength and like power,” he notes. “I’m experimenting and trying to learn about what female power is today.” Calling women’s strength and empowerment “the topic today,” he wants to apply that basic premise with newfound currency. Cadwallader argues that Thierry Mugler’s “power female” was transformed into characters, and that the archness associated with her projected a strength that helped her take her place in a man’s world. “I don’t think that’s where we are today,” Cadwallader says. “Women are strong for who they are already.…I think a woman dresses for her own self-satisfaction and to build her own confidence up to feel internally strong.
“Clothes do have the ability to transform you, to make you walk differently and to make you feel stronger, just to lift your day. I think there are subtler and nuanced ways of doing that instead of it being to turn you into a superhero. But I think what Mr. Mugler did at those times was right. He was forcing a dialogue in those days. I just think that the modern woman in 2018 is different than 1998 or 1988.”
In practical terms, Cadwallader wants to temper that arch association of the brand identity by broadening its range. While he loves tailoring and eveningwear, “women need more than that.…So really it’s to open that up.” He runs off a litany: denim, knitwear, more obvious daywear, comfort pieces with volume. “I think that women need these things. Some days, you want to wear things that are body-con and other days, you want to be shrouded. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be just as amazing when you’re shrouded. That’s the power of clothes, you can give all these different moments.”
The lineup Cadwallader will show today consists of 25 pieces. He calls the collection “outward facing” in that it will touch on various elements slated for development in future, fuller collections. Among those components, structure, a famous Mugler signature, will be essential. He plans to develop a more languid side, the juxtaposition indicated by the looks featured here. The suit jacket is based on an archival man’s original, the shoulder altered for women and the functional lacings added to modify the width. The dress is worked in a favorite jersey. The collection also features elements of a more casual direction, including “spiral cut” jeans, made from denim strips sewn vertically but curved to follow the body.
As for leather, it is one of the primary associations with the house founder, and will make for a significant component of Cadwallader’s tenure. That said, he came to Mugler with a fur-free ethos and had hoped to go completely animal-free by using laboratory leather — a goal that proved unrealistic in the short term, though he’s continuing research into that area.
Cadwallader will incorporate the idea of a “statement coat” designed in collaboration with the artist Samara Scott. He has two one-of-a-kind variations in-house, but while he used them for the shoot, he says they’re not retail-ready. “Working with an artist, the fashion schedule doesn’t really work,” he observed. “I just decided to not make the collaboration about pressure and stress, but instead, to make it about imagination and being daring. I think it’s a matter of refining them into something that can be easily worn.”
New Hampshire native Cadwallader found his way to fashion indirectly, one of a niche genre of designers to arrive via architecture, which he studied at Cornell, where his interest in fashion crystallized. He and two friends petitioned the school’s department of Textile and Applied Design to let them do a show, a process typically open only to students within the department. They were allowed in, and it was baptism by skill development — pattern-making, sewing, the whole bit. Meanwhile, his architecture mood boards “were always Versace and Prada. I dreamed of a world where all those things could cross each other and mingle.” He did his thesis on the shape of the body, and found his way to an internship at Marc Jacobs. “It just really changed me; it was an amazing experience,” he says. “Being at Marc, doing hand-cutting embroideries on the floor until 4 in the morning. I was in heaven.”
Heaven perhaps, but not in his first fashion-related situation. Cadwallader’s parents are antiques collectors and when he was a child, they’d take him along on their hunts. He hated it at the time, and would go off on his own, sourcing gems and minerals, which he’d bring back home for examination by a local custom jeweler. One day, the jeweler asked, “Kid, what are you doing here?” When Cadwallader expressed his interest in stones and shapes, the jeweler offered him a job. He was 12. “It was probably illegal,” Cadwallader muses. It was definitely educational, as Cadwallader learned to carve waxes and finish metals. He and Jonathan Crary (“Jon the Jeweler, in his radio ads”) remain friendly today. Meanwhile, Cadwallader’s interest in jewelry continues. Big, sculptural earrings by his friend Marco Panconesi are a significant styling component in the launch collection.
While a relative unknown until his appointment at Mugler, Cadwallader arrived with a significant résumé. He began at Tse, hired by Richard Chai, whom he’d met at Marc Jacobs. He moved on to Narciso Rodriguez, then to Loewe, then back to Narciso with a brief stint at J.Mendel along the way. He left Narciso for a position at Acne, head of women’s design for pre-collections.
When he was approached to interview for the Mugler position, he jumped. “The name, it carries a thunder,” he says. “That alone is kind of mystifying to me — this is a name people know, but they don’t know what to expect from it today for clothing. That’s exciting to try to redefine.”
Cadwallader describes today’s event as “a midafternoon salon, a very chill environment.” It centers on an exhibit of photos shot by Arnaud Lajeunie, of 10 women, not all models. While Koma’s Mugler was “very supermodel-oriented,” Cadwallader’s intent with this casting is to break down the walls about what the Mugler woman should be…about people’s recent expectations of Mugler.” It includes actress Anna Brewster, Olympic swimmer Anna Santamans, and Amy Wesson, who modeled for Thierry Mugler.
While the original plan was to shoot in France, when the venue confirmation was pulled last-minute, they had to shift quickly, securing an interesting location in Barcelona — a former cement factory converted by architect Ricardo Bofill into a studio and residence. For the second day, they traveled two hours away, to Bofill’s country house on the Costa Brava.
Regarding the New York debut, he and Groslier offered two explanations. She notes that the U.S. is the house’s largest rtw market, so it made sense. Cadwallader acknowledges a pragmatic matter as well; by the time he started working at the company, presenting even a capsule collection in March wasn’t realistic, so a New York showing timed around the Met Gala made sense. After today, he’ll have no time to decompress; he’ll present a fuller resort collection in Paris in June. As for his October plan, “It depends upon how you define a show,” he explains. “The idea of throwing a huge budget into an experience that’s not special, we’re not having that kind of show.” Rather he’s requested a daytime slot for “something small,” but won’t know particulars until the Chambre Syndicale sets to work on the schedule in July.
Cadwallader’s Mugler will launch with two retailers. Back in March, Net-a-porter and Bergdorf Goodman committed somewhat on faith when they were shown prototypes that were far from finished. “They came in early and trusted me,” he says. Resort will be more widely available.
The commercial path is paved equally with challenge and opportunity. After 10 years, the collection is carried at only 115 points of sale, with global sales estimated at less than 10 million euros worldwide, about 40 percent in the U.S., followed by France and the U.K. Groslier looks at building rtw as an exciting nascent growth opportunity within a much larger, and well-established whole. “We are really happy to have a start-up within our big business,” she says “Because the Mugler brand is a big business — a really big business.” The fragrance end, including Angel, Alien and Aura, “is huge, really huge.”
Sources put that “huge” at about 500 million euros globally at retail. Groslier declined to put a limit on how the rtw could go, musing that 150 million euros to 200 million euros are not out of the question, while stressing that such figures are pure speculation, and significant growth, a long way off.
Groslier maintains that any growth will come “without compromise,” and that the point will always be to stand out in a crowded market. “The vision is for the brand to be the most disruptive and addictive at the same time,” she says. That’s why it’s important to be consistent [within fragrance and fashion]. We must create standpoints [to create] a global universe.”
That does not include trying to be all things to all women. There, the fragrance business offers a healthy lesson, as an arena in which “you don’t need to please everyone,” Groslier observes. “You just need to be really, really successful with 2 percent of the people who are buying in selective fragrances. With 2 percent of market share in fragrance, you are lucky enough to be in the top five, top three of the market.” With proper integration, that brand loyalty can be leveraged for fashion. If you have some tent poles in fragrance, you can create a real and strong [fashion] business.
“That’s why the vision is to be disruptive and addictive at the same time,” she continues. “The brand is all about the addiction.”
Cadwallader knows that vision won’t be realized overnight, but he’s encouraged by more than lip service. During Koma’s tenure, he says, the reality hit that rebuilding a brand isn’t as simple merely as hiring a designer, but it requires a reliable production chain and on-time deliveries. “They’ve been putting a lot of work into that so that it’s a real business,” he observes. “Because if you don’t have that, then it doesn’t matter what I do.”
What does matter: ephemeral elements such as the can-do spirit he felt emanating throughout the company when he arrived at work, as well as the more concrete virtues, finds working in the world’s greatest fashion center. “I love fashion in Paris,” Cadwallader says. “The people — the craft and the skills and the resources and the history are so strong. I have a seamstress in my atelier who has been sewing for Mugler for 30 years, and when she makes a dress, I notice. She is amazing. In New York, you always looking for that person, the person with the magic hands, where are the magic hands? They’re all over the place in Paris.”