THIERRY THEORY

Here are ready-to-wear clothes few will be ready to wear. Instead, get ready to wonder. Last week in Paris, the intergalactic genius of Thierry Mugler reasserted itself on Planet Earth in an explosion of beauty, outrage, vinyl and ecstasy. MARION HUME reports. Photographs by PETER MacDIARMID
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Thierry Mugler, French fashion designer, inhabits his own world, Planet Mugler. There, women look like intergalactic star ship troopers in high heels and men never age. Last week, Mugler, who is, as the French put it, d'un certain ge, took his post-show bow under a cascade of rose petals looking a gym-fit 25. Which is odd, because the event he was hosting was a celebration of his 20 years in business. The youth serum Monsieur Mugler is on is a secret, but it is probably French; those grandes vedettes of other Gallic firmaments, the film star Catherine Deneuve and rocker Johnny Halliday, appear to be on it too.

On Planet Mugler, women think nothing of wearing seven-inch stilettos. On Planet Mugler, corsets so tight they make even the flattest of breasts into high, round, jiggling orbs are normal. On Planet Mugler, skirts are cut to curve, to pull in the waist and lift up the bottom (shown to best effect in a cheeky peekaboo dress with a cut-away panel to reveal the firm cheeks of a model derrire).

Last week, Planet Mugler briefly collided with Earth. His anniversary show was the sensation of Paris fashion week, with the matt-black-dressed fashion editors elbowing their way to their seats past drag queens in beehive wigs and a boy in a leopard suit complete with furry feet and little pink ears. For it was Thierry Mugler who invented fashion-as- sensation; Thierry Mugler who staged fashion epics long before Gianni Versace clocked on to the potent combination of extravagant design and celebrities. People pushed in, anticipating something marvellous.

They were not disappointed. Even in a week which saw sensation piled upon naked- bottomed sensation, this was the show of shows. We shall come to the clothes. For them, one had to look beyond the strapping youths clad in nothing but the briefest of crystal-encrusted jock straps.

This was the first time Mugler had staged a big show in Paris for years. Latterly, he has been marginalised, to the point that no one has really cared about frocks so fantastical that they have no place in real lives. But as people realise there is a limit to the number of white Gap T-shirts anyone can find interesting, Mugler's outrageous vision has its place again. If you were looking for the absolute antithesis of the Gap aesthetic of clothing basics, which cottoned and chino-ed their way through the Eighties, Mugler is your man. While that was going on, he was so far out of step with the zeitgeist that he virtually disappeared from view. But then dim, weird memories returned from ten years ago, when Mugler threw his first decade birthday bash that people still talk about now. It was an epic piece of theatre for 8,500 people at Zenith, a rock stadium in Paris. It included models careering down a gigantic catwalk slope on sledges and ended with an eight-and-a-half months pregnant pre-supermodel, Pat Cleveland, being lowered from the ceiling dressed as the Madonna: a brave, deranged declaration that fashion designers and even ordinary mortals need not be confined by the gravity of planet earth.

People do wear Mugler in daylight nowadays; some of his clothes are readily available in Paris and in Harrods, and are wearable by some confident, slender women (of no matter what age). They are impeccably finished. Even the tamest pieces are undeniably sexy, and they are intricately cut. Madame Mitterrand looks neat and sharp in Mugler's curvy suits worn with sensible shoes. The dress Robert Redford bought for Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal was a Mugler (although the dress she wore on camera was not; an adaptation of the Mugler had to be constructed in a Hollywood costume department to accommodate suitable support for Demi's Hollywood-sized breasts). And Miguel Bose, the Spanish actor and singer, wore some very pretty Mugler pieces to disguise himself as a woman for the Pedro Almodovar film, High Heels.

It costs a chunk of money to put on a bog-standard fashion show. A fashion extravaganza costs a ransom (the figure for the Mugler show was said to be ten million francs, or £1.2 million), what with scores of models, each being paid by the hour, being kept for a whole day, and most of the night too, while complicated hair, make-up, even nail talons were created. Mugler's extravaganza even required a dress rehearsal (almost unheard of now in fashion, as it is too expensive to pay supermodels for a practice run).

So where had the money come from, for a designer who is certainly not on fashion's centre stage? That thing called perfume, of course. Officially the shindig was to celebrate Mugler's oeuvre, but the real point was to flash tele-vision images and newspaper pictures around the world to launch a Mugler scent that smells like chocolate and is called Angel.

The face of Angel is that model-turned-Bovril Chicken-turned-rock wife- turned-born again-model, Jerry Hall, who did a turn at the show. So did a group of other women who had once been famous (a criterion which earned each of them their own private dressing room). Tippi Hedren, Mom to Melanie Griffith and once one of Hitchcock's ice blondes, descended the stage set's huge sweeping staircase on perilous shoes (which she later fell off) to the score from the Birds. Julie Newmar, former television Batwoman, did a turn. But the most extraordinary appearance was by Patty Hearst, one-time kidnap victim/revolutionary in the Simbionese Liberation Army, last seen wearing fatigues and toting a machine gun. Hearst did a semi striptease, right down to her sequinned spangled all-in-one catsuit, which brought a roar from the crowd for her chutzpah.

What did these creations (one hesitates to call what we saw "clothes") have to do with fashion? The answer is a little and a lot. Fashion, which used to be about clothes, is confused. Many of the fashion professionals who report from the frock galaxy's front line know that, these days, clothes are what you buy in good supermarkets.

Last week in Paris, John Galliano staged a romantic and heart-trembling piece of theatre. Somewhere within it were 23 outfits (many of which will never be worn beyond the fashion spreads of glossy magazines). Jean Paul Gaultier took his audience into a post-apocalyptic world where Mad Max sparred with Tank Girl. And Vivienne Westwood celebrated the French coquette with sack-back ball gowns fit for Madame de Pompadour.

At Thierry Mugler's birthday spectacular, as models came out in more and more extraordinary costumes, those of us present had as much fun as if we had come to Paris's winter circus to marvel at the daring-do of the trapeze artists and to chuckle at the clowns. We saw the over-young Thierry Mugler playing ring master to a spectacle that had nothing to do with what might end up in your wardrobe. His sky-high shoes, the huge hats and all that vinyl were like costumes from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Greetings from Planet Mugler!

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