“Maybe if we change our clothes, we change our life.”
It’s after hours in the Brooklyn Museum. It’s quiet on all floors except in the small corner auditorium on the third floor where fashion historians, tastemakers, and enthusiasts alike are held captivated by the romantic, dulcet tones of Pat Cleveland. She’s engaged in bubbly conversation with the museum’s Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture, Matthew Yokobosky. Tonight is the first installment of the museum’s ongoing “Mugler Muses” talk series where surviving collaborators and friends of the late French designer, Thierry Mugler, add vibrant oral context to Thierry Mugler: Couturissime, the museum’s current exhibition that holds over one hundred couture garments from Mugler’s nearly six-decade-long career. This evening with Pat, paired with a late-night ticket entry to Couturissime, was done in collaboration with the blossoming Black fashion curatorial collective, Black Fashion Fair. Up until now, I had solely known Pat as one of the very first Black supermodels, muse to the high fashion superpowers of the time, but I would soon come to recognize her as one of the most captivating storytellers I’ve ever encountered.
Everything about her was delightful, from her ballet-like hand movements as she spoke to the way she strode onstage, twirling as the classic American models do, to show off her vintage Mugler ensemble offset with glittering Manolo Blahnik heels. She used her voice with an expert dynamism. She sang operatically when recounting the soundtracks of her runway adventures, wore the accents of all the characters she introduced, and even supplied herself with a playful array of sound effects complete with meows and wistful sighs. When she would find herself on an off-topic tangent, she’d pause, curiously turn to Matthew, and go, “But, what happened?” And then fall into a fit of mischievous giggles in response to the crowd’s chorus of adoring laughs. It wasn’t just her mannerisms that elevated the experience, it was also the immense wisdom she had to share about a life led by love—a love for fashion, and a love for the souls she met along the way.
Pat met Thierry in the 1970s in Paris at the discotheque run by Régine, which Pat dubs one of those “beautiful places you could go and sit and talk with other beautiful people.” You couldn’t miss him. Amidst the brooding “dark and sober colored” chic-ness of pursed-lipped Parisians, he looked like was fresh out of a “1930s space movie wearing light and airy colors.” In anticipation of walking in one of his first shows, Pat was invited to his equally ethereal atelier in Paris.
“Suddenly, the ceiling would open up and be painted in clouds and light blue and the name Thierry Mugler was written in silver across the wall. And then you’d go into the fitting, and then there would be a transformation… like nothing you’ve never seen before. And the themes, oh my God, nobody had that fantasy then. No one.”
Thierry was a showman. Child of the performing arts, he danced with the Ballet de l’Opera in his twenties, before he fell in love with the world of fashion. His pension for stagecraft elevated the medium of runway.
“Couture used to be ten girls in a cabine (a revolving group of models for private collection showings). It was for the ladies of society and we all carried these little numbers and were silent. No one smiled. No one danced. No one showed. There was no attitude or moving of the hips. Thierry was the opposite.”
Whereas other fashion houses preferred to debut their collections with an air of rigidity, Mugler's shows were emotive tableaus that tickled all the senses. “Everything was pulsating in that room because everyone was being transported.” A single show would have multiple acts, each with different music, different lighting, different soul, and different choreography. Thierry would give the models stage direction, and even rehearse the movements himself to get a feel for how to best work the space. The liberation of sass, soul, and movement in his runway shows resonated heavily with Pat’s personal motivations. Coming of age as a young woman in the 1970s in New York City, the theme of empowerment was en vogue. Feminist and pro-Black movements of the time amplified the importance of unapologetic self-expression, and everybody wanted a taste of that freedom. Thierry, much like his future Battle of Versailles opponent Stephen Burrows, encouraged his models to embody that same sense of freedom so that the otherworldly settings of the shows could feel as immersive as possible. “When I first met Thierry, it was a gift to my desire to be showing [off]. We all [show off] sometimes…”
And how could you not feel inspired to show off when draped in Thierry Mugler creations? Courtisimme divides Thierry’s legacy into stylistic eras including “Belle De Jour & Belle de Nuit” for the erotic, fearlessly autonomous “glamazon” look and “Metamorphosis” which featured his more mythological pieces that can be seen in his “La Chimére” F/W ‘97-98 show. An additional room solely dedicated to Mugler fragrances (you can smell each one through a small vent!) gives the brand’s unique perfume bottles an opportunity to shine as well. Yokobosky’s curatorial choices feel akin to the atmospheres of Mugler’s past shows. The pathway through the exhibition almost feels like a pas de deux with Thierry himself as he carries us through the garments of his lifetime. The whimsy and dedication to the craft… you can quite literally smell it. Even sweeter, we got to hear Pat Cleveland tell it.
“When we get the legacy of these people that we love like designers, and actresses, and singers, we transform every time we recognize them. A little bit of them goes into us. I have a little bit of Thierry Mugler in me all the time! How can I ever forget how he made me his star? He says, ‘You’re my star!’ He made us all feel like stars. We were just sparkling because Thierry was in the room! You know how some people have that effect on you? I’m sure you all understand.”
Thierry Mugler: Courtissime is available for viewing at the Brooklyn Museum until May 7, 2023.
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