Casey Cadwallader on Revamping Mugler
'I learned something; that the people in a film can be more than they can be on the runway', Mugler's creative director Casey Cadwallader tells me over video call, a day ahead of the brand's off-schedule A/W 21 collection release. Scratching an itch to 'fuck' with the regular runway show when the global health crisis brought fashion week to a halt last summer, Cadwallader turned to fashion film. Calling in a favour from Bella Hadid, who has helped to catapult the brand to stardom, to star as the world's best looking centaur last season, for A/W 21 the model returns alongside a host of Mugler favourites. In the catwalk's absence, Cadwallader has continued to create the kind of gag-worthy moments which stay in a teenager's mind forever - a testament to his own experience growing up as a fan of Mugler, which was first launched by Thierry Mugler in 1974. Fashion, after all, is as much about creating wearable clothes as it is moulding a fantasy.
The idea of being able to connect instantly with an audience is kryptonite to Cadwallader, and presenting his A/W 21 offering under the see-now-buy-now format, (meaning that it's available to purchase upon release rather than after the usual 6 month slog between runway and clothing rail), allows for him to do just that. Fashion brands are no longer chained to the regimented schedule; Bottega Veneta's ongoing Salons and Gucci's upcoming L.A show are testament to that, and despite the onslaught of physical shows during the recent S/S 22 womenswear season, another film from Cadwallader is a fitting way to share his vision for Mugler with the world. By creating what the designer describes as a 'big digital loop', fans and editors alike become a part of the Mugler fantasy in tandem, with the option to make it their reality via checkout.
'I think I'm a really democratic person, I like to see people wearing my clothes walking by me in the street. But then there is this part of Mugler that's so much about fantasy, and I think for me where I swoon, where I panic, is when I see a Beyoncé video or a live performance and I just...(gasp!) That’s always been me my whole life, I’ve always been so into that, and that really synergises with Mugler. That’s my fantasy. At Mugler you’re supposed to really chase whatever it is that is your passion, that's the responsibility of the creative director, to just go for it. That’s what (Thierry) did, so I just do my version of that.'
In this season's film directed by Torso, there's no model walking stony-eyed towards a camera at the end of the runway. ‘There are different stories to tell’, the designer explains, rather than competing with other brands to secure the model of the season. Through film, Cadwallader spotlights the people he finds most magnetising. Transgender model and actress Dominique Brebnor and artist Lala &ce join models Lourdes Leon, Jill Kortleve, Amber Valletta and Yilan Hua, alongside a host of others cherry-picked by the designer. The multi-faceted human beings who were missing from the runways this season can instead be found having their moment in Mugler A/W 21, boobs jiggling to glorious effect, bums lifted by gravity-defying leggings. Poet, activist and model Kai-Isaiah Jamal glitches between outfits, from a boyish olive green trench coat to a black wool tailored jacket featuring bustier details. A poker-straight blonde wig and vampy lips signal a switch between masc and femme, 'between different versions of themselves', Cadwallader explains.
He continues: ‘I always talk to them about "How do you feel about being super femme?", "How do you feel about being more masc?" It just really speaks to them and to the power of clothing to transform you and to express different sides of your character. I think that's so much what Mugler has been here to do, to give you this range where you can decide you want to be like this at one moment and be like this at another, and to really transform yourself.'
In the A/W 21 film, the camera maps bodies in 360, closing in on details such as jingling gold chain accessories. The performance is sinister, sexy and humorous all at once as anonymous figures in white bodysuits, (one of whom is later revealed to be Cadwallader), catch the Mugler posse who fall carefree like dolls, choreographed by Malik Le Nost, before springing back towards the audience.
The fantastic and the ridiculous are here in abundance - this is Mugler after all - and yet one of the most potent successes of Cadwallader's Mugler is that it's come back down to earth. To be sure, however, there's a question mark over how much of Cadwallader's commercial success is owed to the resurgence of Mugler's archives. The designer took up the position of creative director in 2018, facing the challenge of working at a time when Thierry Mugler is still alive. In 2019, Cardi B wore a dress from the A/W 95 collection inspired by Botticelli's Birth of Venus (1485-1486) painting to the Grammy Awards. When Kim Kardashian West showed up to that year's Met Gala, she was wearing a custom latex wet-look dress which was Thierry Mugler's first new design for the House of Mugler in two decades. Although Kardashian West understood the assignment when it came to the Met Gala's Camp dress up theme, perhaps the brand's legacy for serving campiness is exactly where Casey and Thierry's Muglers diverge.
Each season at Cadwallader's Mugler, house staples are revisited and developed in between 20 to 30 looks; refreshing compared to the industry standard of 60 plus. Fiercely tailored blazers and coats are at the forefront, as are the bum-lifting ribbed seam leggings, stretch gathered dresses and second-skin body suits- this season in fabrics which shimmer like an oil spill. Skin-tight and revealing, Cadwallader's staples look even better on bodies where there's more to sculpt; this season Ariish Wol steals the show in a dusty pink corset and asymmetrical ra-ra skirt. Again, a refreshing break from the blanket statement representations of skimp and sex during the S/S 22 shows, which were cast on models rooted in the Y2K trend and thin white bodies from 2001 rather than the 21st century.
A stirring example of where Cadwallader has evolved the legacy of the brand and made it his own is with the spiral jeans. Take the sculpting, swirling lines from the archive, and apply them to good old democratic denim, and you have yourself a rather covetable bit of ready-to-wear. 'The denim is always a love story for me just because I didn't think it was gonna be easy to make that stick because they're so out of control...There's so much work in them', the designer tells me.
Available at Selfridges, Farfetch and SSENSE, contemporary womenswear buyers are restocking Cadwallader's Mugler season after season. The designer is no fool, and keeps his eye on what's selling.
'I’m American so I pay attention to that stuff...For me there’s this sense of what’s the icon collection from Mugler, what’s the stuff I want to be the core that people know we make and they can find new versions of and new colours of all the time? There’s always this foundation to the clothes. And then there's the new proposals of the season that can go off in any direction.'
For each new collection, Cadwallader and the Mugler design team throw some archive into the mix, making these pieces their own. This season, vinyl bodysuits have been updated via a techno jersey - comfort and movement is crucial. As much as Mugler is a future-facing brand in terms of the sci-fi aesthetic associated with looks such as the A/W 97 Malificent-dragon-lady dress, Cadwallader's futurism is rooted in fabric development. Alongside Mugler, the designer's side-gig since 2014 has been as a partner and design lead for the ski brand Aztec Mountain, which specialises in technical outerwear. A fascination with structure (he studied Architecture at Cornell University) and fabrication is evident at his Mugler - and why people look, and feel, so good wearing it. Lycra appears as French satin, corsetry shapes the body but isn't restrictive, created through laser cutting and ultrasonic bonding, with boning concealed underneath stretch lycra and techno jersey.
However, Cadwallader's Mugler doesn't skimp on the jaw-dropping moments which run through the veins of the brand – dressing performers Beyoncé and Yseult, and Billie Eilish's custom bodysuit for her femme makeover in British Vogue's June 2021 issue spring to mind. You can also count Dua Lipa, Miley Cyrus, and TikTok sensation Addison Rae as fans.
Five seasons in, Cadwallader has found the sweet spot between commercial viability and unadulterated Mugler escapism. There's delicious elements of the vampish, alongside the sense that you can be a real person in Mugler, not just an angel fallen from heaven.