Casey Cadwallader’s first fashion show at the helm of Mugler was a success before it even started. Somehow, the designer got Cardi B to turn up almost on time to his 10 AM Spring 2019 défilé staged beneath the glowing LED dome of Paris’s Éléphant Paname. Dressed in black lace-up biker shorts and a structured, open-back blazer from the new collection, the rapper inspired hushed gasps and murmurs as she took her seat front and center. “The fact that she was at my first show seems like some kind of magic,” says the 34-year-old Cadwallader, who, in December of 2018, was appointed as the Clarins-owned house’s third creative director since its 2010 revival. “I still can’t believe it happened."
Cardi’s relative punctuality wasn’t the only magic at the show that morning. Liquid latex and PVC looks, made in collaboration with British artist Samara Scott, were mesmerizing, especially the coats in which trapped fragments of cigarettes, chewing gum, broken glass, painkillers, screws, and other unorthodox ingredients were fused together to create swirling patterns. Those corseted mesh cycling shorts also seemed like some kind of sorcery. Constructed with the help of a factory used by the house’s founder and namesake, Thierry Mugler, they hugged and lifted the models’ (and Cardi’s) derrières in a gravity-defying fashion. “Making those was quite challenging,” admits Cadwallader. “The best part of the fitting was when I was on my knees with my hands under the model’s butt saying, ‘But I want them to do this!’ We figured out a way to have the shorts actually hoist your butt into the air.”
The latex and corsetry, as well as the collection’s bold curvature, sculptural silhouettes, and forward-thinking sensuality, were born out of Cadwallader’s appreciation for the French maison’s DNA. “I’m a very lucky guy,” he said during a post-show interview. “I get to look back at a heritage that’s so strong and full of so many different dynamics. It’s endless inspiration.” Indeed, he’s still working his way through the house’s more than 6,000-piece archive, unearthing and examining batches of iconic pieces every few weeks.
Founded in 1974, Mugler comes with a rich—if not daunting—legacy. Metallic superheroines, jellyfish couture, kinky insects, rainbow-fish femme fatales, and motorcycle bustiers are just a few of the fantasies Thierry Mugler—or Manfred, as he now prefers to be called—proposed at his spectacular mega shows. “I made clothes because I was looking for something that didn’t exist,” the designer once said. “I had to try to create my own world.” He went a step further, building a universe populated by sexed-up supermodels (Linda, Cindy, Iman, Claudia, Naomi, the whole genetically gifted crew), musicians (like Diana Ross and David Bowie), and pillars of fringe and pop culture (Joey Arias, Ivana Trump), all clad in his seductive, outré wares. But for every feathered butterfly gown, chandelier crinoline, or tire dress that strutted his runways in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, there was an impeccably tailored power suit, artfully crafted corset, or perfectly nipped cocktail frock. Before shuttering his brand and effectively leaving the fashion world in 2003, Mr. Mugler proved that he was more than a showman; he was a master of construction and couture. “I am an architect who completely reinvents a woman’s body,” he famously claimed. The same could be said of Cadwallader.
Cadwallader studied architecture at Cornell before embarking on a career in fashion. A New Hampshire native, he interned at both Marc Jacobs and an architecture firm toward the end of his schooling, working one gig during the day and the other in the evening. “I got the job I wanted in fashion and the job I wanted in architecture on the same day,” Cadwallader recalls. “I had to pick left or right.” Ultimately, he chose fashion, reasoning that it was a more multifaceted field. “I always knew what I did in fashion would come back to architecture, because you’ve got stores to design and shows to do. In both architecture and fashion, it’s always about making something that people can use, trying to add beauty, and elevating the function.”
Having worked at Narciso Rodriguez, Loewe under Stuart Vevers, and most recently Acne Studios, Cadwallader was instantly intrigued when approached for the Mugler job, perhaps because he’s been fascinated by the founding designer’s work since childhood. “Even before I went to architecture school at 18, I always picked up Mugler pieces. When I’d see them on the hanger, they’d instantly show me their shape, so as an architect and a person who’s obsessed with form and texture, I’ve always been so into him.” Equally exciting for Cadwallader was the culture that surrounded Mr. Mugler’s brand—one of energy, eroticism, and power. “As a young gay boy, that was really influential for me,” Cadwallader says, noting that his first introduction to Mugler was via Fashion TV and George Michael’s 1992 “Too Funky” video, which Mr. Mugler directed. “I was like, Oh my God, what is this pulsating, sexy world and how can I get there?”
In 2018, strength, femininity, and sexuality—the house’s cornerstones—mean very different things than they did back in the brand’s heyday, and Cadwallader is excited to translate, evolve, and recontextualize these codes for the modern era. “In the ’80s, women were dressing for men, and I’ve never thought of women that way. Today, it’s not about dressing for men, it’s about dressing for themselves and pushing their own version of femininity,” he explains. “What’s so exciting is that femininity means everything now. It’s a spectrum. Sure, I'm happy to make a power suit, but a woman should be able to wear a baggy dress and feel powerful too.”
In his short time at the house, during which he’s designed two collections, Cadwallader has explored this range, producing oversize denim trousers and jackets with spiral seams; louche, ruched dresses with 3D cording; sporty, performance-inspired looks; and confident, armor-like jackets and suiting. He’s also begun to build his own fashion community, dressing the likes of Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner in sheer, otherworldly catsuits, creating custom chaps and bodysuits for Beyoncé’s On the Run II tour (Mr. Mugler designed costumes for Beyoncé in 2009), and casting gender-fluid DJ turned model Dustin (or Dustina) Muchuvitz in his Spring show. And while femininity is on his mind, Cadwallader doesn’t see his Mugler as being exclusively for women. “All of my friends that are boys are asking for things,” says the designer, who sometimes acts as his own fit model. “Even my husband was wearing the women’s cut spiral jean at the show. Anyone can wear anything.”
Cadwallader’s Mugler boasts a breed of youthful, wearable modernity that harkens back to when Mr. Mugler himself was at the helm. But he understands that, in order for the brand to thrive, he must find his own path. “I have so much respect for [Thierry Mugler], but it’s really important that I don’t try to be him,” Cadwallader explains. “I rely on the spirit of his work, but I don’t want to literally copy him.” It would seem that Mr. Mugler concurs. While Cadwallader has not yet met the legendary couturier, a recent lunch with his agent revealed that he approves of Cadwallader’s approach. “During the meeting, [the agent] relayed a message to me from Mr. Mugler saying that he’s excited that there’s someone [leading the house] who isn’t afraid of doing what they think is right for the brand. I was like, ‘Woah, thank you for that, because I was honestly scared to death of doing him wrong.’”
A rendezvous with Mr. Mugler, who’s become notoriously reclusive in recent years, is not out of the question. When prodded about what he would ask his predecessor, Cadwallader replies, “Oh my God, I have so many questions. But I want him to pick what stories he wants to tell me. There have got to be so many good ones.”