Document caught up with Mugler’s designer during Salone del Mobile to find out his tricks and rituals for finding inspiration.
Casey Cadwallader finally has his bearings at Mugler after two ready-to-wear shows, two pre-collections, and a capsule. The American, Paris-based fashion designer has mastered the aesthetics of the French fashion house founded by Thierry Mugler, incorporating its namesake’s powerful tailoring, futuristic silhouettes, and innovative use of fabric into his own vision, crafted for today’s woman. Cadwallader grew up in New Hampshire, and studied architecture at Cornell, but when it came to choosing a career path, he went for fashion after an internship at Marc Jacobs. From there, he worked for brands like Tse, J. Mendel, Narciso Rodriguez, and Loewe before heading the pre-collections at Acne Studios until he left the Swedish brand for Mugler at the end of 2017.
Every fashion designer needs a source for inspiration. Take one look at Cadwallader’s Instagram account, and you’ll get an idea of his inclinations. There are photos of architect Francesco Borromini’s 17th-century Doric columns inside the Palazzo Barberini in Rome, a 1963 painting of two lovers at home by British artist David Hockney, colorful sculptures by Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and an amorphous vase by Danish artist Axel Johannes Salto. For his debut at Mugler, Cadwallader collaborated with British artist Samara Scott to create the collection’s vibrant prints, and he dressed Cardi B., who sat front row, in a look that was pure Mugler, complete with strong shoulders and an exaggerated hour-glass silhouette, with biker shorts decorated with lacing.
Cadwallader regularly travels the globe in search of inspiration. On this particular occasion he was in Milan, for Salone del Mobile, the world’s premier furniture fair, which takes place during Milan Design Week, where thousands congregate to see the latest developments in the design world. We met in between the week’s myriad happenings at Garage 21, the location of an installation by Danish textile company Kvadrat, which debuted its latest collaboration with Raf Simons. There, we sat in the most Salone of settings: On a Gerrit Thomas Rietveld Utrecht sofa and chair for Cassina, upholstered with burgundy Kvadrat fabric conceived by Simons inside a pre-fab house designed by French architect Jean Prouvé. Cadwallader and I spoke about his time at Mugler, the new “woke” Mugler woman, and his preferred methods of finding inspiration.
Ann Binlot—What made you want to come to Milan for Salone del Mobile?
Casey Cadwallader—I like to see as much as possible to put things in my head so I have some juice [laughs] so that I can make new stuff. I look at a lot of art and a lot of design more than looking at—I look at fashion too—but more than looking at fashion because I like to be inspired and then doing something different. So, like, materiality—there’s so much about new ways of using materials, here, it’s going to have some sort of effect on what I’m doing, I’m sure.
Ann—There’s so many designers who make that transition from architecture to fashion. How did that change happen for you?
Casey—I was always jumping around. I worked as a jeweler from the age of 12 to 20, I worked in a jewelry store. Then, I wanted to be a car designer, then I wanted to be an architect. I started to do internships in New York. While I was in architecture school, a friend of mine had interned at Marc Jacobs and ended up getting me a connection. Then, I interned there and I realized that everyone there was building stuff and the pace was very exciting to me. I think many architects go into fashion because you’re still building things. You’re building a jacket. I mean, working on shoes and bags, too, is almost like working on a little building model. So I kind of see it all as the same thing.
Ann—You’ve been at Mugler for, what—
Casey—Two shows, two pre-collections, and a little capsule to store.
Ann—So you have your bearings now…
Casey—I’ve done a year. There’s some sort of flip that’s gone off in my head after the one year mark where I was like, “[clears throat] alright, let’s step it up.” There’s a lot of things just to get through the first one. Building the team, working with the atelier, getting to know what’s good, what needs to be fixed—there’s so many different layers to this onion. Now, I definitely feel like I have my grounding, and now it’s time to blow up a little more.
Ann—You obviously have access to the archive. Have you met Thierry?
Casey—No, no, he’s a little elusive [laughs]. It’s on the books. He doesn’t live in Paris, so it’s never been super convenient, and he travels all the time. But, it’s something I’m hoping to do very soon actually.
Ann—What kind of things do you want to discuss with him?
Casey—I just want to feel the vibe. When I first started at the company, I was introduced to a lot of these people who worked with him really early on. They really wanted me to understand the very beginnings of it and what made it tick, and I think that really affected me in the beginning. I met the man who designs all the fragrance bottles and used to make all the plastic corsets and all these crazy things. He’s like a real crazy innovator and such a gentle guy. They introduced me to him and the creative director of fragrance who’s been there for 35 years, so I got this kind of foundation put in. I think maybe even he wanted to see what I was doing first. Why would he want to run out and say hi to the person before seeing what they’re going to do? It was his baby, so I’m sure he’s protective. We’ve exchanged some notes, and they’ve been really encouraging. I feel excited to meet him. We Instagram back and forth sometimes, it’s funny.
Ann—That’s cute! Have you been to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition yet?
Ann—Is that on the books for you, too?
Casey—Yes, we’re just trying to figure out where to put it in. It was really hard because it opened the day before the show.
Casey—I was like, Who planned this?! [laughs]
“I definitely feel like I have my grounding, and now it’s time to blow up a little more.”
Ann—That’s the same thing that I thought! I was just like, why is this scheduled during Paris Fashion Week of all weeks? There’s been a huge resurgence [of interest in Mugler] lately with Kim Kardsashian and Cardi B wearing all the vintage designs. Why do you think there’s this renewed interest?
Casey—It’s the year of camp. Because of The Met Ball, there’s a bit of that. I think, also, people are looking for real newness. In a way, going back to the archive is extremely original because no one else is wearing it. I think there’s this sort of appreciation for his work that’s coming out again, which is amazing. I think they just want to have something that other people don’t have access to. They feel so privileged to wear it because no one else can get it.
Ann—How would you describe your Mugler? I mean, we all know what his was like.
Casey—Yeah, I think Mr. Mugler was really into superheroes and transforming women into these, like, wild characters and vixens. I find that to have been more culturally appropriate to those times. For me, I believe in everyday heroes, so it’s all about who she already is. I want the clothes to push her forward and elevate her. There is an element of transformation there, but it’s to be the stronger version of who she already is, not to change her into a different character. The thing that connects them all is that she is a very woke, intelligent, open-minded, very forceful, assertive woman, and I think she always has been. I just want to find the new versions of who that is.
Ann—Is there an actual woman who embodies that idea who you’ve been thinking about?
Casey—I tend to not answer with one because I think I have 1,000.
Ann—Can you name a few?
Casey—I really like 070 Shake, the rapper Dani. She’s her own woman and she’s kind, cool, and she’s just not trying to fit into any molds, so I really love her. I’ve really fallen in love with Debra Shaw, who’s been in almost everything I’ve done, and she walked for Mr. Mugler in the past. She’s just as beautiful as ever, but she’s also kind of like a mother figure to other models. She gets on set, and she talks to everybody. She’s part of the family. I’m really into this family building because I want to work with women and men who really inspire me and then I want them to stay around. I don’t want to use a model and be like “You looked great, bye!” It’s more about building something. There’s also Vivienne Rohner, who opened the spring show. She’s so femme, but she’s also so butch and talks low and she wants to drive a Mustang convertible, you know. She’s her own person. It’s really just women who’ve forged their own path, for me.
Ann—It’s interesting because the world is such a different place from when the label started.
Casey—That’s what I mean. That’s what I’m here to do, to pull what’s really important about it. Mr. Mugler, he didn’t talk about diversity—he just did it. He had upper-crust, aristocratic Parisian women dancing to underground techno music with, like, porn stars on the runway and they ate it up and it opened up their minds a little bit, so what can we do today? He was doing it so openly and so boldly then, it gives me this great desire to do something with it now. Mr. Mugler made these crazy ass jackets that were all these structural elements inside to make them kind of stand on their own, and now I get to play with that. As an ex-architect, to be able to build these jackets is amazing.
Ann—I always imagined that tailoring is very similar to architecture.
Casey—Totally, I’ve always been so obsessed with it, but then I also love flou [French for fuzzy—any clothing that’s not tailored] because it’s kind of the opposite. But, you basically build architecture in flou and then you let it fall. Some of it stands up and some it falls, but it comes from the same head in the end. Architecture and tailoring, yeah, it’s a great combination.
Ann—I saw last season that you referenced materials like Italian Murano glass.
Casey—It was even older than that. It was like Ancient Roman glass. At the beginning of every season, we pull from the archive and we look. I don’t want to ever copy him [Mugler] directly. I want to be influenced by how he did things and how he shaped the body. So I look at it, and then I close my eyes, and I start to sketch. I’m trying to absorb it and only let it come out as me, but of course, I want to stand on what he made because it’s so damn good. There’s a part where I look at the archive, I go to a ton of vintage stores and whatever, it’s basically to get my blood pumping. And then once it’s pumping, I can just make, make, make. But if I don’t do that, then you can find yourself a bit thirsty.
“The thing that connects them all is that she is a very woke, intelligent, open-minded, very forceful, assertive woman, and I think she always has been.”
Ann—Where do you go in Paris for inspiration?
Casey—Actually, what’s funny is I go to The Louvre all the time.
Ann—Are you a member? [laughs]
Casey—Yes [laughs]. Dual, like, family membership. I go to every big show that I can. Like, I love Franz West, that was an amazing show. I go to the Alaïa museum [Galerie Azzedine Alaïa], that’s always killer. He’s the other sculptural tailor, so I’m also obsessed with him. I do a lot of antiquing for furniture. I go to auction houses a lot. I go to as much as possible. I like old stuff better because I like references that are more obscure because it becomes more personal. I tend to not flip through old magazines as much.
Casey—I do sometimes. I do books. But I like to look at a painting and then kind of just jump into doing a dress. Like, I’m a little bit more non-direct.
Ann—What are you excited to see? What have you seen that’s struck you so far?
Casey—So many things. I saw this lighting company today—they basically mold the glass with different types of fabric as they’re working. And then there’s all these different interlayers of metallics and things. It’s called Bocci. The stuff was just so thoughtful and really sort of technological but also very organic. Everything was giving me jellyfish. I mean look at that [pointing to a photo he took with his phone], it’s totally a jellyfish, no?
Ann—Yeah! Was that their source of inspiration, do you know?
Casey—No, I think they really are just into the actual process itself. But yeah they were really cool. There were these kind of amazing panels from Artemide and they basically go transparent like glass. But then you can also turn them white, turn them blue, turn them pink. That was kind of trippy. I took some bad pictures. The other one I thought was a little bit nicer because it’s more organic in a way.
Ann—Today was a lighting day. Did it just happen that way?
Casey—Yeah we woke up and we were like, “What are we doing today? Are we staying in town?” and one of my friends was like, “No I actually want to go to the actual Salone and so we went.
Ann—How was that?
Casey—It’s just massive and everyone’s booth looks like it cost $10 million. It’s absurd. And I think I maybe did 10 percent of it? And then I came back to town. It was a little overwhelming.
Ann—Did anything catch your eye?
Casey—The ones that stuck out, like the one I showed you, they’re few and far between. And if I see another light that’s a line—there were like lines and circles everywhere. Rings, balls, and lines were like the only kind of lighting from everybody and then when you find someone who’s molding glass in a different way, I’m there. That’s what I wanna see. There’s parts of it that are about technology that are exciting and recycled materials. I went to the thing called Alcova yesterday. There were these bowls made out of…when people kill cows there’s just blood everywhere. So you can do things with the blood. And they found a way of making it bind into a material and they can make almost ceramics out of blood.
Ann—I went earlier today. Was it in the one exhibition with the hair and the milk?
Casey—Yeah, exactly. With the ceramics dipped in the milk. All that sort of stuff I’m totally into. That’s just about thinking openly about materiality and innovating. I think that in the end was really cool.
Ann—Yeah, and I didn’t even know this but I found out there is a biodesign course at Central Saint Martins now where they’re really trying to pair technology with producing fibers, and I’m like, “Whoa.”
Casey—Yeah, I would like to go back to school for that. I think it’s really important to never stop trying to learn things because things are changing so fast. I don’t know, I wish I was perpetually in school.
“I go to a ton of vintage stores and whatever, it’s basically to get my blood pumping. And then once it’s pumping, I can just make, make, make. But if I don’t do that, then you can find yourself a bit thirsty.”
Casey—Coming to things like this is kind of the best we get as adults.
Ann—What are your favorite places to hang out at in Milan?
Casey—I think to get into really old museums. And for me, it’s also about really old courtyards and old staircases. But this time I’ve been really obsessed. I went to the Prada Foundation and then I went to this gallery called ICA for this amazing sculptor, Hans Josephsohn, who had this show in this, it’s like an abandoned old garage. Something like this. Just the staircase alone in the garage was enough to get me going, all ripped out and crazy.
Ann—I love looking at the architecture.
Casey—It’s super, super fun. But I’m even in an old building and I’m taking pictures of the old door that’s falling apart. I love that. But this to me is an amazing material development. I see peeling rubber even though it’s a sticker on a wall or whatever.
Ann—Do you attend any of these other trade weeks like Art Basel or—
Casey—I try to go to Frieze or The Armory Show or whatever I can. I find that to be a terrible way to look at art sometimes. I kind of like to be more intimate with one thing and be able to feel it out and think about it, whereas I feel like at those shows you just get slapped around. So yeah, I do go because you see a lot of people and it’s nice to socialize. I also go to this thing called ISPO, which is in Munich. It’s like a sports convention. There’s all the ski companies and all the snowboarding companies and all the biking companies and the mountain climbing companies and it’s huge. And then there’s all of these laser cutting factories and integral knitting factories and it’s just technology, technology, technology. I love going there.
Ann—What do you get out of going to that kind of—
Casey—I mean new fabrics, like compression fabrics, high technology hosiery, connections, really kind of crazy things. Amazing new zipper pulls that are good with rubber. Just weird little things. But in the end, it’s kind of a very, I love to look at a lot of old things but I love technology too and then it’s when the two things coalesce it gets quite good.
Ann—What materials are you gravitating to now?
Casey—I’m really into developing new kinds of stretch is I think what I’m really into. As I’m working more with the tailoring. My jackets when I started were really big, ‘80s jackets with lacing on them and now I’m making them really small. When they’re really small, I think you need like a stretch. But also developing new print techniques, devoré techniques, fil coupé techniques, I’m always developing fabrics. I’ve always done that for every brand I’ve worked for.
Ann—And what about sustainability?
Casey—It’s really starting to be something that we can talk about more and like the choice of what you’re making things out of. That’s the primary choice that you have as a fashion designer. I’ve been thinking about that a lot when it comes to leathers and things for quite a while. At Acne there was a rule that if you couldn’t eat it you couldn’t use it. And I think that’s kind of a great rule because it’s about using and respecting the whole animal.
“I want to make [Mugler] big again, and I want to make it meaningful for people.”
Casey—Now it’s really about recycled fabrics or different sorts of new viscoses, or bamboo fiber fabrics, all these things. What kind of dye are you using? What’s the off-put from the dye that is used?…We just made some jackets in the last show out of all the leather skins that were in the leather closet at the office. I opened it up and it was just like [mimics rapid fire sound] like this whole closet and it had been there for like years. And we took it out and we made a collage of the colors that we liked and we sent them to a guy that patchworked them all together and we made new coats out of them. I don’t know how they’re going to make them in production, but at least I did something with that closet. [Laughs]
Ann—And where would you like to take Mugler during your tenure?
Casey—I want to make it big again, and I want to make it meaningful for people. For me, there’s so many layers that haven’t been touched yet. I mean stores and ad campaigns and all these things we don’t have right now. It’s going to be so fun to expand. I really want to make shoes. I really want to get into accessories. There’s so many categories that I think could be really exciting.
Ann—There are so many fashion labels that are getting into the Salone game. Why do you think that is?
Casey—I don’t know. Cross pollination? I mean, depends on the person. I think some designers are genuinely interested and even make furniture. Like Rick Owens makes furniture. We’re on Raf [Simons for Kvadrat] fabric right now. I mean for me it’s super, it’s the most logical connection. Clothes go on your body, and then there’s furniture that you sit on, and then there’s architecture that surrounds that, and we’re here to make those things and they can be inspiring to on another. I mean like me they must also see blurry boundaries where it all relates together.
Ann—Is there a possibility that Mugler will participate in Salone in the future?
Casey—I would love to have Mugler present a project at Salone someday. I really want the brand to be collaborative, and to engage in other arts. It means a lot to me personally, and is part of the heritage of Mugler.