An American in Paris: Casey Cadwallader’s Mugler

The French label’s creative director blends rigorous construction and sex appeal for the next generation

“It was about three years into me being [at Mugler]. We had a private meeting in a hotel to have lunch, with all the shades drawn because he didn’t want anyone to know that we were meeting, and we talked for three hours,” recalls Casey Cadwallader, of his meeting with Thierry Mugler who, after keeping an eye on Cadwallader’s work as the creative director for his iconic namesake label, was interested to get to know the American more.

“I think the way I would describe [the meeting] is that I was the fifth creative director [of Mugler] to try, and I think he had maybe been a little bit tired of watching different people trying, and he was very critical of them,” recalled Cadwallader of Mugler’s take on the four previous heads of his namesake brand. Before landing in Paris, the designer cut his teeth in design at Narciso Rodriguez, Loewe, and Acne Studios. Since taking the house’s proverbial reins, the American designer’s version of Mugler has been a worldwide success. Sold in 150 stores globally, Cadwallader’s Mugler is uniquely suited to today’s cultural provocateurs like Dua Lipa, Beyoncé, Chloë Sevigny, Juliette Binoche, for example.

Speaking to his vision’s success, countless brands have tried to imitate Cadwallader’s spiral-cut bodysuits and pieced together denim—never quite reaching the excellence of his original designs. These clothes are hard to copy, constructed by employing demi-couture techniques, resulting in garments that operate like sculpture. “We make denim, but our denim is extremely complicated, it doesn’t have side seams, everything’s twisting, it’s very hard to make,” says Cadwallader. “We have a jacket [for the Spring 2024 show] that takes one week to cut and two weeks to assemble with two people. It’s such an exciting and iconic part of the house to be able to push the barriers in terms of craft.”

A look from the recent Spring 2023 collection. Photo Courtesy of Mugler.

Making garments at this level is like a love affair, a tango between a designer and his premiere. As much as the creative director’s vision is important, so is the hand that crafts the garment. That hand is Régine Pronost, Mugler’s Head of Atelier. Cadwallader’s work often plays with the elements of lace, vaporous black chiffon, and sumptuous lingerie employed on the exterior of pieces. These are the same materials Pronost mastered when beginning her career in the early ’90s at Chantal Thomass—a designer she describes as the “high priestess of lingerie.” She then went on to work for Christian Lacroix, helping to craft his signature baroque, ornate designs. As such pedigree suggests, Pronost is a foremost voice in how to cut great clothes.

When thinking of the best designers from the last four decades, one thing they all have in common is that they’ve each reimagined the proportions of the lower half of the body. Alexander McQueen did this with the “bumster” trouser, a silhouette he began experimenting with in the early ’90s. During his tenure at Balenciaga in the early aughts, Nicolas Ghesquière took a related approach with his shortened washed cargo pants. Today, it’s Cadwallader’s spiral cut pants that have recalibrated our collective eye, bringing the waist back to its natural position above the belly button, while lowering the hem to the floor, adding lean inches to the wearer’s height.

The pants, usually cut in denim, are constructed from many pieces of fabric sliced thin with darts placed around the leg, allowing more control over the shape and fit. “I was trying to show an example of taking something that was more ‘day,’ and trying to make it more couture,” says Cadwallader. “You can really put a lot of shape in very special places by having that many cuts. They always have special curves in the hips and butt, for example, that really flatter the body. They make everyone look taller. So, it’s about cut, and graphic geometry on the body.”

Pronost describes the process in an innocent way, likening this particularly time-consuming method of seaming as “resembling an orange peel.”

“Cadwallader deals with the gloriously contradictory archetypes of French fashion: The housewife from Neuilly-sur-Seine and the Marais-dwelling lover; the grimy slickness of a rainy Parisian street and the Hausmannian architecture that looms over it.”

Cadwallader claims Bella Hadid’s first look from Mugler’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection as his “breakthrough.” After his second show, while on vacation, he came to a realization that the collections needed more. “It had to be more sexual. I had to try to redefine what sex was for today, I had to bring it harder, because Mugler was a little bit more overt than my natural sensibility was. I had to flex toward [his taste] more.”

The result, as showcased by Hadid, was a cut-off blazer with wide shoulders and straight, full sleeves, layered over a corseted bodysuit made of black sheer fabric featuring a delicate seam tracing down the front of the leg, like cling wrap for the body. This ensemble defined all the elements of a modern House of Mugler: tailoring, corsetry, impeccable seamwork, and a nod to both traditional dressmaking, and sex.

Eva Herzigová’s look for Fall/Winter 2022 is another standout, a black mock-neck catsuit with a subtly built-in corset, adorned with a big, Yves Saint Laurent-meets-Avenue-Marceau duchess satin sash at the hip. Here, Cadwallader deals with the gloriously contradictory archetypes of French fashion: The housewife from Neuilly-sur-Seine and the Marais-dwelling lover; the grimy slickness of a rainy Parisian street and the Hausmannian architecture that looms over it. It’s a look that does what all great fashion should do: it provokes a story beyond the clothes.

“I wanted to work on bodysuits that also have volume,” Cadwallader says coolly. “I was looking for something that was extremely high-tech and future-looking, but also extremely couture, classical, and eveningwear-looking at the same time.”

To get that right meant molding the form out of “very shiny, vinyl-y, kinky jersey” with bonded ‘high-tech’ boning, as he puts it. As Pronost adds on the technical aspect: “It’s a jumpsuit made of stretchy fabric, but it has a lot of structure with an integrated bustier, so that [the models] feel as if they’re wearing a corset with a super slender waist and well-supported chest. Then, the hips are somewhat detached. The bow is made of satin with crinoline inside—double or triple crinoline—to keep it voluminous, prevent it from collapsing, and make it lightweight. It was crucial to find the right balance in weight between the front and the back so that [Herzigová] didn’t feel off-balance.” Pronost’s solution? A discreet zipper to secure this wisp of old world couture. When Herzigová tried the garment on, she immediately loved it, remarking that it felt “like a second skin.”

The price for this piece of wearable sculpture: $7,900. The look sold.

Back to the darkened hotel room with Cadwallader and Mugler somewhere in Paris—the meeting was ending. Cadwallader recounts, “He was extremely kind,” with the elder designer telling him that his vision finally felt right for the label. “He didn’t say you are the one, but he said you might be the one. And then [it] ended with a big hug.”