Brand collaborations, especially in the field of fashion, are extremely tricky. Either they are a hit or they fall flat. While they make for a good topic of conversation, combining the aesthetics of two very different brands without compromising on imagination, individuality and creativity is a huge challenge.
Swedish retailer H&M seems to have cracked the collab code. Over two decades, it has worked with some of the biggest designers and labels, from Versace, Stella McCartney and Balmain to Karl Lagerfeld, Sabyasachi and Kenzo, producing hit collections each time.
Its latest high fashion-high street project with Mugler—a brand known for its baggy and denim-bonded thong jeans, leather outerwear and form-flattering minis—which dropped online and in stores in India on 11 May, seems no different. By 11am that same day, most of the collection was out of stock.
The offering, which includes sexy, gender-fluid bodysuits, blazers, tights, jeans and T-shirts in sizes XS-XL (we were expecting plus-size garments as well, considering Mugler’s constant focus on body positivity, but they were missing), combines H&M’s comfortable shapes and signature Mugler designs. It’s haute couture with avant-garde theatrics.
“We don’t think of the collaborations as trend driven. Quite the opposite actually… they are about offering moments of fashion history to our shoppers, items that will be treasured forever,” says Ann-Sofie Johansson, the creative advisor at H&M. “The Mugler collaboration feels totally right for now. There is a current global enthusiasm for 80s and 90s icons, and I think young people are looking to the past for inspiration. The house’s founder Thierry Mugler is obviously a big part of that. He is key to the flamboyance and excitement of that period.”
Mugler’s creative director Casey Cadwallader spoke to Lounge about how the two brands worked on the collection and the inspiration behind it. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Describe the experience of combining the avant-garde aesthetics of Mugler with H&M’s approach to design.
It was an enjoyable process and I learnt a lot. I think there is a shared value system between Mugler and H&M; both care a lot about inclusivity and about opening up high fashion to a broader audience. I’m thrilled that we can bring people Mugler pieces at such great price points (starting around ₹3,500). One thing we focused on with this collection was how we could take our key, iconic pieces, whether the dresses or the jeans or bodysuits, and produce them at the scale and price-point needed.
One way we did that was by carefully working out which details were essential, and which could be stripped back to make things more clean. So maybe it’s a seam that was removed, or the number of ties or knots on a dress that was edited down. It allowed us to make truly beautiful pieces, that are in no way a compromise, but that come at an affordable price point.
It felt like a big moment, both for me as a designer, and for the house of Mugler. Also, I think everyone in fashion is aware of the H&M designer collaborations; they are just really iconic. So when we started work on the collection, I spent a lot of time reflecting back on my own memories of those collaborations, like the one Alber Elbaz did, which was so true to Lanvin, in terms of the design of the pieces, and the ones with Versace and Margiela, which I actually bought pieces from at the time, and which, again, were really about offering people signature pieces. I drew a lot of inspiration from that idea. So I was adamant that this had to be true Mugler, nothing compromised or watered down. I wanted it to be a really celebration of the house, and of our classics. It felt really special to be able to produce that.
My own journey with the house is very tied to the archive, and using key elements from it as starting points for new ideas, that’s something I do often. I’m not afraid of going back, and looking for references for shapes or fabrics or details.
For example, early on in my time at Mugler, I learnt that when Lycra was invented, Mugler did almost a whole collection in it, and I drew a lot of inspiration from that. You can see that in the many stretchy pieces in the collaboration, such as the catsuits and dresses. He also did a lot in denim, which is something we continue now. So the archive will always be there in a subtle way, but within the collection we also tried to pay homage more directly.
So, alongside contemporary pieces, the collection contains a mix of archive pieces, remakes from the 80s and 90s, including dresses, tailoring and some amazing jewellery all designed by Thierry Mugler. It was a nice way of honouring the legacy of Thierry Mugler (the founder), and also a great way to acknowledge the huge enthusiasm for 80s and 90s fashion and vintage among young people at the moment.
When curating the selection, I spent time thinking about what people would really covet, and what would really encapsulate the heritage of the brand. I knew, for example, that I wanted the 80s black velvet dress, because the original vintage version has had its own new modern life recently, having been worn by so many young icons, whether in shows or on the red carpet. And I love the skirt suit also, because its punk but also feminine, and it encapsulates the dualities of Mugler, how it could be very considered and cerebral and couture, and then also, on another a side, quite dirty and daring. I love those juxtapositions. All the archive pieces show the richness of the house, but also my own journey with Mugler, the starting points and references that have inspired the house today.
I try never to think about trends. To me, great fashion is about freedom, individuality, about using material and the body in ways that are innovative and yet timeless. I don’t like the idea of a piece of clothing ‘dying’; I want to create fashion that people cherish and enjoy for years.
Gender fluidity, and embracing all kinds of expressions of gender and beauty, is really embedded in the history of the house. Thierry Mugler was inspired by all different kinds of people, he was casting queer and non-binary figures from the start, long before some of the conversations we are having now about inclusivity in fashion.
Obviously, such a way of a seeing the world is very in line with my values. And we built this collection with that ethos in mind. So all pieces, whether clothing or accessories, are really designed to be borrowed and shared across genders, even if they are labelled as “menswear” and “womenswear”. I think people can style the collection in whatever way they choose.