If you’re padding through burlesque superstar dita von teese’s ridiculously cool Hollywood pad with a glass of champagne, and your belly is stirring at the thought of the candied figs she’s just pulled from her powder pink oven, and she’s showing you closets that would cause riots, and you’re feeling like your sexual credibility in life is, by comparison, a bit like that of a Neanderthal, it’s important to remember the sweet, stunning icon set out with the same intent as all of us: to turn pubescence-birthed urges into stimulation and fun. The difference is she became very, very good at it.
Last night, for instance, the performer was twirling pink, Swarovski-encrusted pistols, spreading and spinning enormous feathered wings, before plunging into a porcelain bathtub, and leaving every attendee in the packed club with a hypnotic mental hard-on.
Von Teese has just returned from Paris where she modeled an extraordinary curation of landmark designer Thierry Mugler’s archived couture, featured herein. A truer union of emancipatory intent—Mugler’s superwoman design ambitions and Von Teese’s steadfast esteem amongst all walks of females—would be hard to find.
I was sharply reminded of the Mugler mystique following an Air New Zealand journey to London from LAX, while enjoying some afternoon biscuits in the lavish tearoom of Mayfair’s Athenaeum Hotel during London Fashion Week this September. A polite though catty group of fashion supporters sitting adjacent had just been to the same set of shows, and were dramatically mourning the loss of other-worldliness and extravagance seen on recent decades’ runways. The word “Mugler” was spoken as if hallowed.
Within this editorial, shot in the Clarins cosmetics factory, with the workaday hustle going business as usual, Von Teese elevates the form of the now seven years’ elusive Mugler to the heights he perhaps intended, many of which have never, and will never, be equaled.
Over salad and quiche, Von Teese shares on challenging taboos, the regression of America’s embrace of an art form it created, and how her one effort to employ a stylist terminated in a flash at the inane suggestion Von Teese combine one of her several hundred pairs of Louboutins with jeans.
Tell me about first working with Flaunt?
DITA VON TEESE: What I remember most was I wanted to be in Flaunt because I loved Flaunt. I loved the printing and I knew the pictures would look really cool printed on that paper. I believed in it so much and I was so excited about it that I flew myself to London and Paris to do the shoot [Jean Paul Gaultier couture]. It was the first time a fashion magazine ever really did anything for me, because [they were] still afraid of me.
Fantastic. That shoot is incredible. So what’s to fear?
I don’t know. A lot of people didn't really understand exactly what I do. I feel like the fashion industry was the second to embrace what I do. First were fetishists and Betty Page fans and the Rockabilly scene. [Von Teese turns ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ down on the stereo.] So anyway, I've been performing burlesque and recreating pin-up and doing what I do since about 1992-93. It's not like I was some kind of overnight success, which is fine because I never in a million years believed I was going to be making a real living with it. It was just something I liked doing, a hobby. I see a lot of people come and go, ‘I love burlesque,’ and they try it for a while and realize, ‘Where’s my free Louis Vuitton! Where’s my Dior! I don’t have what you have; I quit!’ And it’s like, I never did this because I wanted that stuff. I never did this because I wanted to be famous. I did this because I thought it would be fun. I did this because I liked the process of turning myself into a character.
Has fame or notoriety changed your passion for that?
With all the accolades and the fame comes the critics and people who hate you, too, and you have to learn how to handle that. That’s mostly it. I am defiant about what I do and passionate about burlesque and what it stands for, and I don’t want to commercialize it and sanitize it for Hollywood or what people think it is. And I think a lot of people are confused about burlesque—they think that it's a fashion style, that it’s about fishnets and retro music. They’re kind of dismissing the art of the striptease. It’s not something I’m making up. The most famous stripper of all time was Gypsy Rose Lee. You can see it right there! You can watch Natalie Wood playing the role of Gypsy Rose Lee—she’s taking off her clothes. That’s one of the things I’m really adamant about: trying to reinforce what burlesque really was and is.
How about the physical sense of self you need? Do you feel that self-control is something that comes strictly down to work or is there an innate talent for that? Is it about passion?
The people I’ve always respected and loved in all kinds of show business are the people—and you can see the difference—that are really self-made [and] self-taught. You can tell they are writing their own songs; they have an idea of what they want to look like. I’ve always liked the people that everyone says, ‘She’s not that good of an actress. She’s not that good of a singer. He’s not that great of a piano player.’ Like the Liberaces. Liberace was definitely not the world’s greatest piano player that ever lived, but he was a showman and he had this desire and he did something really incredible with his, what people might call, lack of talent. I like when people make up for it. I can’t relate to them [the ‘best’ in culture] because I’m not the best dancer in the world. There are a lot of people who could technically do a better job on stage than I do—they're a better dancer, they have a better body, they’re prettier, they could do a thousand things better on stage, but I created these shows from the ground up and there’s heart that comes from that, and an investment that comes from that, and a high stakes thing that comes from investing everything into that.
How about your fan base? Who do you relate to?
The girls. The thing that keeps me going the most is all the girls that write me letters, and they’re like, ‘I never felt pretty because I couldn't relate to someone like Cindy Crawford or Gisele.’ I have a lot of fans that are women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and ages and they’re like, ‘I can put on red lipstick. I can curl my hair. I can wear black stockings and garter belts.’ And they feel good. There was a moment in my career when I felt like, ‘Oh my god! My fans aren’t just fetishists and those people any more.’ I was in London doing this book signing at Harrods and there were thousands of girls in little black dresses and red lipstick with their hair curled and they were givin’ it. They were every shape and size; I was blown away; I was fighting back the tears, I was so excited. I hadn’t realized the real shift until then. Again, it’s hard with what I do. A lot of people criticize me and say that it’s anti-feminist. How can it be anti-feminist when somebody comes to my show and it’s a bunch of girls?
That’s typical, though. Certain folks have their ideas of what feminism is supposed to be, but their limited imaginations are in fact what substantiates the inequality!
Yeah, that’s the problem I have with people saying, ‘Oh, but your just a stripper.’ But there’s a lot of really cool strippers. Josephine Baker is one of my favorite examples. Josephine Baker was an American that went France. She got the Legion of Honor from the French government. In her initial show she was buck naked! Buck naked. Topless. Boobs flying! People like Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter. How could we watch The Night Porter if Charlotte Rampling would have been like, ‘Oh no, I’m not showing my body.’ That movie is legendary, it’s referenced, it’s everything. Every actress wants to be like Charlotte Rampling. But you can’t be Charlotte Rampling unless you just go there.
That really fits this editorial, because with Mugler, his fashion is obviously about powerful, strong, supreme women. Can you describe the sentiments you were just describing within the scope of your collaboration with his archive?
I’ve always been a fan of Mugler, and he really inspired me. I actually went to his last fashion show he ever did. It wasn’t a big spectacle. Back before I was allowed to go to the big shows, I was just working at a strip club, but I got a lot of inspiration from that powerful, fetishistic, shapely, otherworldly, alien Mugler woman, and that’s what I always wanted to be. Maybe I always just felt like I could never have anything to do with the beautiful bleached blonde babe. I’m not the girl that rolls out of bed looking fantastic. But I could relate more to the Mugler woman with the corsets and the red lips, the hats, nails, and all of that.
Who, to you, is working today in fashion that you feel is achieving that same powerful reach?
You mean younger? I still have a thing for the old-timers! I was devastated when Christian Lacroix was closed down. He was one of those iconic designers and his shows were magic for me too. Gaultier, of course, and Louboutin.
We heard Mugler loved what you did with the archive. Can you go back to telling me about being your own stylist?
I think there was a moment in my career when I felt I should have a stylist because everyone else has a stylist, and I’d like to borrow some clothes for the red carpet, and you need a stylist for that. So, there was one moment when I worked with a stylist. I think it took me a while to shift my point of view and realize that my fans were these girls who were finding their beauty in creation and, ‘If she can do it I can do it.’ And so I thought, I’m going to make relationships with the designers myself. That’s what I did and that’s how I found myself in the Gaultier archives sifting through with Jean-Paul. I think a lot of designers have respect for me not having somebody call for me, and for my just dropping by and trying on looks, and not asking to have alterations because I’d feel bad. I wouldn’t let them chop a dress, so I’d just tape some safety pins to it or a needle and thread. I like doing that. I get a lot of satisfaction in standing on the red carpet at Cannes when everyone is styled, and they’ve been getting ready for six hours. I like doing my own hair and makeup. I’m not doing anything genius. I just had lust and desire and wanted to learn how to do it, and I think it’s an important message to my girl fans because that’s who I am. Just having fun, playing in closets, buying vintage clothes.
What are the challenges for maintaining that passion and self-sufficiency?
The really amazing trick is, can you take something taboo and change the audience’s minds about it and make them feel that it’s okay for you to like this. We all like sex; we all like to see naked people and feel titillated. This is something that’s really hard for people to come to terms with in this country at least.
Is there a part of you that likes performing in America where that acceptance, as you suggest, is more challenging? Where it’s perhaps more subversive?
I think it’s a little bit confusing for me because burlesque is an American institution. The art of striptease on stage with music was something that was invented and finessed here, in this country. Not in France, not in the UK, not in Italy—it’s here. It’s funny that it’s the last place to accept the revival.
Like you say, we all like sex; we all like to be titillated. But regards fetishes, these are often very unique to p eople or groups of people. Where do you think fetishes are cultivated, or are they something that is innate? How do you think they develop in people?
Well, when you look at the real definition of what it means to fetishize something, especially sexually: it’s making something sexual that isn’t sexual at all. I mean you can't really have a fetish for cocks and vaginas. We all do, right? A fetish is more like, I have a fetish for black patent leather six-inch high heels, or I have a fetish for a black stocking with a black seam up the back, or I have a fetish for watching women smoke cigarettes.
Do you find yourself open to new fetishes?
I’m fascinated to hear what makes people tick and what turns them on. I don’t really claim to be a fetishist personally, but I think it’s very interesting that people feel the need to approve everything. Everyone gets so upset about nudity or sexual situations or fetishes. I have like 10 books of Helmut Newton photographs. The most iconic ones that we all love and remember are the ones with sexual situations and full nudity, like the girl with the saddle on all fours. How do you decide what’s good and what’s bad? What I think is interesting is when the good and the bad come together. Like I love the idea of haute couture porn. And what makes a Helmut Newton photograph interesting is these beautiful girls; this hotel room in Paris; it’s weird; there’s a guy smoking there, looking at naked prostitutes probably, and it’s all highly stylized and beautifully shot.
And I think people are compelled to have to approve others because they have to be approved themselves. It’s a lame cycle. And the weirdos are the people who have no fetishes anyway. So, back to the shoot: describe being in the Clarins factory and the atmosphere of it.
It was really clinical and weird and I was really excited by these giant vats of crème and I was like, ‘I want one of those vats of body firming cream! Climb in for a little while and climb out, let it all soak in. Get my rubber sheets.’
And your favorite item from that shoot?
The black insect pigeon breasted corset with the tuxedo-style tails. Mr. Pearl [a master corset maker] made that and that’s one of my favorite outfits of all time. And the cape, too. I loved that dress and the shape of that dress and the optical illusion that it creates, and the padded hips. One thing I love is the exaggeration of the feminine form. It’s not a lot of people who will pad out hips and make them bigger. Most people want to be smaller, but I love the idea of the designers who make the boobs bigger, make the waist smaller, and make the hips bigger.
What else is going on with you? What else is new? Do you have any plans?
Well, I did CSI Las Vegas and it’s out in January. It was a nice challenge and a big step outside what I’m comfortable and used to. I have to say that by the time it was done I was really happy to shift back into showgirl mode. I got tired of walking around my house talking to myself, memorizing lines. I’m tired of having to conjure up all of these things from my past that I don’t want to think about to get where I need to go. I still have scrapes and bruises all over me from some intense scenes.
Have you considered acting as a career shift?
I didn’t gain recognition as a burlesque star in order to use that as a stepping stone to being something else. Honestly, if someone said, ‘You can have a big movie career or you can be the directrice at The Lido [Paris’ famous cabaret theatre],’ and [I could] design a whole show and be in charge of the girls, and be around what I love and what I know and what I have a real heart for, rather than just being where I’ll be seen and where I’ll be famous, the choice is really obvious.
And any other projects?
Well, I’m wrapping up my beauty book, which is really for my fans. For the girls. Its mission is to encourage eccentric beauty and all the things about us that make us different. It’s referencing iconic beauties that aren’t necessarily traditional beauties. You know, the women who were beautiful, but had big noses, or some strange features—to embrace that unusual beauty, instead of saying you should have a tiny little nose and blue eyes and blonde hair to be a perfect pin-up. That’s not the truth.
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French writer, surrealist, and critic André Breton once declared, “The mere word ‘freedom’ is the only one that still excites me. I deem it capable of indefinitely sustaining that old human fanaticism. It doubtless satisfies my only legitimate aspiration. Among all the many misfortunates to which we are heir, it is only fair to admit that we are allowed the greatest freedom of thought. Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be.” Ceaselessly exercising the limitlessness of one’s imagination could readily ascribe the life and surreal, fabled work of designer and fragrance master Thierry Mugler. Mugler ceased runway fashion nearly seven years ago after decades of supremacy when his Parisian house was acquired by beauty institution Clarins, and has heretofore remained elusive from the public eye, only executing exclusive collaborations with creative powerhouses like Beyoncé, and continuing his fragrance line, which remains massively successful.
Mugler very rarely grants interviews, yet in this fortunate case, he freely discusses with Flaunt his psychological kinship with this editorial’s subject, Dita Von Teese, as well as the dangerous proliferation of fashion and provocation as an identity prop, the ripples of design mimicry, and the importance of sexual animalism.
You’ve been quoted as saying there’s no point being reminded of what you have or haven’t done in your life, that it’s disturbing. But considering the special scope of this collaboration featuring Dita Von Teese, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reflecting on your journey as a designer? In the 1980s, during a period of women’s corporate advancement, your fashion accentuated this ascent, hyperbolically and eccentrically, like female cops, dominatrixes, and so forth. Do you feel this portrayal of women as supremely powerful leaders changed the cultural landscape in any way?
THIERRY MUGLER: It has indeed. Just like gay ideas, avant-garde fashion ideas address cultural elites in the first place and then descend to the general public and become mainstream, so it makes it inevitable for such things to influence the cultural landscape one way or another. This is how it went with this notion of women as supremely powerful leaders; and nowadays, it no longer surprises anyone to see any girl or woman from any social background—really, any!—adopt this type of persona or character or figure and play with it the way she likes. Whether it has a real influence on mentalities—and maybe curbs ancestral machismo to a certain extent—or remains only superficial is another matter.
It’s a different translation to gauge, true. Dita Von Teese is a very powerful and talented woman. Can you describe your relationship to her and do you have plans with her?
Our relationship is, I suspect, made of more mutual observation than actual transaction—so far. First of all, Dita is an exceptional, radiant beauty and a challenging artist. Our relationship is also emphasized by maturing ambitions. Of course, I do have plans for her; to create for Dita some more extreme numbers in the sense of being more dramatic—cinematographic—involving acting and cultural references. I want to create with Dita the intellectual strip tease… but it is just a matter of time and, again, maturation. Dita’s real power and talent is yet to be revealed; she’s been practicing well over the past years, but so much more is in her, and possible. Wait and you will see.
You studied and performed classical dance from a very early age. How do you feel classical forms and shapes lead to artistic function? Is there a connection between your dance experience and creative work thereafter?
Common sense. It’s like learning the basics, the essentials, and how to master them, before projecting your own fantasies and talent and creativity. You need to acquire that expertise, or craftsmanship, that intimate knowledge of natural forms, whether human or else, before pretending to produce anything worthy of interest. Don’t you? It’s a humbling but indispensable experience and discipline. Classical dance equals to, or maybe even surpasses, studying classical forms at Les Beaux-Arts, because its practice is a permanent study in human anatomy—yours and that of others—in movement, bone and muscle structure, effort. Having acquired that inner knowledge allows you to do things that make sense. It's better than throwing yourself into haphazardly, erratic creative experiments.
Those sensibilities are certainly prevalent in your work. How about with sexuality? Has your relationship to sexuality and its creative expression changed over time? What is sexy to you?
I am not quite sure one can say that there is a creative expression of sexuality. There are creative expressions that relate to sexuality, but except maybe in the case of eroticism and pornography, the link is not so direct. It’s more that sexuality grafts itself on many creative forms of expression; in many cases, because people feel sex sells. In days gone by, my creative expression of sexuality was projected onto other people, not onto me. Today, it’s the contrary.
Sexy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. There are so many ways of feeling or being sexy that I don’t know which to choose from and present as an example, personally. Let me just say that nowadays, I spend more time cultivating my own sexiness than that of others.
That being said, it is interesting to note the unseen sexiness that preceded the power of ready-to-wear sexiness on people nowadays, as prescripted in magazines and embodied by today’s icons. It is more flagrant in America, but is, I think, a global trend. You can be anywhere and see this woman or man cocktail of physical and psychological self-confidence, touch of style, trendiness, apparent power. So you come across those stereotypes of modern sexiness everywhere and very unsurprisingly too, because who could resist the message conveyed by the media and its icon, no matter how false it is? You can be, you are the king or queen of the world? It’s fun, and funny, to see kings and queens of the world at every street corner. The power of looks.
And it is funny to see how this notion of sexiness and power escapes that of beauty. You no longer need to be beautiful—in the sense of ‘gifted by nature’—in order to be sexy; you just need to make good use of those tools or recipes. But the most sexy is when you feel or see the instinctive animalism in a human being. For me, it’s a form of mystical sexiness.
In keeping with what you’ve just said, with the advent of the media age and its hyper-proliferation of images, information, and excess, do you feel it is still possible for creative people or groups to be provocative? How so?
Yes, I believe it is. However, it is hard, in the proliferation you mention, to sort out real talent from sterile, so-called provocation. There are times when really creative, talented people come up with a piece of work that is so dissonant with its time that the provocative—and this is usually unwanted by its author—dimension outshines the creative or artistic genius that is at its core. And of course, that is all that interests the media, the influencers, and the people.
There is, among certain current ‘creative’ circles, a big misunderstanding and confusion between creativity and provocation. Provocation is like flashing bright lights to get attention. So far, so good. But to cast attention on what? On real talent, art, creativity, or on the act of provocation itself? That is when there is a big risk—when you have nothing else to say. Using blatant sex or pork-chops-in-lieu-of-evening-gowns is fine to get attention, but what’s behind, what’s beyond? A big void. Where is ‘the beef?’
How about your perspective on the cultural legacy of France? Where, if you were to suggest, are the deep flaws in French culture? How about the successes?
Just some briefs remarks on this vast subject—we could go on for hours on the past grandeur and very real decline of France and French culture. A large chunk of French culture is still crippled by the weight of the past, entwined, tangled with it. The decline is old, and it is surprising that so many people still live in the delusion of its grandeur. Nowadays, the only French artists or creative people that manage to acquire the sort of ‘universal dimension’ French culture possessed many centuries ago are those who manage to step out of this old French glue. Having deep roots can impede movement so much more than having no roots at all. Thank goodness the coming of global communication accompanies that of a generation that is free of these barriers. But as I was mostly raised in Germany and Switzerland I am probably influenced by their cultures—like their romanticism and sense of honor and efficiency.
What do you feel is the fundamental relationship between clothing and power? Between sex and power? How about between clothing and servitude?
The relationship between clothing and power is both very true and very false. It works pretty much the same for sexiness: you can don the outfit, the signs and emblems of a king of the world, or any other type you fancy, from slave to master, on the scale of power and submission and domination. So, regardless of your actual ‘power’ in life, you can decide to place yourself wherever you want on the scale of power, but in the end, it’s just a game of illusion, even though it makes its players feel good. When it becomes pathetic is when some sorry minds, lost souls, think it gives them an identity. Fashion can be an amusing supplement to your identity, not a replacement.
And that is where, in Western society, the constraints of this power game impair people’s judgement, making it impossible for them to find their identity, or individuality. That’s the real servitude in our society, and in a way it is far more perverse than say, the Islamic ‘fashion’ because it is not spoken. The invisible enemy is conformity.
Why did you choose to end fashion? Had you achieved all you’d sought out to do? Or is empowerment with adornment futile?
No, I don’t think I had said all I had to say; on the contrary, it wasn’t enough. Fashion is a very restrictive and demanding form of expression; it also leads to many misunderstandings. When people think that all you have to say is about style, cut, trend, fabrics, and you want to say so much more, it becomes annoying, frustrating. It was so anchored in people’s minds that I had to break it, to stop it, put an end to the confusion. And I couldn’t stand slaving on other people’s beautification any longer.
How about with your body transformation? It is really impressive. Does this signify your departure from clothing as expression to physicality as expression?
It’s true that when it happened it was high time I took real care of myself and decided who I wanted to be. Once again, it’s all about discipline and construction, creation. A new me? Why not? It is so interesting to do and it so pleased me.
It’s an oddity that your fragrance work has continued with such success considering the closure of the fashion house, as most houses utilize fashion to sell items likes perfumes. Beyond such a quality product, how has your fragrance continued to thrive?
Well, isn’t that sound proof that I had other things to say than on the fashion side? There were successful and very interesting fragrances long before there were designer fragrances. The current system doesn’t do justice to the richness and complexity of the world of fragrances, because the taste of people is polluted by the dictates of the press and the power of advertising, as well as an unhealthy confusion between fashion and fragrances. A lot of short-lived crap is sold on the market nowadays, just labeled. Perfume is about abstraction—complex architectures, olfactory ‘cathedrals’ that penetrate your sinuses and produce an endless variety of impressions on your mind, your soul, your emotions. Yet I believe that the fragrances I have worked on have their own style, their signature. They always consist of distinct opposite ‘blocks,’ of paradoxes, and somewhere along the line, along the story, a balance happens, a powerful harmony. That is why, even though sometimes I feel that a new perfume is going to be an ‘instant winner,’ I always end up with half of the people loving it, and the other half hating it. I shouldn’t be surprised anymore, and at least people are never indifferent. But the result of that is that my fragrances are slow builders. It took a long time for Angel to become one of the best-selling fragrances—and it’s staying there! It’s a ‘reference’ in the fragrance world and will one day be a ‘legend’; the same for Alien and our new challenge, Womanity. I don’t do fragrances that will only last a season. Their debut may be discreet, but come back a few years later. Here they are and thriving.
How about your recent costuming work with Beyoncé and her world tour? It’s almost like a year-long fashion show for the entire world. Plus, much of the costuming is similar to your work from 20 years ago—and again, she’s such an amazingly powerful woman. Does your collaboration in any way reflect on the lack of vision by, say, younger designers working with houses today?
You said it, I didn’t. Now, the amusing thing is that the same press which accused me of being a caricature of the ‘80s and ‘90s applauds when other designer blatantly try to imitate what I did back then. I’m not saying all designers today lack vision. In Beyoncé’s ‘I Am’ tour, I was her artistic advisor and I put my impulse into all sides of the show. I was the AD of some of the videos, the contents, the staging, casting, effects, and so forth. I’m the one who had what she needed and wanted, and I wouldn’t have done it for just anyone else. Beyoncé is an adorable, smart young lady, a very accomplished artist, and an authentic ‘stage animal’; a real entertainer. She’s a goddess; she will be a legend. But you know, I didn’t just reproduce old designs for her. It wouldn’t be fair to say that. I re-invented, adapted to her, and made up all new things. All these costumes are not runway show items. They’re very technological, adapted for movement, dance, and action. Remember how physical and fierce this woman is. It’s probably why we were such a good match.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Yes, I love Dita. Ms. Von Tease, uuuurrfff!