MONTRéAL — This city exudes style. It’s bold and beautiful, a little bit brash and, oh, so sophisticated. I guess you could say this Paris of the Americas is the super model of cities — the perfect place to kick off a world tour of couturier Thierry Mugler’s most creative creations.
I’m in luck. The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, where Mugler’s electrifying exhibition — Thierry Mugler: Couturisssime — is being showcased until Sept. 8 (2019) is still a few hours away from closing when I arrive on the first day of my weekend getaway. Phew! I have time to size up the entire glittering exhibition, which includes 150 avant garde outfits, 350 archival images and much more.
It’s not surprising that Mugler, the rock star of the fashion industry, chose Montréal to kick off the exhibition’s world tour. He fell in love with the city when he came here to design costumes for Cirque du Soleil and immersed himself in Montréal’s captivating culture.
I intend to do the same. After all, Montréal has a soothing effect on the body, mind, heart and soul thanks to its Old World charm, its collection of fabulous boutique hotels, restaurants, urban spas and, of course, its naughty nightlife.
Above: Events like the Thierry Mugler design exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts makes Montréal unique.
The first piece of art I see when I enter the exhibition hall is actually hanging on the wall of a 20-storey building opposite the museum. It’s a massive mural created to honour Montréal’s late music icon Leonard Cohen. The legendary singer/songwriter and king of cool is wearing his trademark fedora and looking directly into the museum.
The wry smile Cohen is wearing in the mural suggests he likes Mugler’s work. Many other entertainers certainly did.
The French couturier was commissioned to design extravagant outfits for the likes of Diana Ross, David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Céline Dion and Beyoncé — many of those creations are part of the Montréal exhibit — and for hit shows like Game of Thrones. Ivana Trump, The Donald’s first wife, is a big fan of Mugler’s designs and when she acquired one of his suits, she apparently bought a dozen more of the same design in different colours.
Mugler, who was once described as having a “fetish for fashion,” would lock himself in his Paris studio for two months while working on a new collection that was designed to empower women.
The exhibition has been conceived as an opera in six acts and laid out appropriately. The mannequins were all custom-made in Holland for the Montréal event. Afterwards, it moves on to Rotterdam and Munich.
Mugler, a former dancer, dropped out of the fashion world in the early 2000s because he was disillusioned with the direction the industry was going and has since turned to the entertainment industry and stage productions — his first love.
Above: Montréal's collection of Old Town boutique hotels, like the William Gray, left, help visitors relax in style.
Many of Mugler’s creations on exhibit in Montréal suit today’s superhero culture. A Vogue magazine writer once said, “Mugler is Paris chic by way of Planet Krypton.”
While Mugler’s fashions leave you in awe, his perfume bottles, shaped like a star, are even more spellbinding.
“Thierry had the bottles shaped this way because he says he was born under a lucky star,” says a museum guide, who then tells me “Mugler’s perfume sales are about $775 million (U.S.) annually.”
Talk about coming up roses.
I’m in need of some retail therapy after touring the Mugler exhibition, so I head over to a chic men’s clothing store called The Cloakroom just around the corner from the museum on trendy Rue de la Montagne.
The shop sells made-to-measure clothing and shoes that are all reasonably priced, but that’s not the only reason The Cloakroom has become the talk of the town. This shop, you see, doesn’t just sell belts, it also sells belts of booze in its speakeasy located below the main floor. But you don’t have to keep this once after-hours bar under your hat because speakeasies are cropping up all over Montréal and are very popular with the city’s business elite.
It helps to stay in shape if you hope to wear one of Mugler’s tight-fitting creations, so I belly up to a table at Mandy’s on Crescent St., a health-conscious restaurant started by two sisters — Mandy and Rebecca Wolfe — where create-your-own salad selections dominate the menu. Interestingly, the sisters’ first restaurant was started in the back of a women’s clothing store.
By the time I get back to the Hôtel William Gray, a quaint 127-room luxury property tucked away on one of Old Montréal’s charming cobbled side streets, I head straight for its award-winning spa to enjoy a thermal experience where I hope to shed even more weight. My goal is to slip into the lime green suit Mugler designed for a photo shoot with David Bowie, which is also featured at the Montréal exhibition.
Above: Bota-Bota is an urban spa that has no equals for design and service. It looks out on the Old Port area of the city.
Guests at the Hôtel William Gray Spa dart between the Himalayan salt room, Finnish sauna, eucalyptus steam room, cold and hot showers and a herbal sauna as part of its thermal ritual, which is designed to shed weight and stress.
Afterwards, I retreat to my cozy room stuffed with all the comforts of home — if your home is fit for a king.
My third-floor room looks down on the charming narrow streets of Vieux Montréal and the unique Québécois fieldstone buildings that border them — many are former homes that date back to the early days of Montréal in the 16th century.
The hotel brings together Montréal’s past and present beautifully. Two historic 18th-century residences, both owned by William Gray, a former Montréal sheriff, were linked to a new contemporary glass tower that does not look out of place, to create the city’s newest boutique property.
The rooms feature lots of Québécois art, warm walnut wood trim, contemporary light fixtures, state-of-the-art entertainment and espresso furnishings — a millennial mansion!
The Hôtel William Gray sits just steps away from some of Montréal’s most treasured landmarks, like Place Jacques-Cartier, City Hall, the Old Port, Bonsecours Market and it’s around the corner from Notre-Dame Basilica.
After a superb meal at one of Montréal’s newest Italian restaurants, Un Po Di Plu, located on Rue de la Commune in sight of the city’s observation Ferris wheel, La Grande Roue, I head over to iconic Notre-Dame to witness Aura, a light and sound show that is played out inside the great basilica.
Attendees are treated to a luminous experience that begins with a path of lights revealing the church’s great works of art, and then the audience is transported through the universe in a dazzling display of music, lights and colour. Amazing!
Next morning, before catching my flight home, I take a walk along the Old Port and come upon Bota-Bota, one of the many public urban spas that have cropped up in View Montréal in recent years.
However, none of the new entries compare to Bota-Bota, which is housed in a converted ferry boat that’s permanently docked at the base of legendary McGill St.
The old ferry, which for 50 years carried people and cars across the Richelieu River between Sorel and St-Ignace-de-Loyola, has been turned into a riverside pleasure palace that can handle 2,000 spa guests a day.
The Bota-Bota spa and its 22 treatment rooms are spread out over four decks and a gangplank off the third deck leads guests to a magical island garden where thermal therapy treatments take place. The third deck also has a whirlpool aft that looks out on the Expo 67 site. Not to be outdone, the top (fourth) deck has an even larger whirlpool where guests gather to watch the sun dip behind Montréal’s romantic skyline.
Now that’s what I call style.
JUST THE FACTS
• Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: 1380 Sherbrooke St. W.
• The Cloakroom men’s shop: 2175 Ruse de la Montagne.
• Mandy’s Restaurant: 2067 Crescent St.
• Hôtel William Gray: 421 Rie Saint-Vincent (View-Montréal).
• Aura, Notre-Dame Basilica: 110 Rue Notre-Dame.
• Un Po’ di Piú Restaurant: 3 Rue de la Commune
• Bota-Bota spa: 358 Rue de la Commune
About the Author
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. As the former Travel Editor of the Toronto Star, Canada's largest newspaper, and now Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca, Marc has been to over 100 countries in the world. Japan is one of his favorite destinations and he's been there on numerous occasions.