Don’t Touch Anything is a column where William Van Meter takes a fabulous person to a noteworthy exhibition to talk through the show and their current projects.
It was a packed house at the Brooklyn Museum for the final days of “Thierry Mugler: Couturissime” and one of the late designer’s muses and frequent runway stars was in attendance.
Connie Fleming—perhaps better known as “Connie Girl”—was wrapping up a bustling week marked by several full circle moments. So far, magazine outed her as being an It-Girl, and Mugler’s current creative director Casey Cadwallader seemed to agree. Fleming elicited cheers as she stormed the runway as part of the H&M + Mugler blowout at the Park Avenue Armory a few days prior. Oh, and yes, that’s also Connie Girl starring in the collaboration’s outlandishly fabulous viral campaign alongside Jerry Hall and Arca, currently broadcasting from a larger-than-life Times Square billboard (the collection dropped on Thursday).
Fashion, nightlife, showbiz, art. It all bleeds into one another for the Jamaica-born, Flatbush, Brooklyn-bred creative, whose demure museum-going look consisted of a brown leather jacket over a black dress, and a purple Telfar bag that matched her heels. We took the elevator to the fifth floor to check out the show.
Besides being the most famous door-person in New York City (that was her gatekeeping at the Met Gala afterparty), Fleming is also an accomplished fashion illustrator. She came to it in a roundabout way, a fine arts passion for Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso led her to Antonio Lopez. Her Mugler connection, too, followed a circuitous path.
Connie Girl’s downtown star was already in ascension by the late 1980s thanks to The Boy Bar Beauties, a rollicking East Village cabaret-drag revue in which she starred. “The Boy Bar Beauties made us famous below 14th Street,” she said. “People started asking me to model for them—like Andre Walker, Patricia Field, and all of these like young downtown designers. So, I had already had that kind of experience, and then I started to be photographed.” She’d already been shot by Steven Meisel before entering Mugler’s orbit.
Fleming paused to admire a mannequin wearing a rather scandalous haute couture net catsuit paired with a sequin-embroidered faux fur coat and then continued, “I met Thierry’s press attaché on the dance floor at the Paradise Garage just before it closed in 1987,” she explained. “He said, ‘Are you a model? If you’re ever in Paris, come and see me.’ and I was like, ‘okay,’ puff, puff, puff [she mimics smoking a cigarette]. I never thought it would come to anything. Then in ’88, Susanne Bartsch had her first [AIDS benefit] ‘Love Ball.’ Thierry did his segment and I was modeling for BodyMap. He saw me walk and said, ‘Oh, you’re who everybody is telling me about.’” The next stop for the two would be the Fall/Winter 1989 runway. She’d become a regular collaborator.
Equal parts showman and couturier, Thierry Mugler was just as adroit with chrome, PVC, and plastic as he was with traditional fabrics. But it wasn’t just the house founder’s designs that were ahead of their time. His aesthetic and appreciation of beyond-the-normative beauty were decades in advance. Culture is still catching up to what Mugler was doing 30 years ago. It’s just catching up to Fleming, too. It’s hard to quantify the effect her presence had in that era and the years that followed—a proud and powerful trans woman of color who held her own in the era of the supermodels. She’s profoundly affected subsequent generations who have seen her as a beacon. “He wasn’t afraid to shine a light,” Connie said of Mugler. “Even though he was laughed at and called subversive.” Today’s fashion landscape would be a much different place without both of them.
This wasn’t Connie’s first time at “Couturissime.” She’s an advocate for the Lower East Side Girl’s Club (she held an exhibition of her drawings there in 2022 and she’ll be teaching an art class there this summer). She took a group from the youth organization on a private tour of the exhibition and must have been an expert guide. Walking through the show, Connie doesn’t need to read the labels to tell you what year and what collection the pieces are from. Her depth of fashion knowledge expands well-beyond Mugler and is entirely self-taught.
“I’m an encyclopedia,” she said. “It wasn’t the information age in the ‘80s. You had to hunt things down to find a photograph and an art book and then one artist would lead to another. As a teenager, I liked Guy Bourdain and Helmut Newton.”
Connie Girl has an extensive behind-the-scenes fashion career as well. She’s an in-demand runway coach and has taught nascent models how to walk at agencies like New York Models and Ford. Many models owe their careers to her. She’s earned this expertise through her own research.
“My heroes, Pat Cleveland, Mounia, Katoucha,” she explained, “all of those great muses of YSL. They taught me from watching them. I saw myself in them and I could dream, seeing another African American reflected back at me. They taught me finessé and regality in your walk. You don’t have a voice but you’re communicating and you’re emoting. You’re sending messages to the audience.”
Fleming’s runway philosophy ties into a lot of her creative endeavors. A performance art aspect underlies this ability to try on personas. The glacial hauteur of her velvet rope night job, the catwalk glamazon, and the bombastic showgirl are all magnified aspects of her that contrast the sweet and soft-spoken everyday Connie Girl.
Walking through a Mugler show with the statuesque Fleming is a bit like escorting a part of the exhibit itself. Matthew Yokobosky, the museum’s senior curator of fashion and material culture, came out to greet her, and in the course of our tour of the show, she was stopped by about ten people. She posed for photos with many. Some were fans, some she’d known from various club or fashion scenes (or combinations therein) throughout the years. “She was a backup dancer for John Sex,” she remarked of a professorial-looking woman who had stopped to say hello. “She was one of Maripol’s muses,” she noted of another.
“Oh all of the plastic casting and metalwork, everything for the car bustiers, was done in the atelier basement,” she said admiring a hot rod-style bodice. Thierry Mugler is often known for his space-age aesthetics, but he riffed on a broad scope of tropes. The look that Connie is most synonymous with is a red glitter cowgirl ensemble that she immortalized in George Michael’s “Too Funky” video alongside models Linda Evangelista and Tyra Banks. “Naomi couldn’t make the fittings, so I was like, okay,” Fleming said.
We walk by a wall of monitors that are playing her Western wear vamp moment. Two versions of the video exist because Mugler and Michael got into a disagreement during filming (there can’t be two alphas).
The crimson look is in the show—inexplicably the mannequin is holding a glittery cheeseburger. “Theoretically, I can still fit into it,” Fleming said, giving a side-eye.
As we exit Fleming observes a page of Mugler’s illustrations for a spring collection that she didn’t notice before. “Connie” is scrawled in pencil under the image of her in a black-and-white cow print bodysuit with tassels. “He really had a strong belief and push for innovation,” she said, “Not only with fashion. It was all one entity for him, his persona and his artistry. He was fearless.”