Gareth Pugh cuts, pins and sews modern armour, living a practice that echoes the ethos of an old-school couturier. He creates magnificent clothes, worn by magnificent women for whom fashion is a punctuation, they have a lot more going on.
Pugh is sitting in his Dalston studio, recalling an anecdote about his friend and faithful client, Daphne Guinness. He’s considering a jacket from some time ago, the infamous collection that was covered in four inch long masonry nails – not sourced from a haberdasher, but the local builder’s supply shop. And literally hammered through leather. The result were clothes that were, yes, violent up close, but from a distance, in Pugh’s words, “looked like a halo”. The forcefield they conjured around the body, a Virgin Mary glow via Hellraiser, harked back to a conversation between Pugh and Guinness about how her ideal piece of clothing would be an invisibility cloak.
An invisibility cloak. If there is one designer that could do that with aplomb, it would be Pugh. Not only for the fact that you can’t buzz an intercom to gain access to his atelier, you have to know someone from his team and phone them to say you’re outside. It might be something small, but it’s befitting of his stance as an artist insulated and working away, the relentless noise of the fashion industry is filtered out. Pugh is a creator above all – still no website! – and his defiant clothes are worn by women who impact our culture instead of go shopping, poetic souls that matter. The strong and successful need clothes that match, after all.
Beyond its inherent drama, what a piece by Pugh does is discreetly allow its wearer figurative breathing room. Think of his clothes as a two-way mirror in cloth for his woman to express herself wholly. The dress burns whilst its wearer gets on with what she needs to, unobstructed. That is a wonderful paradox; honest and thunderbolt perceptive. In fashion, ‘reality’ is a trite word used to defend boring clothes – ‘wearable’ – and it is somewhat of a fallacy. Reality is actually how things are and Pugh’s clothes recognise, and are sympathetic to it. Interesting people are complicated. Loud and quiet, all at once.
Worked into a daily wardrobe of separates, which Pugh’s modern armour is in store, you have something potent that can be thrown together without thinking – and look incredible. This designer gets associated with bin bag ball gowns before merino in the majority of his press, but however great they are, wake up and smell the gasoline: he is an outfitter like Azzedine Alaïa, or yes, Rick Owens (we’ll get to Michèle Lamy later) in aspects of his dedication, understanding of his clients and creative language. A dip in leads to becoming a head-to-toe disciple, because it’s modular and frees up space that can be occupied by something else, with no compromise over how you look. A swipe of the rail, buying the lot, is actually the rejection of being a victim.
For Spring Summer 15 his independence really came across in an extraordinary way, challenging the way not only his clothes were presented, but fashion full stop. After showing catwalks in Paris since 2009, with an excursion to Florence for Pitti in 2011 and several films with ongoing collaborator Ruth Hogben, last September he took New York with an immersive experience incorporating large scale film installation, sound and visceral live performance, working with acclaimed choreographer Wayne McGregor to connect the audience with not only the collection itself, but the emotion that went into creating the clothes. “We just thought it was time to readdress how we do things,” Pugh begins of his choice to blast pigeonholes and move continents. “Louise Wilson [former director of the Fashion MA at Central Saint Martins, London] always used to talk about people who didn’t take such care or consideration for how their work is seen, obviously there’s a lot of thought that goes into the actual clothes, but the actual presentation of them, I think she thought that had sort of wained a little in importance. And I kind of agreed with her a little, so this was an opportunity for me to regain control.”
The opening installation, a stylised Stonehenge, was made up of eight monolithic LED screens, depicting a cast of characters traditionally found throughout British folklore. The second installation represented a darker, more menacing vision: a Pagan anarchy, illustrating the oppositional forces – black and white, positive and negative, chaos and control – that are all signature to the designer’s work. Here a live tornado, created by artist Daniel Wurtzel, consumed the space, as dancers performed before a huge screen of swirling chaos. Then there was the original piece created by McGregor, ending with the image of the phoenix, a timeless icon of rebirth and renewal.
Dance is recurrent in Pugh’s work. As he says himself he is “a real life Billy Elliot,” practising as a youth in Sunderland, “many moons ago.” It’s no surprise then that movement is built into the clothes, they are cut to be dynamic.
Another formative influence on the designer is a collectable magazine called Discovery, the kind you get the newsagent to order once a fortnight and put in a binder. Except you never get beyond the first three issues and the full set costs the same as a secondhand Vauxhall Nova. It was here he got his fascination for the Tudors and Stuarts, or as he sees it “the first power dressers.” In 2013, he gave a hand to an exhibit on the subject at Buckingham Palace. It made sense – as this writer said at the time, a severe regality without the pomp of trinketry is Pugh to his foundation. So it remains.
“I told Anna, the curator of that exhibition [In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion] my first obsession with Elizabethan culture came from this magazine,” he shares. “She actually managed to find one for me on eBay! Now I’ve got one here in the studio, a treasured gift.”
There is no compromise on artistry here – and that might be the most noted thing. It’s not all sent to the factory in Italy to problem solve.
“We did this kind of gimp outfit [for SS15], slavishly laboured over, made out of origami flowers,” he explains. “Eight people were busy for four weeks, it was quite a lot of pressure to put on the studio. Then I realised we needed to make a load more,” he laughs.
“Those are actually feathers on the hats in the collection. There were hundreds of them that had to be hand-stripped and sandpapered so they’re just nice, clean spines.”
One season he came up with knitwear that looked like fur. “You’d brush it out and iron it. The process, using a little wooden tool, is quite difficult to explain, though it’s similar to how they make and hand knot wigs. We could have used fur but it wouldn’t have been the same, it had this lovely sort of liquid movement. Every time there’s a ridiculous process but I think it’s nice to have the idea that it’s been made with a sense of hand, it’s important. Like it just sort of existed or was vac formed; having a sense of elegance or richness. I guess that goes back to the idea of historicism, like the lace on their garment was the most expensive thing they would ever buy and it was a status thing. I think that’s the currency that we also deal with now, it’s not just about a label it’s about the craft that goes behind it. I also think it’s a very British thing, the idea of handwork and craft.”
From the delicate chiffon ribbons referencing summer rites and the raising of the maypole, or the hard graphic lines of pentagram harnesses that call to mind pagan ritual, to the tailoring pieces adorned by mother of pearl appliqué, a reference to Pearly Kings and Queens, SS15’s fabrics have that handmade quality. You could say it’s a subtle nod to his DIY roots, the days when Pugh was on a sewing machine in a room with one socket – and you had to unplug the sewing machine to switch on the kettle.
The brilliant, incomparable Michèle Lamy has been an enabler, a guiding light. The two met in 2004 when Rick Owens was doing exciting things at Revillon and Pugh was “doing a little week or two at the showroom on Avenue Montaigne, making cups of tea, dressing models in the sale room, sewing labels in shirts and things.” When he arrived back in London, Lulu Kennedy and Nicola Formichetti asked him to do Fashion East. It was a great time for going out in London of course, there was crackle and lightning in the air. His vision gave an aesthetic to the energy, intensifying it all.
“Michèle was the one who first believed that what I was doing could maybe make some money. She’s a businesswoman, even though she doesn’t like to admit that. She studied law and she’s very knowledgable about the ins and outs. Other than that, she is quite mystic and reads runes and tarot cards, so it’s a nice balance. She was the one who made me go see an accountant and set up my company, I learnt about invoices. She also helped persuade the factory in Italy to take me on, and addressed the sales. If it hadn’t been for her I wouldn’t still be here.”
As we go to press, Pugh unveils the Christmas tree he was commissioned by the V&A, a graphic, black and gold monolith as if Nefertiti owned a forestry and Judge Dredd cut the tree down. What’s upcoming? A project with Chrome Hearts Pugh is remaining tight-lipped about, having just returned from LA. And the FW15 collection, 2015 marks the tenth year of Pugh showing. To mark the occasion, he will return home to London Fashion Week – and stay as a permanent fixture.
It’s important to remember there is a man at the centre of all this rigour and flawlessness, however. He is one of the most amiable figures you’ll ever meet, with an extra dry, razor-like wit.
Something you might not know about Gareth Pugh? “I can cook a very good Sunday dinner – chicken, gravy, mashed potato, all the trimmings. Strawberry cheesecake for afters and soup to start.”
Oh, and he can do the Liza Minnelli chair dance from Cabaret. Perfectly.
“Someone put it on YouTube, it was something I did years ago for Cent magazine when Judy Blame was guest editor. Type in ‘Gareth Pugh 2005’, it comes up. I was actually looking for one of my earlier shows, my arse suddenly fell out when I realised it was there. But I’m fine with it now.”
TEXT DEAN MAYO DAVIES
PHOTOGRAPHY VICTOR DEMARCHELIER
HEROINE 2, SPRING/SUMMER 2015