Then the “unspeakable happened” in America in November last year and he who was elected was elected, Gareth Pugh and his partner Carson McColl were in Washington to witness it all. But from a bad thing came a good thing: the idea for Pughs’s London smash autumn show was born. This had now become a matter of protest.
Trump’s stance on, well, just about everything, including of course, his appalling attitude to immigrants and gay people, made Pugh want to do something different for his show. “At that point after the American election, it just felt like we should use our platform to be part of that political conversation,” he says over pints and gins in a pub in London.
This protest became one of the most- talked-about shows in the capital, not only because of the clothes you see here – they are incredible – but also the theatre. Not since the days of McQueen some 25 years ago has the press complained so much about one London show. It was, they said, “too dark”, “too cold” and “in the middle of nowhere”. All had been summoned by Pugh to an unfinished concrete venue shaped a bit like Shakespeare’s Globe, somewhere off Upper Street, Islington. Here, lines of blacked-out BMWs queued to drop off mouthy American department-store buyers and moaning old fashion birds. It was just like the old days, when shows were shows, which meant something new. “That place was a nightmare,” says Pugh. “It’s the only show where I’ve almost blacked out, like, five times, just from the sheer stress of it all. And the logistics of showing in an underground space that’s four stories down with no mobile-phone reception… ” Well, imagine.
Then there was the music. Pugh worked closely with the artist Matthew Stone to create a muscular staccato of Trumpisms. “Build that wall!” screamed the speakers cut to clash with a sprinkling of Madonna’s Erotica, some Dylan Thomas (read by Richard Burton) and guitar openers from Jimi Hendrix – and it wouldn’t stop. It. Would. Not. Stop. From one song to a political quote to another song – on and on and on and on. It was unnerving and annoying and incredible. It was also reminiscent of the music used by sinister government organisations to keep those being interrogated WIDE AWAKE. We’re now down four fights in a tomb-cum- theatre space with a few strip lights placed “every so often”. These, beautifully done, were courtesy of Lucy Carter, who has also created the lighting for Wayne McGregor, choreographer for the Royal Ballet.
All this and the clothes – we’ll get to those shortly – show Pugh at his absolute best, when the man pushes hard against the fashion system, weaving politics into cloth and annoying just about everybody. And in his mind always, he says, is London and what it stands for. If New York is commerciality and souped-up classics, Milan is commerce and mega brands. If Paris is your international-fashion showcase, then London is the wilful and precocious little sister. “For me, London is about youth and ideas and excitement and freshness,” says Pugh. But also commerciality. “We have a show and we have a showroom and we do like to separate those two things. We tick a lot of the boxes for commercial reasons, because we have to – it’s how we pay for the next season. The show is like parfum and the salesroom and shopping like eau de toilette. It’s just finding that balance between how you want to be seen and what you actually represent in a shop.”
None of this is easy, of course. “It’s always a difficult one for me. Our driving force isn’t the hanger in the store – that is just a happy by-product of the process we go through with the show,” he says. “It’s also quite a cancerous thing, this hanger mentality, because you can start to feel and think quite flat. It kind of kills me when people say they designed from Instagram and it’s all very, you know… ” And here Pugh politely trails off, so I’ll continue. The idea of a creative industry that is led purely by the sums – “X sold better than Y so let’s not produce Y again, but let’s do X in another colourway” – isn’t creativity at all: it’s design by rote. It’s looking on Instagram to see what yet another blogger wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt with “tricky sleeves” is wearing next. And surmising how those sunglasses, which happen to be perched on her head while she happens to not be posing yet posing for photos, are “terribly Jackie O, so let’s do some of them”. That’s not design, it’s bubbles. It’s blah and it’s got a nerve. You may as well be designing pegs – and I quite like pegs, but you know what I mean. It’s just basic-bitch pretty frocks and wedges.
“Well, we want to kind of fuck around with all that!” says Pugh. Praise be. And “fuck around” with the show and its audience, too. “You know, when people go to fashion shows and it’s cold and they have a little blanket and a Thermos, I get it and it’s nice and that’s how you sell a lot of perfume and get good reviews… And people [the press] like to be given blow jobs all the time, and I think people who come to London to see shows kind of expect not to be given the head they get elsewhere. We had the option to heat the venue, we chose not to. We had the option to pressure wash the venue, we chose not to – we didn’t want it to look like a venue where we’d just rocked up with a load of kit, rigged up as a fashion show and turned the sound on. That show wasn’t about me being polite.”
He decided to “fuck around” with the unspoken conversation that runs through all fashion shows, too – the one where models wear clothes and the audience, in a normally unchallenged position of power, bears witness. Not at a Gareth Pugh show. Rather, he reversed this conceit and the models were told “to stalk” the audience instead. The girls stalked their quarry. And the audience looked concerned.
You get a sense of the power of the show from the pictures here, shot in the same venue by Nick Knight. The shape of the girls, that very elongated form with stretched-out, elegant limbs, had the feel of Dior Haute Couture under Galliano and the dark, nighttime threat of vintage McQueen. On the shoot you could feel the authority of all the model-women, too, many of whom also starred in the show. It was a magic mix of Pugh’s friends and women he respects, such as the performance artist and activist Stav B – who featured in the What’s Underneath project alonside Adwoa Aboah – and Scarlett Cannon, who famously appeared on the front cover of Blitz and i-D magazines. Plus, the artists Adrina Drina and Elliott Bennett Coon and the tall and beautiful Benedict Douglas Stewardson, aka Rodent DeCay, the anti-fascist performance artist who stole the show in a Night Porter-esque wide-pants-and-braces look. A who’s who of amazing people, each with something important to say.
I have to mention Erin O’Connor here, too, who was the first and last face out at the show. She was the catalyst for all this elegant power. When O’Connor moved, the clothes changed and she projected this almost haughty presence in costume. “Erin is that girl who designers give those ridiculous things to pull off because she’s amazing,” says Pugh. “But the idea for the show of putting her in a simple black leather trench coat and a pair of shoes that look like bin bags that have just been tied around her feet, I thought, was quite a cunty thing to do.” Is that cunty good or cunty bad? “Cunty good!”
O’Connor’s black leather trench is just one of the pieces you’ll be drawn to in the collection as it manages, again, to bridge the sinister and the ultimately wearable. As do the immaculately tailored, wide-cuffed trousers, best worn with one of his nipped-waist jackets. It’s strange to talk about a designer who refuses to be restrained by anything and then make a list of the things you’ll want to wear, but this is what he does. Of course, Pugh isn’t suggesting you go and pick up a carton of semi-skimmed in his structured number based on the uniform and shields of riot police – although that would be the most incredible thing you could ever do in your life – but he is proposing a wardrobe of things you’ll want to wear forever. And I mean forever. There’s something “non- fashion fashion” about all of this. There are no trends or “this season” or any of that old cobblers. Pugh’s work is about the tailored trousers, that leather trench, the spiked heels, any of those wonderful winter coats, that marvellous chubby shrug and the leather jacket that curves around the neck like a huge shell. The list goes on. And on.
So, just so we have this straight and while we have you here: is your work both inside the system, as in you produce and show and sell, but outside the system, too? “Well, interestingly, when I went to the Met Ball, I was kind of looking from the inside but feeling like a total outsider as well,” he says. “And I feel like that’s the kind of person or the kind of thing that we offer at Gareth Pugh. We’re a step to one side and away from the other brands out there. The brands that have exactly the same formula as everybody else.”
So Gareth Pugh is a different fashion proposition? “I guess! It’s as if most people put two and two together and get four. We put two and two together and get 14! Or something like that, anyway… ”
Taken from the latest issue of 10, REBEL HEART, on newsstands now…
Photographer Nick Knight
Fashion Editor Gareth Pugh
Text Richard Gray
Hair John Vial at Unit 30 London using Revlon Professional
Make-up Val Garland at Streeters using MAC
Nail technician Marian Newman at Streeters using CND
Talent Erin O’Connor at Jonathan Sanders & Co, Aamito Lagum at Viva, Demi Hannah Scott at Swipecast, Hee Jung Park and Grace Bol at The Hive, Barbra-Lee Grant at Storm, Irina K at Premier, Ana Cristina Plansky at Established, Kye Howell at Society, Nyaueth at Nii, Scarlett Cannon, Stav B, Kitty Garratt, Benedict Stewardsonand Maisie Pearson
Photographer’s assistants Britt Lloyd, Rob Rusling, Vikesh Govind, Sonny Casson, Modu Sesay, Keir Laird
Fashion team Carson McColl and Aine Geoghegan
Fashion assistants Joel Traptow, Khosrov Melkonyan, Abbey Mills, Ben Mak, Eloise Hanikene, Unji Cho and Francis Lim
Hair assistants Anne Veck, Bozena Sarek and Siobhan Arnold
Make-up assistants Joey Choy, Elizabeth Hsieh and Nina Jackson
Nail technician’s assistants Jennie Nippard and Kristine Toce
Retouching Mark Boyle at Epilogue Imaging
Digital operator Joe Colley
Camera operators Younji Ku and Peiman Zekavat
UAV pilot Dani Rose
UAV tech/spotter Chris Williams
Digital operator Joe Colley at Passeridae
Casting Gareth Pugh
Executive producer Charlotte Knight
Production manager Riana Casson
Onsite production Nienta Nixon
Production runners Poppy Thorpe, Mariana Caldeira, Kristina Osipova and Sophie Brunker
Shot at Collins’ Music Hall (locality.org.uk)
Thanks to Sophie Jewes at Starworks Group, and Direct Photographic