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Gareth Pugh’s Labyrinth

Fashion's dark provocateur is hitting the reset button. He opens up about his virtual reality experiments and attraction to opposite forces

Taken from the summer 2014 issue of Dazed:

Each season, Gareth Pugh emerges with new and unique concepts that transport us light years from the desperately digestible fashion we’ve come to expect. His world is bold, unfamiliar and gloriously unsettling. Whether he’s producing collections inspired by the Asgarda – a modern tribe of Ukrainian women who seek autonomy from men – using Dalston garbage bags, or pumping smoke and chlorine into the Palais de Tokyo, he’s no stranger to diving headfirst into the underworld. Pugh has been spreading his “dark euphoria”, as his collaborator Matthew Stone terms it, since his first runway show, presented at underground London clubnight Kashpoint over ten years ago. Now he shows twice a year in Paris – a rare accomplishment for any independent British designer. For him it’s a chance to bring the mind-altering theatrics of his early shows (think inflatable balloon dresses and perverse harlequins in PVC) to shake up 
the institutional French fashion system.

“Let’s just say there are no favours in Paris,” laughs Pugh in the east London studio he’s occupied since 2006, when he left his squatting days as part of the Peckham-based !WOWOW! collective behind. 
“In Paris you have to fight for everything. It sort of reminds me of Central Saint Martins. All the staff are there, but you get the feeling that they’re not always there to help you, but to be more of a hindrance. They force you to question how much you want it.” But if anyone knows how to attack hard and fight the system, it’s Pugh.

For AW14 he presented a collection that felt notably stripped back, with colours and fabrics that felt more utilitarian than glamorous. “It was a bit like hitting the reset button this season,” he explains. “We used base fabrics like calico that we wouldn’t normally put in a show, and had a very limited palette, maybe four or five fabrics where normally we’d have about 15. It was about trying to work within a tight framework and seeing what we could do with it.” That tight framework revealed itself in colours and textures you might expect to pick up playing Supermarket Sweep in a hardware store, from papery white overalls to almost shockingly shiny silver insulating foil. 

Only a few months earlier, Pugh’s friend and show stylist Katie Shillingford introduced him to the work of photographer Jackie Nickerson, who has been capturing Zimbabwean farm workers since 
1996. Nickerson transforms documentary-style portraits into abstract art images through the use of large-scale objects like fallen palm tree leaves, which often obscure her subjects’ identities. One image in particular – a portrait of a woman in a field obscured by plastic sheeting from her Terrain series – became a reference for the highly sculptural and abstract silhouettes in Pugh’s AW14 collection. (Appropriately, Shillingford and Nickerson interpret Pugh’s collection for this feature.)

In a similar way to how Nickerson manipulates everyday objects and materials, Pugh used his base fabrics as sculptural supports, allowing him to play with vivid forms and abstract shapes. The more intricate and expensive fabrics, like fur, took on a post-apocalyptic feel, more scavenged or hunted than wrapped in tissue paper. Then came oversized hats that appeared to have been plucked from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and 3D wind-up doll garments, a reference to one of his 2005 shows with Fashion East.

Amid this collection of outfits for nuclear-winter wanderers was a palpable sense of opposites. The opening look was brilliantly contradictory: a skirt suit, prim and stiff-collared but fluffy and white as a lamb. A few looks later, that aggressive softness appeared again in the shape of a hard, transparent bustier that revealed the model’s naked torso beneath. It was inspired by “that amazing scene in Billy Elliot when they’re all tapping their riot shields at the police. Very confrontational but also very much about protection.”

“The immersive is hardwired into Gareth’s DNA,” 
notes Matthew Stone, who’s been creating the soundtracks for Pugh’s shows since 2006. “He has 
that larger vision, and it’s about him trying to communicate it so that people can emotionally connect to the space he’s in or that he wants to project.” That communication is most evident during his shows, which are often multi-sensory experiences. This season, however, the music, a sort of rhythmless drumming that highlighted the silence more than the sound, felt almost empty. “Instead of hi-hats we’d use white noise,” Stone says. “Or at the part where hi-hats might come in they’d drop out, which is white noise again in a similar way. It gives this feeling of a cloud of synergy.” 
Pugh’s shows overwhelm because the sensory elements unite as one.

During the design process, however, it’s the friction between elements that Pugh finds himself drawn towards. “When you take a step back you see that there’s always something dealing with opposites,” he says. “Whether it’s simply using a colour and then black-and-white, or masculine and feminine, 
or good and bad, or light and shade, it’s always there. It’s like when you put two magnets together. That friction or tension between the two disparate elements is interesting. 
It doesn’t read very easily – it’s quite unnerving to look at, but it’s not clear why. 
I think of it as the thread that runs through everything.” 
The world Pugh presents is one of shadows and murmurs, as much about a glimpsed face on the dancefloor as the apocalypse. As Stone says: “He’s dealing with an energy close to anxiety but without any of the nihilism. A space that is beyond; space that relates to the sublime.”

Pugh’s focus on otherworldliness may be why he’s found fans in such influential fashion outsiders as Michèle Lamy and Rick Owens, who have supported him for several years. Lamy compares her feeling of “ecstasy” upon discovering his work to how she felt when she saw “Komm Tanz Mit Mir” performed by Pina Bausch in 1978. She found out later that Pugh had been a dancer from a very early age, a fact that sheds light on the sense of movement in his work. There’s no question that his shows, which often obscure identities and genders, are worlds away from the processions of recognisable models fashion shows usually consist of.

“There’s always something dealing with opposites 
in what 
I do. It’s like putting two magnets together – 
it’s unnerving to look at, 
but it’s not clear why” – Gareth Pugh

“I suppose it’s about trying to distance ourselves from certain things,” he says of his habit of obscuring his models’ faces. “As humans you always focus on the face, and people get so perturbed when that’s taken away. This way you have to look at the whole thing instead.” By hiding the thing people’s eyes are usually drawn to, he undermines the commerciality of the industry and tightens his 
grip on his audience. 
“I wouldn’t be this controlled about everything if it was like, ‘Yeah, just stick a print on it and sell it.’”

Pugh laments the current lack of the certain intangible “other” that permeated the runway shows of Galliano and McQueen, and it’s easy to see why he identifies with their “insane fantasies” over the buzz-related fashion that overloads the press. 
“We try as much as possible to control the environment, it’s really important,” he says of his own shows. 
“We started playing around quite a few seasons ago, and obviously we don’t have that mega budget to transport people into a different world but we try in our way to make it feel like they’re not just coming to Palais de Tokyo to see a fashion show where it’s all backwards and forwards.”

SS13 in particular was one of those epiphanic moments when a show transcends its “trade show” identity. 
“That was a really special one for me,” he says. 
“Even I didn’t think I could do something that soft and beautiful. We wanted the space to feel like it was filled with rays of sunshine coming through a church window, sort of dusty and light. We had smoke to scent the room, which made the whole process feel quite ceremonial, and played a really stripped-back track, Rebekah del Rio’s Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s "Crying". 
It was quite a sunny day, but during the show the heavens opened; it started pissing down with rain and because of the glass roof the noise was insane. It was just so perfect to have these glistening tears coming down, and it’s funny because if we’d had the budget and the foresight we would have had people up on the roof with hosepipes making rain.”

It’s hard to imagine how an experience like that could ever be captured and shared online without losing its essence. You might think that a designer as precise and conceptual as Pugh would feel frustrated as his multi-dimensional collections become flat images on fashion websites, but he seems to have accepted the inevitability of the process. “I think 
it’s weird that certain people say that they design with that in mind – like, that’s what it comes down to, flicking through images on a phone or an iPad or computer – but eventually it’s just a reality you have to be at peace with. 
The show feels like a full stop because that’s the pinnacle of how you want things to be seen; you work with your team to get to a point where everything’s right, and once that process is over it becomes somebody else’s story. It becomes part of somebody else’s narrative, if you like, and that’s just the way it rolls.”

Though right now the shows roll out of his world and into somebody else’s by the end of fashion week, things could change. At the start of the year Pugh worked with technology company Inition to create a virtual reality installation at Selfridges, hinting at a future beyond 2D fashion images. 
“It’s always been an aim of mine to create immersive experiences, and this was an opportunity to do something as close to that as I could get,” he says. “Using virtual reality in this way feels a bit like how fashion photography must have seemed when everything was still illustrated; it’s the tip of the iceberg, and the possibilities you’re able to achieve are all yet to emerge.” 

It could be the beginning of a revolutionary frontier, a way to transport your subject to whatever simulated environment you can  conjure up. Stone doesn’t think it’s so different from what Pugh is already doing: “Virtual reality provides a very useful metaphor for his approach in 
general. It’s about making something so much bigger than you that it creates an exhilarating fear.” Imagine the possibilities virtual reality offers a designer who can already strike fear into your heart with a dress. Welcome to Pugh’s universe: it might sound a bit frightening, but let yourself go and it’ll take you out of this world.

All clothes and accessories by Gareth Pugh AW14

Hair Martin Cullen at Streeters; make-up Alex Box at using Illamasqua; nails Adam Slee at Streeters; set design Sally McMillan; model Emma Champtaloup at Viva; photographic assistant Olin Brannigan; styling assistants Kelly-Ann Hughes, Isabelle Sayer; hair assistant Fumi Maehara; production Katy Barker at Katy Barker Ltd; production assistants Carys Adams, Alexander Sanders; studio manager Ali Marr; casting Noah Shelley