'Tonight, if you want to see it you’ve got to fight': fusing the hi-tech with British folklore, Pugh puts on a remarkable (standing) performance show in New York
Once iPhone alerts buzzed nine, the crowd assembled in the vast room deep on Manhattan's Lower East Side started to glance around, casually at first, then frantically. "Where do we sit? Where does it start?" It was hard to free our minds from the ingrained habit of "Here is your seating card, let me show you to your section." There were no sections, just space. "Who am I in space?" was the question that seeded anxiety. And then the lights went off. On the far side, screen pillars beamed, and the crowd rushed over to stand in the middle of a strange HD Stone Henge. When the pixels on a large, curved screen at the center of the room cast their light, the crowd of hundreds flocked there. And finally, a giant screen on the far side of the room boomed and glowed, and fashion's audience scurried over. You may notice I have no description of the show itself: all I could see in this democratic crowd set-up were heads silhouetted against screens, and arms reaching up holding phones, or cameras, which they shot with blind over even more heads packed to some unidentifiable front, where presumably some people could see. After the first viewing (not viewing), I tracked down Pugh – “Tonight, if you want to see it you’ve got to fight to get in there,” he said backstage. “It’s more about that connection, it’s quite visceral." Enthusiasm, patience to wait for the second performance, and pure interest determined the seating chart. So I decided to have another go.
Second time's the charm:
What I saw this time was folklore-inspired looks that bent and spun on each of the lit pillars. The headdresses and wings that looked like they were constructed with polished twigs were a striking contrast to dresses with a wide brimmed hat or a Swarovski crystal pentagram bodice. The images swirled around on the screen pillars, seemingly flying between them. Despite the unconventional meeting of the folk and the pagan with digital technology, Pugh was clear about his intentions. “We didn’t want this to look at all sci-fi, even though it’s using very modern technology, huge LED screens,” he said. “I wanted everything to have a sense of hand about it, because British folklore’s very handmade.” In the middle, dancers pushed and swirled in a smoke machine tornado that poured from the ceiling. And in the final stage, performers wearing grey bodices with black bandage skullcaps performed a piece that kept their muscles tense like martial arts fighters as they paired off and then jumped away from each other, their moves playing on the huge screen in real time. For the finale, a video of a model-as-phoenix rising above the dancers played; the silk strands of her dress unfurled into billowing beams of fabric, radiating out over the frozen figures beneath her.
Questions, not just clothes:
The highlight of Pugh's presentation wasn't so much the clothes as the questions: What is an audience without a seating chart? Can movement itself be clothing? Who gets to see what and why? In short, it paid off to find a way to see. To have to ask myself if I wanted to was an important lesson that he bestowed. The answer for everyone who glimpsed the full range of his thoughtful risk taking: yes.
Last season in Paris, the designer revealed a collection that hinted at perversion under a clinical façade. See it below: