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Simon Costin Gareth Pugh AW12
Gareth Pugh AW12

Simon Costin: creating the impossible

The legendary set designer behind the infamous show spaces of Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen on his career, collaborations and upcoming exhibition

As fashion month gains momentum, the attendant circus brings with it much speculation as to the future of the catwalk show. In the race to synthesise fashion and tech (portmanteau pending) we’ve seen Gareth Pugh’s immersive live performance show (amazing), Polo Ralph Lauren’s 40-foot holographic preppies (terrifying) and a London Fashion Week welcome speech beamed straight from Google’s Mountain View offices (no comment). Standing apart from the commotion, in a single room, with a singular exhibition, Simon Costin is also wondering about the future of the fashion show. In fact, this wondering is the show.

Impossible Catwalk Shows is Simon Costin’s new exhibition at LCF’s Fashion Space Gallery. In it, the art director and set designer – renowned for his work with Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen – shows us new work that questions what a fashion show can be. Taking his cues from current debates without foregoing the fantastical aesthetic that is his signature, the exhibition is a stage for Costin’s real and imagined show spaces. A ‘three-dimensional moodboard’, it asks more questions than it answers: what if we presented clothes inside an abandoned nuclear power plant? What if garments were spray-painted onto the façades of buildings? In a climate of digital disruption, the spirit of folk that runs through Costin’s work translates as true (re)imagination. Indeed, it is Costin’s role as founder of the Museum of British Folklore, and the archives therein, that inspired Gareth Pugh’s ground-breaking SS15 show in New York this week; the exhibition room is privy to the original, iconoclastic moodboards, a mingling of Costin’s archives with Pugh’s overarching vision. A dome structure, within which the viewer peers through lenticular lenses at deconstructed garments, perhaps sums up Costin’s philosophy best: look closer, and look longer.

We spoke to Costin about his folkloric stance on fashion; in turn, he reveals the Brit village traditions that informed Pugh’s collection, why he believes fashion week should be more inclusive, and the backstage story behind his infamous work on the SS98 McQueen show formerly known as ‘Golden Shower’…

Your new show is more about imagined catwalk shows than it is about real ones. How did you arrive at the idea for the exhibition?

Simon Costin: What I wanted to present was a three-dimensional sketchbook. It’s all about ideas, there's nothing definitive or finished. It leaves you hopefully with more questions than it answers. I've worked on fashion film with people like Ruth Hogben and Gareth Pugh, and there's been a lot of debate about how catwalks could be re-imagined. That was the starting point really – thinking how fashion presentation could be other than it is currently. To be honest, I took that and went slightly crazy with it!

There seems to be a trend in exhibitions of showing the creative process that comes before the art, as well as (or instead of) the final product. Do you appreciate this shift towards the 'pre-'?

Simon Costin: Not necessarily with museums, but certainly with galleries. This particular exhibition is really only about process – there is no finished show. There aren't any garments, but only the environment that collections could be shown in. For instance, the idea of a disused nuclear power station where a collection would be shown as it slowly decays. You could arrest the decay of the garments at any given point. Or, what would happen if you were to show a collection in a sanitorium, where the collection is actually created in front of you? They're all hypothetical and some of them are completely mad. I'm not trying to say that this is how I'd do a show if I had unlimited resources. They’re open-ended suggestions, really. But there's a process. Within museums it's difficult, as they are usually about things that are static. The process has happened.

Some of your most notable work of recent years has been in your ongoing collaboration with Gareth Pugh. What was your involvement in the SS15 show?

Simon Costin: I didn't work on the New York show directly. Instead, Gareth wanted to reference British folklore through the clothing, and I'm currently establishing Britain's first museum of folklore. I was able to draw on my archival images for the creation of the collection. The actual staging of the show – that was all Gareth's baby.

Could you tell me more about that link – between Gareth's collection and the folklore archives?

Simon Costin: He was interested in the shapes and forms that some of the costumes took, or take. For instance, the Padstow MayDay 'Obby 'Oss. Gareth did his own version of the mask that is worn in that festival. And there's the Minehead 'Obby 'Oss, recreated in the film – but the Gareth Pugh version. There's the costume that's worn by the Earl of Rone [in Combe Martin’s annual custom]. He also referenced the Tatter jackets that are worn by Morris dancers. In terms of folklore it's very much about the form, and shape of things – the construction of garments.

You’ve worked on Gareth’s shows and in the fashion world more generally over a period of massive technological change. Is there a contrast there – between this digital impetus and your interest in British folklore? How well do they sit with one another?

Simon Costin: The thing a lot of people don't understand about folklore, is that whenever you say that word they tend to think of it as something historic. Whereas folklore actually means things that people are doing to express something that is fundamental to them. You know, the way when a cyclist is killed they will chain a ghost bike to the railings – that is folklore, but it's contemporary. People who cover their houses at Christmas with hundreds of Christmas tree lights – that's folklore. So it's folklore and the modern – they go hand in hand. There isn't a conflict for me, because both things are about the moment, and what's happening now.

So the focus is on objects, and the creation of objects?

Simon Costin: Well, experience really. There are some objects, but a lot of folklore is to do with something that people participate in, or do collectively. Like the Notting Hill Carnival is a folk custom now. Things that people do.

“But in terms of compromising your creativity, budget doesn't or shouldn't matter. If you're a half-decent designer you should be able to work with whatever you're given, really.” – Simon Costin

In creating something, there are always constraints – of time, money. Do you find working within limitations fruitful?

Simon Costin: Working with Gareth, who doesn't have a huge budget, does make you think more creatively. For instance, years ago, for one of Gareth’s early shows, we did a show with an inflatable catwalk. This was literally an enormous roll of silk with a fan down one end. And it looked great! It was just this billowing cloud of fabric that the models then had to navigate. So, in terms of creativity, budget doesn't necessarily cramp you too much. For me, obviously I love it when I have a huge budget to work with, because you can do so many more things! But in terms of compromising your creativity, budget doesn't or shouldn't matter. If you're a half-decent designer you should be able to work with whatever you're given, really. It's lovely when someone chucks a lot of money at you, but that doesn't happen very often!

Thanks to technology, there’s scope now for fashion shows to be open to all. Your work creates fantasies, however. Would you perceive a risk in harming the fantastical elements of your vision, the more inclusive fashion shows become?

Simon Costin: I'm all for shows being more inclusive, to be honest. The more that people can see them, and be inspired by them, the better. It depends on what you're trying to achieve, though. Do you want as many people as possible to see this show? Do you want it to be experienced by lots of people? If so, then how do you do that? Do you produce something like Gareth did this time? Personally, I'm much more interested in as many people as possible being able to tap in to what you're trying to create. That whole thing of exclusivity is so tired now. It's lovely if you're invited and you're there in that moment, but those moments can be conceived of in different ways.

If one of your show sets was nominated to become part of the permanent collection of a museum, which would you choose?

Simon Costin: Probably the 'Untitled' show for Lee [McQueen] I did back in 97. I just so enjoyed doing that show. And the way that Lee gave me a 10 minute break during the middle of the presentation where there weren't any clothes on the runway. And we pumped black ink into the tanks of water. For that moment, the catwalk itself became a piece of immersive artwork. It was purely people experiencing something that was set up in that environment. So it was a piece of installation art, really – which was always the intention. That was an early form of questioning what fashion shows are about. Because, for a time, it wasn't really a fashion show anymore. I've got some unseen footage from the time that we're screening, at the exhibition. It's Katy England walking – there’s no catwalk set up, but we were testing the rain machine. So Katy's walking up and down getting soaking wet. That film clip is about setting up the show and what went into it – again, it’s all about process.

Simon Costin’s Impossibe Catwalk Shows runs 12 September - 13 December at London College of Fashion’s Fashion Space Gallery.