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Gareth Pugh AW16
Backstage at Gareth Pugh AW16Photography Chloé Le Drezen

Gareth Pugh’s man-eaters will have you for breakfast

With saintly halos, dominatrix collars and Hannibal Lecter masks, the designer stages a tribute to female strength and power

In London’s Freemasons’ Hall – an imposing art deco building where hexagrams are etched onto door frames and all-seeing eyes stare down from ceilings studded with glittering stars – the door marked ‘lavatories’ leads only to a large, distinctly male bathroom. With blue tiles and ceramic urinals standing in a neat row, it’s a fitting symbol of a space which has gender politics built into its very architecture, a secret society founded around historic ideas of fraternity – and one that once ruled women were to be excluded from its ranks forever.

As such, the Hall’s Grand Temple provided the perfect backdrop for Gareth Pugh’s AW16 show, an all guns blazing tribute to female strength and power. (Of course, it wasn’t the first time the designer has had fun with his locations like this – last season he commented on the destruction of Soho’s seediness with a runway in London Fashion Week’s shiny new Brewer Street home). With Prima Ballerina Marie-Agnès Gillot acting as a master of ceremonies, prowling down the catwalk to sit, flanked by two menservants, on an elaborate gold throne, models walked in clothes that took the concept of power dressing away from its dusty Thatcherite associations and pumped new blood into its veins.

“I know a lot of (strong) women and I both fear and love them. They’re the kind of women you really don’t want to cross...” – Gareth Pugh

Hair was woven into tight chignons and elastic thread stretched across faces to create razor sharp cheekbones as Pugh’s superwomen (styled by AnOther Magazine’s fashion director Katie Shillingford) wore angular bustier dresses, impeccably tailored skirt suits and US Election-ready star patterns – topped with saintly halos, dominatrix collars and even a few Hannibal Lecter masks. Despite military-style button fronted coats or Del Boy inspired shearling, there was no doubt that these women were feminine – fiercely so. “It’s that idea of a very masculine silhouette, but one that’s linked to old school, 1940s Hollywood glamour,” Pugh reflected. “We had a lot of Joan Crawford on the mood board!” For him, the collection was a tribute to women who haven’t been afraid to be aggressive or assertive in their drive to succeed in a male-dominated world. “I know a lot of those women and I both fear and love them,” he remarked. “They’re the kind of women you really don’t want to cross...”

Speaking of women you don’t want to cross, the soundtrack was an incredible reworking of Grace Jones’ “Corporate Cannibal”, where her acapella lyrics (“Pleased to meet you, pleased to have you on my plate… Corporate cannibal, eat you like an animal”) were stripped back and layered over beats by long-term Pugh collaborator Matthew Stone, creating an unnerving and truly brilliant accompaniment to the designer’s man-eaters. “It’s just perfect, she is Hannibal Lecter and she embodied everything that I wanted in the collection,” Pugh said of his choice. With black leather briefcases marked with ominous triangles, there was certainly something corporate at play, but look a bit closer and you could see that models had been handcuffed to the bags. A comment on how the creativity of fashion is shackled to a world still likely run by Freemason-style business fraternities, or just a hint of S&M? Perhaps it was both, but despite the ‘unwearable’ criticism that's previously been levelled at Pugh in the past, these were clothes that women would queue up to buy.