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Backstage at Gareth Pugh SS17
Backstage at Gareth Pugh SS17Photography Anabel Navarro

Gareth Pugh explores sun gods, power, and corruption

After working on costumes for the opera Eliogabalo, Pugh’s dark vision turns to the dangerous nature of megalomania

As a designer, Gareth Pugh isn’t particularly preoccupied with realism. His clothes are fantasy – or a delicious nightmare – and in his universe, the darkly theatrical holds dominion. But his work always delivers a very relevant commentary on the reality of the world we live in. Last night, he connected the dots between imperial Rome and the current political climate via the costumes he’s been working on for Francesco Cavalli’s 1667 opera Eliogabalo about the eponymous degenerate 3rd-century child emperor and self-proclaimed sun god.

“We felt the story of the opera was very relevant in a lot of ways. How it talks about how power corrupts and how greed can just become a monster. There’s this whole Trump thing going on and it’s kind of interesting to think of this emperor who was a child tyrant. He was kind of salacious, he was loud, he was garish, everybody hated him, he was kind of a carnival emperor,” Pugh said after the show, noting how Eliogabalo in a way unifies the audience in the end because everyone can love to hate him.  

“(The Opera) talks about how power corrupts and how greed can just become a monster. There’s this whole Trump thing going on and it’s kind of interesting to think of this emperor who was a child tyrant” – Gareth Pugh

The observation on the misuse of power and on the fine line between deity and demon was also a natural progression from Pugh’s AW16 show and its man-eaters in hyper-luxurious 40s tailoring and Hannibal Lecter masks, which celebrated female strength and power but also seemingly posed the question: When does power become dangerous? In the case of Trump, it’s a pertinent issue, and the thought of his finger hovering over the nuclear weapons button is only one of many potentially terrifying scenarios.

“An empire eating itself”, the show notes said, and backstage Pugh spoke of the storm clouds we are currently living under. There are plenty of things that metaphor could apply to, not least environmental destruction, extreme consumption and the banking world. The relationship between power, greed and money was explored in sculptural high priestess silhouettes covered in armour-like gold bullion that formed mosaics of the chaos symbol, which shattered into jagged pieces on the next succession of looks.

24 hours earlier, Pugh had been in Paris for the opening night of Eligabalo directed by Thomas Jolly at the Palais Garnier, and the opera’s statuesque, streamlined Tudor silhouettes and standing collars echoed in the SS17 collection. With the show’s idea of the gilded, self-anointed sun god on earth and the halos that came extended from the coats, you also couldn’t help but think of all the self-glorification, wealth flashing, filtered selfies and image management that’s all over social media today. “Look at ME, aren’t I special?”

But the overriding message was one of optimism, as rays of light burst through the dark clouds and the severe opulence and chaos symbolism – complete with black, smudged lips and hair like hardened molten rock scorched from flying precariously close to the sun – gave way to a sleek softness and Op Art-like sunburst motifs. “The sun can be birth and the beginning of something. Or it can mean an explosion or a destruction. So for me it’s that duality that’s interesting,” Pugh noted. The Matthew Stone t-shirt he was wearing supported the first notion, and read “Optimism as creative rebellion”.

Ultimately, the crossover between Pugh’s different projects made for a multi-layered collection. “There’s a lot of connectivity this season,” Pugh said, noting how the oversize standing collars that became like walking thrones linked to his menacing faceless Sycorax on her spiked halo throne for the Selfridges Shakespeare windows. “It’s very odd that things within something as disparate as opera and fashion and politics could have such a synergy,” he said. Odd, perhaps, but definitely beautiful and meaningful.