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Gareth Pugh and Nick Knight on the future of fashion

With the debut of a new film, the designer and photographer discuss their agenda-setting collaborations – and the importance of experimentation

When we speak to Gareth Pugh and Nick Knight, it is a few days prior to the premiere of an unorthodox, ambitious, and at the time top-secret project, slotted into London Fashion Week’s schedule where Pugh’s SS18 runway show might have taken place.

Unorthodoxy and ambition are two words that feel synonymous with the duo, evidenced in their work both as long-time collaborators and independent visionaries. As fashion film’s auteur, Knight founded the online platform SHOWstudio in 2000 as a place to respond to the changing digital landscape of the millennium, where documenting the process of creation was given equal importance to the final result. Pugh, the designer who rose to prominence in the mid-00s as part of !Wowow!, a group of London creatives akin to the Blitz Kids’ second coming, is similarly renowned – although rooted in fashion, his work often troubles the lines between art, costume, and performance.

Together, they have produced projects such as Cutting Edge, a 2009 SHOWstudio livestream where we saw Pugh painstakingly construct a couture gown over the course of three days. Formed from a slashed fine-stretch jersey, lending itself to a gothic buoyancy, the dress was then filmed in motion on a dancing Raquel Zimmermann. This latest project consists of a 16-minute film shot by Knight, choreographed by Wayne McGregor and showcasing the designer’s new collection – albeit in a dystopic, visually-overwhelming way. Featuring the artist Olivier de Sagazan, one scene sees him and Pugh mould their faces together with clay – but he and Knight aren’t giving too much away about its meanings.

Although this isn’t the first occasion Pugh has eschewed the catwalk in favour of an alternative presentation method, neither of the pair have ever worked to such a cinematic scale, with the BFI’s IMAX screen their chosen medium. Here, they discuss fashion’s future, alongside their shared past.

How did you first meet?

Nick Knight: I was doing a live broadcast called Bring & Buy on SHOWstudio over the period of three days. We invited lots of different stylists from various magazines and they all brought their crews with them. I think it was Nicola Formichetti that came along with Gareth – and Kylie Minogue’s backing dancers.

Gareth Pugh: That’s right. I was working with Kylie at the time, so Nicola and I thought we would bring all of her dancers to create a kind of architectural structure in the background of the shoot. The idea was to form a giant human throne, with helium canisters and balloons. It was fun.

Nick Knight: After that we just kept a relationship going, either working at SHOWstudio directly or with magazines. It’s hard to say this with Gareth on the phone, but he’s a very, very talented designer – and you don’t find many like him. From an image maker’s point of view, working with Gareth’s clothes is amazing because they’re beautiful to photograph and evocative of a whole range of things. You put somebody wearing Gareth in front of your camera, there’s so much of a narrative – and so much potential for new possibilities.

What made you want to reject the traditional runway format this season?

Gareth Pugh: I love the idea of being able to control what people take away. It’s very important to me that the work is seen in the right context and sometimes it’s super difficult to achieve that with a traditional show. With film, you’re able to create an immersive world where people can essentially lose themselves. Especially showing it somewhere like the IMAX – there’s potential to really get under people’s skin. I love the fact that the best seats at the IMAX are in the back row, rather than in the front row, too. Nobody’s got anything to look at other than the work. Sometimes the shows can be a lot about who’s there, and what people are wearing. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love the fashion week ‘circus’. I just think sometimes it’s necessary to bring it back to what’s important, which is ideas and creativity. So obviously that’s why I asked Nick to come on this journey with me.

What was the process of shooting a film for such a large screen?

Nick Knight: First of all, I had to find out from Gareth what he was communicating this season. As always with my work, it’s an exploration of a designer’s mind, trying to express what they are saying through clothes. A large part of the process is working out how your film will play out for the audience and how you can manipulate their mood. Fashion film is a medium that has only been around for 20 years now – and it’s really trying to define itself still; trying to work out what format it’s in, where is it shown, how long it is, etc. One thing that tends to be overlooked is sound, which is a huge part of film. It changes your mood so dramatically and I think it gets slightly missed out from fashion film. So we worked closely with a sound artist called Roly Porter, who was fantastic, and created something fitting for the biggest screen in the UK.

Can you tell us about the collection itself?

Gareth Pugh: We always try to do something that is incredibly strong and has a very definitive viewpoint. There is a lot of red this season because I love the idea of it being a signal – a warning, or a danger sign. It’s also the colour of blood. There are a lot of positive and negative connotations with red and I quite like that ambiguity. Knowing that we were going to present the collection in this way really freed us up in the studio, too. Had we done another catwalk, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve something so visually extreme.

Have you adhered to the fashion system in any way?

Gareth Pugh: When we’ve made films before with Ruth (Hogben), on the day of the shoot we had a side set-up where we’re able to just document the clothes. It needs to be done, because it’s how stylists call in clothes for shoots, so we did the same this season too. When we did the show for AW09, it was the first time we just totally took out the runway and replaced it with a film. There were a lot of heavily veiled white lies that we had to tell to the powers that be. In the end, with someone like Didier Grumbach supporting us, it was totally fine – he was into the idea of something new happening. I mean, we’re talking about the guy who added on a day to Paris Fashion Week in the 1980s so the likes of Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler could show. He started a whole new movement. I think, really, that people are very receptive to change. And especially working in fashion, people should be open to it, as well.

“Showing it somewhere like the IMAX – there’s potential to really get under people’s skin. I love the fact that the best seats are in the back row, rather than in the front row, too” – Gareth Pugh

Would you say that this project is a step towards fashion’s future?

Nick Knight: I think it’s commenting on how fashion wants to articulate itself. The moment a designer puts forward their collection, magazines pick up on it and it comes out three months later. So, by proxy, this is questioning what the role of a magazine is and how best to articulate your collection. Really, it is about looking towards the future – which as Gareth says, is what fashion is about. I think the advances in technology that have been around for the last 20 years are increasing the desire to change, with artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics all coming to the fore. It provides designers like Gareth endless opportunity for experimentation, which should be encouraged. I mean, if Photoshop had been around in the 1920s, Man Ray would have loved it. I don’t think we should be technology shy or be shy of trying new ways of presenting fashion. And, I think it’s really important that Gareth should be at the forefront of that.

What does the future hold for both of you?

Nick Knight: My future is that I will be marrying Gareth and Carson (McColl) on Saturday. I was honoured to be asked.

Gareth Pugh: Yes, it felt like the right end to such marathon-esque project; to invite Nick to be the officiator at our wedding. And I can’t quite believe he agreed. But in all honesty, my mind is totally moshed. I’m really not looking any further into the future than being on a boat after the show, married, with a large glass of wine in my hands. And then, perhaps, I can answer your question.