PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEAN BAPTISTE MONDINO
GARETH & CO......AND THAT'S ME HANGING FROM THE CEILING....!
A Call to Armor
NOTHING TO WEAR TO THE APOCALYPSE? ENTER GARETH PUGH,
DARLING OF THE AVANT-GARDE.
TEXT BY JERRY STAFFORD
On a gray October morning, the pedestrian traffic on Dalston High Street in East London braces itself against the cold, turning its collective collar up against the chill of winter and the imminent threat of global recession. Down a windswept alley, opening onto a bleak industrial estate, the designer Gareth Pugh is being photographed against the hard, empty sky. Wrapped in a black wool coat with vinyl appliqué like medieval stained glass, Pugh, who has the consumptive pallor and angular features of a cursed fin de siècle poet, looks like the love child of Antonin Artaud and the Marchesa Casati. He smiles reassuringly at his companion, the makeup artist Alex Box, a dead ringer for the actress Elsa Lanchester, in a leather coat wickedly decked with what look like albino rats. ‘‘People want fairy tales, things that make them feel better,’’ Pugh whispers. ‘‘Crisis breeds creativity!’’
Indeed, over the past four years and eight shows of breathtaking daring and originality — inflatable catwalks, exploding weather balloons, strobe lights and streams of black ribbons, models transformed into futuristic warriors of indeterminate sex in latex, plastic, rubber, foil and safety pins — the 27-year-old designer has emerged as the defender of fashion’s avant-garde.
As a teenager growing up in Sunderland in northeast England, Pugh would make his own clothes on his mother’s sewing machine and take day trips to London on the train. ‘‘I would change into my outfit and then go down Bond Street or Sloane Street pretending to be shopping for my very wealthy mother, who did not have the time!’’ he recalls. At the age of 14, he worked as a costume designer for the National Youth Theater, eventually getting a degree in fashion from Central Saint Martins. ‘‘It was completely different from where I lived,’’ he says of London. ‘‘People don’t make a fuss about what somebody else looks like. It was nice to be able to prance around in these ridiculous outfits.’’
These ridiculous outfits and more made their first runway outings at the notorious weekly nightclub Kash Point. Katie Shillingford, the fashion editor of Dazed and Confused and Pugh’s stylist, was one of his early partners in crime. ‘‘The first show I worked on he restaged his degree collection in Kash Point,’’ she recalls. ‘‘I didn’t know I was going to be a stylist or even what the role of a stylist was, but I helped out and we all modeled.’’
Last June, Pugh won the Andam (Association Nationale Pour le Développement des Arts de la Mode) fashion award; the 150,000 euro prize (about $212,000) enabled him to show in Paris. The collection he presented there in October was his most masterful to date. Immense scroll-like ruffs both softened and protected the body, which was layered with articulated armor and intricate marquetry. Pugh describes it as ‘‘a softer, more feminine, prettier silhouette that morphs into a modern warrior.’’
Pugh’s close friend, the stylist Nicola Formichetti, sees ‘‘his total lack of fear in terms of designing’’ as one of his greatest strengths. ‘‘His collections are not designed with a customer in mind, and none of his uncompromising vision is diluted to sell his clothes and become rich.’’ Formichetti adds, ‘‘There are people all over the world who are dying to be able to wear Gareth’s pieces, and I’m sure in time, he will adapt to that and start making more wearable looks"
Pugh seems ready. He recently started Hard and Shiny, a business collaboration with Michèle Lamy, the swashbuckling, gold-toothed partner of the Paris-based American designer Rick Owens. Lamy oversees the production of Pugh’s commercial collection at the factory in Italy that turns out Owens’s designs. ‘‘Rick and Michèle are quite lenient with me,’’ he says. ‘‘They trust my vision. They don’t force me to do a pair of jeans, a shirt and a plain jacket.’’
Pugh now spends much of the year in Concordia, a small town outside Bologna. There is little in the way of night life to be found there — unless you count MTV Italia — but he is able to work with a full-time pattern cutter and atelier on technical aspects of production, which he was previously unable to do on his own. ‘‘There are certain things on the technical side, the finishing, the lining, the bits that you don’t see, which are not necessarily my strongest point,’’ Pugh says. ‘‘When I design things, especially for a collection, I try and tell a story, but it is more an aesthetic story. It is not like I’m trying to change the world.’’
Not so fast, Gareth. When he was first starting out, Pugh used to do a lot of things with garbage bags, championing the idea of making cheap materials look beautiful and luxurious. At the time, using cheap materials wasn’t so much a choice but a necessity. But you get the cheap materials look beautiful and luxurious. At the time, using cheap materials wasn’t so much a choice but a necessity. But you get the feeling that if he had to go back and do it again, he would be fine. ‘‘If you have to make a big, lightweight knit cardigan, use garbage bags!’’ Pugh now says with Vreelandesque verve. ‘‘Ten rolls of pound-shop bin bags, and the whole thing costs a tenner!’’