10 questions you always wanted to ask a... set designer

At the top of the game, Gary Card knows what it takes to make it. From coping with hard-to-please designers, to pitching crazy ideas and pulling them off -- this is what you need to know.

by Steve Salter
27 September 2017, 10:07am

Image via Instagram

"Fashion sets can take anywhere from three days to six months to execute, at times involving hundreds of craftsmen, all to create twelve minutes of magic which, at its finest, can make the fashion experience come alive," Federico Poletti explained in the introduction to The Fashion Set: The Art of the Fashion Show. Whether they are carefully crafted worlds or reimagined spaces as catwalks, the set so often brings the fantastical and the otherworldly into the foreground. Though it can often go unsung and lasts only a short while, the work of a set designer can be just as transportive as the collections they frame, even more so in some instances. Designer, illustrator, artist and sculptor Gary Card happens to be the go-to guy for set design in London and beyond. Working with everyone from Lady Gaga to Lanvin and Comme Des Garçons to Charles Jeffrey, he sprinkles life, personality, energy and eccentricities to any blank canvas or white-walled room. If you want giant colourful sculptures, fictional characters realised and imaginary landscapes to lose yourself in, Card is your man.

As the Golborne Gallery invites us deeper inside the colourful chaos of his mind with Gary's first standalone exhibition -- Happy Breakfast -- and fresh from angering Alex Jones, the host of alt-right radio and InfoWars, with his church makeover for Dilara Findikoglu's cast of imagined believers, rebels, thinkers, politicians, religious leaders, royals and gods, we caught up with Card in between spring/summer 18 shows to ask him ten questions.

What drove you to become a set designer?
It's weird really, there was no epiphany, I was quite a reluctant set designer at first, even though I studied set design for theatre at university. After graduating I swore to myself I would never do it again. I imagined I would be more suited to illustration than anything else and became a graphic designer for a couple of years after uni, but there was something about the physicality of making that kept bringing me back to it. I'd make masks and props for photographer friends, suddenly before I knew what was happening I'd accidentally become a set designer. I never really looked up to other set designers when I was starting as I honestly didn't know it was an actual job. I just made it up as I went along, my inspirations were sculptors and artists, Paul McCarthy was my hero, when I started I wanted all of my work to look like his film installations, come to think of it not much has changed.

What was the first set you ever created and how do you feel about it now?
The first fashion shoot I worked on was kind of a set design/costume hybrid. I made these crazy Basquiat-style robot girls with my old mate Jacob Sutton. When we were starting out, me and Jake would sit in a pub with a pen and paper coming up with ridiculous ideas for shoots, then go from magazine to magazine trying to find people to commission them. Sometimes it actually worked. This one did not, but we loved the idea so much we made it anyway. Not sure if this is really cool or really tragic but I still love it, if I made them now I'd be very happy with the project.

Could you tell us about the craziest brief you've ever received?
Every job is crazy in its own way, one of my favourites was a neon jungle/strip joint maze I made for a Sophia Webster presentation. What was great is that she was totally willing to go as full-on as conceivably possible and gave us the funds to pull it off. I'm currently working on a show with a floating car, complete with floating collection. That's pretty crazy.

What's the weirdest/funniest thing you've ever overheard during fashion week?
A few years ago I was making a fashion week installation for Matches. They needed press shots of their designers in front of the thing I was building, so Julien Macdonald gets out of his car, looks at my installation -- a 25-foot pair of hands holding a flaming heart -- then looks at me and says, "I've come all this way to stand in front of this tat?" Rude!

Photography Tim Walker. Styling Jack Appleyard and Gareth Wrighton.

What's the longest time you've spent on working on a set -- from the initial brief through to the production?
We rarely get more than two weeks on a show, by the time we've seen the collection and the designer has come up with a theme for us we usually have about 10 days. The Roksanda shows tended to have more time because I've worked with her for so many seasons I became quite good at anticipating what she wanted, so we could get started before a fixed theme was decided on.

Do you sometimes wish your fashion sets could be appreciated for more than just the show time?
All the time yes, it can be sad when you've worked so hard on executing an idea from a sketch to a full working show, only for it to be destroyed half an hour later, it seems like such a terrible waste, sadly that's the job. Fifteen minutes of glory, then mercilessly chucked on a skip. We try and do lots with the Lover Boy set after the shows as they are so cool and usually pretty light. The last one became this really cool DJ booth for a party in Copenhagen at BIF.

Have you ever looked back on a set and regretted creating it or wished it had been different somehow?
There isn't anything I've wished I hadn't done but I think all us designers look at a set and think about what we'd change if we'd had more money or if the venue had allowed us to do more… yada yada. There isn't a job I've worked on that I've thought, "that's complete, that's perfect" -- we're never happy and that's great. That's what keeps you going, always growing, always learning. I've had a couple of heartbreaking moments when I'll be really excited to finally unveil the set to the fashion designer I'm working with and they just stare at it blankly and walk off, not mentioning names.

What would you say is the show/season that has affected you most?
Three seasons ago we did four shows in four days, all different scales and wildly varying designers. It almost killed me but it was a fantastic feeling to know we could pull it off. Since then, I've been a bit more cautious about how many shows we take on at once. It's great to test your limitations, but at the same time it's important to give each job the attention it needs.

Did you see that Dilara's show annoyed alt-right agitator Alex Jones? How does that make you feel and what would you say in reply?
I actually thought it was brilliant, it's great to think that the world we made was so authentic that these maniacs thought it was actually real, the most hilarious thing for me is how they broke the show down, analysing the symbolism, comparing it to original masonic paintings, ummm, yeah dude, it looks the same because we based it on those references, duh! The idea that we are in league with some satanic cult because we riffed off the same imagery is ludicrous. By that logic Steven Spielberg actually befriended a little glowing-fingered alien, has a robot son and hangs out with dinosaurs. What would I say in reply? I'm delighted that you think it's that real, thanks for the laughs. Read the comments too, they don't disappoint.

Finally, What advice would you give the next generation daydreaming about following in your footsteps?
I say it all the time but it's true... chuck yourself into every opportunity with enthusiasm and optimism, no matter what the job is, you'll always get something out of it, even if it's a bad experience, and sometimes BECAUSE it was a bad experience. I've learnt way more from my disasters than I have from my successes, and if you didn't have any disasters you wouldn't have any stories. Also, budgets for shows don't always stretch as far as our imaginations do, so while you wait to work with that Prada money, keep making awesome stuff for exciting new talents with 50p.

Gary Card's Happy Breakfast runs until Sunday 1 October at Golborne Gallery.

fashion industry
10 Questions
Gary Card
set design