An oral history of Gareth Pugh, 'the Fellini of fashion'
Ahead of the brand’s return this month, Michèle Lamy, Lulu Kennedy, Andrew Bolton and more discuss the living history and legacy of one of London’s most important fashion figures.
Gareth Pugh AW15. Photo by Rune Hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images
If the Central Saint Martins BA show is to be thought of as fashion’s debutante ball, the bar for how to make an entrance was set by Gareth Pugh. “When he came out of nowhere with that striped red gobstopper piece, it felt like a much-needed punch in the face,” says Lulu Kennedy, the founder of London-based talent incubator Fashion East. “I think he really decimated the messaging around this obsession with luxury at the time. It felt very punk, but still modern. He just really twisted people's minds.”
That was the summer of 2003, and at no point over the years that have passed since has he stopped doing just that. Whether through the clothes themselves -- impossibly sensuous, and almost cruel in their dramatic sensibility -- or the ways he’s chosen to present them, he has time and again demonstrated a diamond-rare knack for staging acts of rapture -- transporting his audiences from their worlds to ones entirely of his own making.
Indeed, the term ‘world-maker’ offers an accurate framework for discussing Gareth’s creative output. “To call him a fashion designer misses the point,” argues Mandi Lennard, his former PR. “He is so spatially aware, he explores the spaces around the body, and for that reason, he is an architect and sculptor, but foremost an artist.”
Even so, it’s important to recognise the significance of his contribution to fashion -- most notably his role in opening up an avenue of creative potential that the industry at large has only just started to grapple with. “He was the first person who really championed fashion film,” says Katie Shillingford, the stylist Gareth has worked with since his first Fashion East show. “It's crazy to think that he was doing that ten years ago, and only now are people starting to think that they could do that instead of shows.” Indeed, so exhaustive and accomplished is Gareth’s working relationship with film that museum curator Andrew Bolton deems him “the Fellini of fashion”.
The calibre of his work for the screen is matched by that which he’s created for the stage, collaborating with world-leading institutions like the Royal Ballet and the Opéra Garnier, as well as the most singular pop performers of our time, Cardi B, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé and Solange among them. “By his own admission, he dresses queens,” concurs Sophie Jewes, his current PR. “He's not interested in anything that might dilute a collection.”
Each of his shows, whether in London, Paris or New York, has been a testament to the concentration of his vision. His last runway appearance was in late 2018 -- it was a toast to the late Judy Blame, a friend and mentor, and to “outsider society . . . London as a cradle of creative extremism,” the show notes read. Given that he’s perhaps the most faithful ambassador for the riotous talent that crawls out of this crib, it would have made for a fitting swansong.
But it wasn’t. After a two year hiatus, during which he’s been focusing on Hard+Shiny -- the creative studio he founded in 2018 with his husband and longstanding collaborator Carson McColl -- his eponymous brand will be making its much-anticipated industry return later this month. Ahead of then, we asked nine of his closest friends, collaborators and admirers to discuss the living history and legacy of Gareth Pugh.
Lulu Kennedy, founder of Fashion East: “The first Fashion East show we did with Gareth was Valentine's Night in 2005. I'd chosen this amazing venue near London Bridge in these underground arches. It was him, Richard Nicoll, and a film and display by the jeweller Husam El Odeh. For Gareth's show, the audience were standing around quite a high black stage with a really strong beam spotlight, and the runway was only a few metres. It honestly felt like an amazing underground concert in Berlin. For the final look, the model had to come out in the pitch-dark and get up onto a box with a concealed motorised fan under it. We whacked the switch on, and this deflated parachute thing blew up into this huge balloon. Everyone was screaming and cheering -- I was just holding my breath, thinking ‘Oh my god, if someone falls off that bloody stage…’ but no one did, fortunately. People were just in such a tizz about Gareth after that. It was 12 looks and you couldn't buy any of it -- but that really wasn't the point. Instead of being one of these kids out of college trying to emulate a luxury brand, he completely went against the grain."
Mandi Lennard, founder of Mandi’s Basement: “There are too many highlights to mention with Gareth, but it was pretty explosive when his illuminated finale piece came out at his SS06 show as part of Fashion East at the Electric Ballroom in Camden.”
Lulu: “We flew in Casey Spooner from Ibiza for that -- and he had to sign a disclaimer to say that if we electrocuted him, he wouldn't sue us! Someone had to literally plug him in because the battery pack wouldn't work. It was pretty wild -- literally electrifying. For me, that was a really crucial Gareth moment; it was something you'd never seen before, really daring -- it took you somewhere else.”
Andrew Bolton, The Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: “I’ve been following Gareth’s work since his first official runway collection for AW06. I wasn’t present at the show, unfortunately, but I remember seeing images on style.com -- it was like a gothic carnival … Kinky Gerlinky meets the Commedia dell’arte.”
Michèle Lamy, co-founder of OWENSCORP: “The first show of his I went to was SS07, in the V&A courtyard when the fashion week tent was there. He’d done the over-pieces, but he had no under-pieces, so I was helping him by buying those S&M latex gimp suits from China for him.”
Sophie Jewes, founder of RAVEN: “That’s the show that always sticks in my mind, with all the checkerboard vinyl details, gimp masks and armbands. I would've been 19 at the time, I don't know where I was or how I ingested it, but it just felt really vital and compelling. It just felt like there was a sense of possibility in the clothes that was quite unique to him, and remains so.”
Michèle: “He said a lot in that show, when the model was like a puppet or a toy. It was mesmerising. The runway was a little high, and there was one model missing -- what had happened is that she had fallen between where the people were sitting and the runway, and nobody had seen! I'm not just telling these stories just because I want to, though, I think there's this element of performance art and performing that is very Gareth. And it was already going towards film, too. There was a childishness and also a punky, fuck-you grit, but done in such an elegant way. To me, Gareth is the one who can see a trash can, you give it to him, and it becomes a beautiful dress.”
Andrew: “He has an extraordinary, multifaceted imagination that knows no bounds. He sees fashion as a vehicle for his creative expression and is not defined or confined by its medium.”
Mandi: “And when he comes up with a concept, it looks like it’s been considered for months. He’s incredibly polished. Even in those penniless early days, the execution was total couture levels.”
Wayne McGregor, Artistic Director of Studio Wayne McGregor and Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet: “One of Gareth's brilliant gifts, I think, is how he encourages you to go along on the journey with him. He gets a load of amazing creative people to work towards his vision, which is very singular, very particular. He's uncompromising, unwavering. And I don't mean that in an aggressive sense.”
Ruth Hogben, image maker and creative: “He really lets you into his world, and really makes you understand where he's coming from. He's very good at involving you, making you feel like you're a part of that story, too. Our meetings would go on for hours, sitting there, going round in circles talking about references and laughing lots, but there were never any inhibitions.”
Valerie Steele, Director and Chief Curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York: “You know, most designers try to figure out what trends are happening, thinking about how they can adapt their style to them. But he has this very clear, somewhat club-oriented, dark-but-futuristic vision. People talk about Leigh Bowery, and yes I can see a little bit of that, but Leigh also influenced Alexander McQueen, Galliano -- anyone who did anything that was kind of 'twisted club' and fetishy in that way. But Gareth's work wasn't copying that. It was in the same family, just as it was in the same family as Rick Owens, for example, but it wasn't a father-son, him-being-influenced-by-this-or-that relationship.”
Sophie: “What I later came to feel about his work as it progressed was that it was the most perfect encapsulation of clothes you'd want to wear in your dream life. If I could live on an alien planet, I'd want to wear those incredible gowns. But that's not actually how I felt about those earlier shows on first seeing them. I wasn't compelled to wear armbands and a gimp mask. It wasn't about that -- it just felt like there was a sense of possibility in the clothes that was so unique to him, and that remains so.”
Michèle: “When he won the ANDAM award in 2008, he then went to show in Paris. I think it was a good change, because he was so brilliant in London, but it seemed like it wasn't going further than there. This is where all the creative people are, but there are rules, and the stage is over there in Paris.”
Valerie: “I think he got more play when he was there, even though he was a small player. That was the biggest venue for showing advanced, artistic fashion.”
Katie Shillingford, Fashion Director of AnOther Magazine: “That first Paris show, SS09, was a big defining moment. I think that it’s one of my favourite collections of Gareth’s, I've got to say. It was the perfect mix of what he does best, but in a semi-commercial way. I think that was when his commercial staples were really brought in -- the leggings and the bodysuits, all these things that you'd just want to have as part of your wardrobe. It was all white on the front and black on the back -- I remember that one of the models backstage initially put on some of the trousers the wrong way round, which would have completely ruined the show!”
Michèle: “He was on the calendar and everything, and he had some great shows. They were more 'polite', you could say -- perhaps it wasn't seen as being as kickass or punky as it was in London. But every show I've been to of his, for me, it's like the beginning of a movie, and then another show is like another one.”
Ruth: “The first project we collaborated on was for the next season, AW09, when we showed a film instead of a runway show. I remember showing him the final cut an hour before we were going live. It was so early on, and it was pretty fast and furious -- I had maybe ten days to edit it in -- but for some reason I felt like I had a long time to really push it and experiment. I did some really unusual things looking back on it -- cutting off heads, for example. Looking at Gareth's clothes, you can't mistake those hard lines that you have, so I always wanted to try and push that past what the eye can see.”
Katie: “The film that stands out most in my mind is the one we did with Kristen McMenamy for SS11. It was such a huge deal to work with such an iconic supermodel, it was always a big dream of ours -- just as going to Paris and doing a big show was -- it felt like such a defining moment. To work with a model who holds so much power in their performance was so incredible, and I think that to work on a great fashion film, you really need that kind of a presence.”
Ruth: “He did leather pieces that season, with nails coming through that were perfectly spaced -- almost with the same sort of symmetry as an artificially planted forest when you drive past it. I don't think I necessarily had the technique to light them or the time to give them enough attention as I should have in that film, but they were just such beautiful pieces made of such violent material, almost like a shield. On its own, a nail is very punk and quite aggressive, but when you saw them in motion, it was so beautiful -- they moved almost like a snake’s scales.”
Valerie: “I was just rewatching the film he did for SS18 with Nick Knight and Olivier de Sagazan the other night, and it was almost hard to watch -- it was so grotesque and nightmarish, and you're like, 'Oh my gosh, where did you guys go into your deep deep nightmares to come up with these images?!’
“He's done more interesting things with film than almost any other designer I can think of, despite having a minuscule budget for most of them, compared with these big companies that do films, which, most of the time, are so terrible. I wouldn't be surprised if, like Tom Ford, Gareth could really do a feature film. That sensibility is there -- it wouldn't be a Hollywood blockbuster, but it could be something really powerful and freeing. A movie like Crash, or something."
Andrew: “One of fashion’s defining characteristics (if not the defining characteristic) is its performativity, and Gareth understands that better than most other designers. He exploits the dramaturgical possibilities of fashion for transportive and transformative ends.”
Katie: “A lot of that came from him being part of the National Youth Theatre when he was younger. He was always talking about what they did there, and ideas that he'd like to bring into shows.”
Mandi: “He performed a lot before he started his label, too. His early !WOWOW! crew put on incredible events that blew your mind. There was a film of him performing as Liza Minnelli played on a loop when Comme des Garçons had their guerilla store in Glasgow years ago.”
Wayne: “One of the things I'm obviously interested in is bodies, by which I mean this idea of reconstituting bodies. How do you rearticulate what a body is? I think that because Gareth's work operates in this liminal state between wearable things and architecture, it really challenges the eye to create a different hierarchy of the body. When we did a film called MOVEment with Ruth, he said, "I'm going to do something with straws." They were these huge suits with thousands and thousands of straws hand sewn onto these garments that completely occluded the body. ‘How's that gonna work with dancers?’ I thought. They put them on and they looked like abominable snowmen! You couldn't see their faces and they're like, ‘Well, how are we going to move?’ And then, of course, you realised that the residual energy and effort of these straws created such amazing choreographic opportunities -- all of a sudden you saw pure form, you just saw energy.”
Ruth: “Those pieces were literally designed to be danced in, and that definitely posed a challenge for me. They were really big, and we had quite a sparse set, so there was nothing to contrast the size. It was so different to seeing a woman’s silhouette, or the fluidity of the bottom half of a dress with rigidity of the top part. I wish that I had seen that creation before we were in the studio, because this thing was so much bigger than I expected.”
Katie: “The element of movement has always been so central to what he does. Even when we were in the studio, he'd be like, ‘Oh, I've just made this piece, let me show you,’ and he'd put it on and do something -- not a dance, but he'd move in a certain way. It's always been important for him to see how the body moves when wearing something. What the body could do to change the shape of something, and how it then reacts to that. It all goes hand in hand -- it's not even something that he really thinks about, it's just part of him and his process.”
Wayne: “He used to dance a lot, too, so the body has always been very central to his practice. The first project I asked him to work on was Carbon Life, a collaboration with Mark Ronson, Boy George, all these amazing pop stars, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. It was his first time doing stage pieces. But I didn't want him just to do costumes, so I asked him to do the whole visual language of the whole show: the scenography, and all the stage and set design. He made this opaque screen through which you could just about see the dancers behind, like flickering flies. And there were these very graphic, very bold visuals in which the idea of a body kind of morphed and changed throughout the piece. It really pushed that organisation to think about dancing in a different way, and presenting ballet, particularly in a lyric opera house, in a different way.”
Valerie: “I went to Paris when he did the costumes for Eliogabolo at the Palais Garnier. That was great, because there’s been a movement, particularly in Baroque operas that have countertenors, to do really directional, cyborgian costumes that mixes some of the excess of the Baroque with some kind of futuristic excess. That's something that he was really perfect with.”
Wayne: “He worked with me on a ballet I created for the Opéra Garnier. He made these very Nijinsky-esque, individual print pieces which cut holes out of the dancers bodies. I would be composing these beautiful geometries and physical pictures, and then he would be pumping holes into them where I didn't expect, which was super interesting. It's really beautiful that his intervention can have a choreographic impact.
“I think that potential is a really big part of Gareth's work. Not only does he reimagine the body and what beauty is, but also all these potential other worlds that we’re missing. We're so homogenised, so blinkered, so obsessed with things that are like the things we’ve seen before, and Gareth just explodes all of that. I think that's why he's chosen to exhibit his clothes in films, or in live performative pieces, like we did at his show in New York where he wouldn't let anybody sit down.”
Sophie: "It was in what I think was a disused basketball court by the river downtown. It was enormous in its production value, it was this sort of multidisciplinary experience. There was an indoor tornado and a dance performance that happened around that, and there was this floor-to-ceiling film presentation that saw this model suspended -- it was terrifyingly beautiful, and the whole collection was very pagan-inspired. They'd built this whole series of Stonehenge-y screens facing into one another, with pixelated renderings of dancers performing in these hero looks. It was nuts, I've never seen anything like it since.
“He's got the mind of a film director more so than a fashion designer. His return to London show for AW15, for example, literally felt like you were on a film set. Just the use of the soundtrack, even, with the Sunderland football chant -- if you sat in a room listening to that and nothing else, you would feel like you're part of a cinematic experience."
Michèle: “On stage, on screen -- it's all the same for Gareth. You don't know where the clothes finish and the set begins! I think that’s why in the show world, he's had a huge impact -- you know, all the things he did with Lady Gaga and Christina Aguilera and things like that. Being associated with those people, he’s had such an impact in the creative world.”
Sophie: “That's been a very organic process, and I think particularly in the last two or three years, the pick up of really properly iconic fierce women like that has been a really interesting thing to see. I think of the Cardi B’s Money video -- it's just irrefutably timeless. And I still don't think there are other designers that can exist within those worlds quite as compellingly.
“Gareth offers a decisive, clear aesthetic vision that is immovable in its intent. And still, when he proposes new work, it has the ability to surprise, shock, delight and more. There just isn't a question mark against anything, and I think the fashion industry will always be a more delightful, unexpected, interesting place with him in it.”
Katie: I think he can bring a lot of hope. I continue to be inspired by him and the ways that he thinks. I think that what he will be presenting or doing in September will be so far ahead of anyone else, and I hope that people look to him as an example of how to do things differently and have the courage to be different and champion new ideas, new ways of thinking, new aesthetics, and to not be so set in our ways and processes.”
Sophie: "Among younger designers, there's a lot of discourse right now about how they can present their work within the limitations that are put in front of them. But regardless of the limitations of not being able to do a physical show and having to do something digital, for example, the truer reality is access to resources, money. And Gareth was able to navigate a lack of money during his !WOWOW! days in a more compelling way than I've ever seen an example of, making magic out of fucking nothing!"
Lulu: “It just shows you that opening a shop on Mount Street isn't the only way to be successful. There are ways of doing things differently, and if you're bold in your convictions, people will pick up on you. Lady Gaga will find you and you'll be dressing her. I think he exemplifies that slightly punk spirit of 'build it and they will come', not trying to appease or get validation from the existing system. Gareth is a pioneer, and I think his work’s needed at the moment. It's a really critical moment for London to make some noise, and he’s definitely going to do that as always."
Andrew: We need Gareth’s vision now more than ever. Fashion needs his courage.”
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.