Sitting Down With Gareth Pugh
Before Gareth Pugh was Gareth Pugh, he was faced with a choice: to study sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art or enter the legendary fashion program at Central Saint Martins. As you know, Pugh chose fashion. But in the years since, the designer has made a routine of conflating art and fashion, to his own surreally idiosyncratic ends. Treating the catwalk as gallery space, he’s shown collections intended only to be seen, never sold. Experimenting with material and volume, Pugh crafted a catsuit out of balloons, plaster of Paris, and Saran Wrap, and wired a giant coat with tiny lights. He set up his first studio in the squat occupied by the members of the club-kid artists’ co-op !WOWOW!, and embarked on an ongoing collaboration with the filmmaker Ruth Hogben. Their latest video project, an installation of four films based on the elements fire, water, earth, and air, debuted last month at MAC & Milk during New York fashion week. The short provided what Pugh describes as a preview to the Spring 2010 collection he showed earlier today in Paris. Here, Pugh talks to Style.com about stealth bombers, brand strategy, and why the fast-fashion-eers should keep calling.
You’ve been cast as a fashion wunderkind pretty much from the day you presented your degree collection at Central Saint Martins. But were you actually a fashion prodigy?
I came to fashion through an interest in theater, actually. Where I’m from, Sunderland, there’s just not a consciousness about fashion. But I’d come down to London with my mother when I was about 10 to see The Phantom of the Opera. There was something about that experience, not just the play but also walking out of the theater and through these dark streets in Soho, that captured my imagination. So when I was 14, I applied for and was accepted into the National Youth Theatre’s summer program. I worked in their costume department for three years. But prior to that—yes, in fact, I did a fair amount of fiddling on the sewing machine.
Just to clarify for the Americans reading this: Where is Sunderland? What’s it all about?
Sunderland used to be the biggest town in Europe, until it was turned into a city. That’s its claim to fame. It’s up north, near Newcastle, right on the Channel.
It must have been a little overwhelming, coming from the former biggest town in Europe, to arrive in London as a 14-year-old and be plunked down in the craziness of the theater world.
It was great. I was in London essentially on my own, surrounded by all these creative people.
You continue to surround yourself with creative types—from the days when you were working out of the !WOWOW! space to now, doing projects like the videos with Ruth Hogben. Your vision as a designer is so eccentric and personal, but it seems like you get something important from that exposure to other ideas, other media.
I do, undoubtedly, though I’m not sure I want to analyze that too much. The videos, though—that’s less about what I get from making them than it is about creating an image. You know, a brand. Does that sound crass? It’s like, why do a catwalk show? They cost so much, they’re so ephemeral…But for those few minutes that the show is going on, that catwalk is yours. And ideally, you’re using those minutes to create an image that endures. Especially now, since the photos will be pored over by literally millions of people on the Internet. They’re out there forever. And creating these videos, that’s the same idea, in a way. Because as a designer today, you ought to be tapping into a variety of channels in order to get your point of view into the world. You should be multimedia. You have to be. I mean, at the end of the day—fashion, it’s a dress in a shop on a hanger. So why not engage these other tools, in order to say something more?
You do seem to be reaching people well beyond fashion insiderdom. I heard a rumor that there was a girl who took a bus all the way from Phoenix in order to see the installation at MAC & Milk.
I met her. After that beautiful dinner John Demsey hosted, I went downstairs to check on the installation, and she came up to introduce herself. She has a blog—I didn’t even know about it—that’s only about my work. There was a tattoo on her arm, an image from the Spring 2008 show. [It was] my interpretation of a stealth bomber.
Talk about an enduring image. A tattoo? Seriously?
You know, that was originally a commissioned piece, but then I threw so much of myself into it, I decided to adapt it for the collection. And then that went into the Superheroes show at the Met. The silhouette of that piece has wound up a kind of trademark. Really, the process whereby an abstract concept—interpret a stealth bomber—can turn into something simple and defined enough that it can be a tattoo, that’s fascinating to me.
Is it strange, at all, meeting a fan who’s so devoted to your work? I mean, I’m sure she’s not the first. You have a pretty rabid following.
There are a lot of kids I encounter who are in art school, or they’re just starting out in fashion. They really appreciate that I’m in this position where I can make cardigans out of plastic bags, which really doesn’t seem possible; you shouldn’t be able to make a career out of that. But it’s not strange; I mean, it’s genuinely touching and gratifying to meet the people who appreciate my work. It makes all the struggle, the lonesome experiences starting out, worth something. I think back on things like creating my first show for Fashion East in four weeks, with no infrastructure, no staff, just relying on interns and working out of a space with no heat, and I’m glad that it means something to someone other than me that I did that.
Those first few shows you did, you didn’t actually offer any of the pieces for sale. In a way, that’s a very egalitarian model: clothes made to be seen belong to whoever sees them. Now that you’ve got a production setup, though, owning “Gareth Pugh” is much more exclusive experience. Your pieces sell for thousands of dollars at the highest-end boutiques. Yet you seem to have an interest in opening up your brand to a wider public, so I have to ask: Would you consider doing a fast-fashion range?
I have considered it. The offers have come in, and every time we get an offer, I mull it over. I’d like more people to have access to my clothes, but the timing hasn’t been right, or the project hasn’t been right, or some combination of both those things. The first time I was approached, I wasn’t even producing the garments I was showing on the runway. I didn’t have a factory. Everything I was making, I was making by hand. Doing a fast-fashion collection seemed a little premature.
In other words, those companies that asked before, they should keep asking?
Sure, keep asking. And I’ll keep thinking.