Today’s fashion climes don’t suit Gareth Pugh. He’s not dreaming of a Net-a-porter capsule range, or stores in every city, or a sleek beauty line or 15 minutes of buzz on Instagram. He’s been in the business over 10 years and, despite still being a relative spring chicken, prefers the mystery and pace of days gone by. Days when experimentation was prized, craftsmanship was prioritised and mystery was valued. That’s perhaps why he’s flexing his creative muscle outside of fashion with increasing frequency. The day before his catwalk show, scheduled in his beloved Soho (once the home of clubbing and queer culture - now, increasingly the home of chains and aggressive redevelopment), the opera Eliogabalo, featuring over sixty costumed by Pugh, opened at the Palais Garnier in Paris. The work, written by Francesco Cavalli in 1667 for the Venice Carnival, chimed with Pugh’s mood. 'He’s an agent of chaos, a crowned anarchist, emerging amid a climate of greed and narcissism. It’s essentially about an empire eating itself - which felt alarmingly relevant,' wrote the designer, punchily, in his show notes. The spate of recent of headlines declaring that 'the fashion system is crashing' had not passed Pugh by.
You could tell he had costume on the mind. This show was full of, well, show pieces. It was a creative proposition, a performance, rather than a product showcase. In fact, Pugh deliberately turned two fingers up to product. The opening look was intended to suggest both a sun and a gaping hole. It drew on Francis Bacon’s enthralling painting Pope Innocent X, which to Pugh is a poignant depiction of power, greed and consumption. And what is fashion without those things? Today, it’s hard to imagine. An attack on established power systems ran throughout. Looks that at first seemed majestic or even optimistic and radiant, had a darker side on closer inspection. Gold embellishments, in Pugh’s signature angular shapes, shone, but behind the dazzle, they stood for disorder. The bold mosaic design was based upon the chaos symbol.
Some models came out with jet black lipstick smudged all over their mouths and chins, the work of make-up doyenne Val Garland. Maybe they’d been kissing in a nightclub, one wondered at first. But look again and it looked more like blood - as if they’d devoured some poor innocent creature. Devouring. Fashion has a tendency to do that to the brightest talents - build them up, eat them up and spit them right back out. Pugh's likely felt frustrated at this over the course of his own career.
Some attendees were entranced. Pugh knows how to put on a real piece of fashion theatre. But a few complained that proceedings felt dated - too costumey, too concept-focused. Sure, this wasn’t modern fashion as we know it. It stood out from the rest of the week. It didn’t fulfill expectations. But surely that’s a good thing?