Friday, February 16, 2007

Inside the freak show: Gareth Pugh unmasked

Flaubert once advised you should never try to touch idols - lest the gilt rubs off on your fingers. But Gareth Pugh's not a personal idol, just an enigmatic, twentysomething Brit fashion designer whose shows are renowned for their freakish, at times sinister, sci-fi/operatic ensembles. He is the enfant terrible of the London fashion scene - an erstwhile costume designer who apparently hasn't sold a stitch of clothing but who nevertheless keeps handing London Fashion Week the images it needs to pat itself on the back as the world's most creatively fecund fashion forum.

Pugh's shows are also notoriously exclusive. Packed with London club kids and drag queens, his PR entourage, as with last season, can't be bothered replying to (at least my) requests for tickets. Last season I saw the show anyway. This time, again sans bait, I decide to delve a little more deeply into Pugh's mise en scene: the backstage engine room. I wanted to try to take a peek at what makes him tick.

I breeze past the security guard out front who is conveniently bamboozled by the British Fashion Council-issue "Priority Press Pass" in my wallet.

I walk to the back of the venue, where a swarm of people are having a fag.

Inside I find a line of models, half made-up, half-coiffed, standing in a straight line right down the middle of the room, in front of the runway, ready for a runthrough. Although dressed in their own clothes - save one blonde man, who is wearing nought but a flesh-coloured G-string - they are all wearing black pumps with perilously-high stiletto heels, wrapped like pigs' trotters in clear cellophane as high as the ankle.

To my left are several long refectory tables spread with makeup kits and long hairpieces: Pugh's accoutrements for tonight's freak show.

To my right, the clothes racks with the collection. Spying black patent leather and clear PVC, I sniff a 60s odeur. There's a bohemian posse of dressers. One has long, pink hair and they boast a plethora of tattoos. The most elaborate tattoo of all graces the entire back of Mr G-string. Someone has made an attempt to cover his body, and tats, in white makeup. Mr G-string looks like he's about to perform a bit of Butoh theatre.

I walk to the hair table and almost slip over on a giant, synthetic furball that has gathered underneath via offcuts from the hairpieces.

As I compose myself, a man walks past wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "Anarchy is the key".

The music comes up and the models disappear through the proscenium to the runway.

I walk through a side door into the auditorium to watch the runthrough. I can see the models' faces much more clearly now and they are all extraordinarily androgynous, with finely-chiselled cheekbones. Apart from Mr G-string, it's in fact not at all obvious just how many are women. I later clock the model list and of the 15, there are three men's names. Pugh squats in the middle at the very end of the runway and stares intently down its barrel - like a film director framing a scene.

The models storm back through the proscenium and dive back into hair and makeup. Apparently there's a lot more work to be done. Camera crews are getting kicked out. Everyone is getting kicked out, bar one photographer from US Vogue, who I later learn has an exclusive on the show's backstage component.

Hair stylist Eugene Souleiman is directing his team to apply yet more hairpieces to the straight wigs the models are already wearing. It's an intricate affair involving three or four pieces, some darker, some lighter and layered over each other to produce stripes - a kind of geometric skunk effect.

"It's about stripes and lines... sort of Vidal Sassoon" offers Souleiman.

In two separate corners, Mr G-String and a female model, now also wearing nothing but a flesh-coloured thong, are having more white body makeup applied. He's sitting with his legs wide apart. She's standing, attempting to cover her breasts with her hands in front of an in-house video camera operator, the US Vogue snapper and a small throng of people armed with personal digital cameras, all lenses trained on her.

Artist/DJ Matthew Stone walks past. Stone and Pugh are mates - they met as students, at one stage squatted together and are part of the same creative coterie. Stone's doing the music, I surmise.

"It's very operatic, electronic, quite disjointed" he says of the show's soundtrack. "It's stark, but there are also elements of humour in it. And a euphoric finale".

The hair application continues, as does the body washing on Mr and Ms G-String. As for the facial makeup, it's also white. Then the makeup artists begin attaching masks.

They are clear plastic masks that have been partially painted black: covering half the face, or in stripes. Once the masks are attached - hard, transparent carapaces that obscure the whitewashed, chiselled faces - Pugh's models resemble a phalanx of androids.

The hair and makeup area starts to clear. The dressing begins. Pugh flits in and out of the racks vetting operations.

"I don't want to see any girls in hair! (ie the department)" announces a small man. The atmos starts to rev up.

For the first time I get a proper look at the clothes on the models and am surprised: the garments have quite clearly-defined arms, seams and zippers. Apart from one or two pure showpieces, one a Dada-inspired getup consisting of three black styrofoam tranches which transform the model into a human wedding cake, they bear a remarkable resemblance in fact to something traditionally anathema to Pugh: clothes, not costumes.

Once the models are all dressed, the backstage scene resembles a series of images from some sort of retro futurist fashion shoot taken during Sixties' swinging London. Veruschka eat your heart out.

One woman is wearing a clear PVC and black leather striped minidress. Several others wear some quite beautifully-crafted, detailed leather and pelt coats. One coat boasting a high funnel collar is in black leather; another is fashioned from plaited black leather and covered in small strips of black patent. The most striking coat of all is fashioned from layered fringes of what I am later told is black goat hair.

Mr and Ms G-String are being helped into a giant clear PVC/black leather-striped poncho and a clear PVC hooded cape and undersuit respectively. It's got to be hot in there.

"I have another show to go to right after this - I don't know what I'm going to do, I'll have to take a shower" says Ms G-string.

London art director and jewellery designer Judy Blame (a man) stands to one side holding a necklace fashioned from jet beads, black ribbons and black plastic beer six-pack holsters.

"I drink a lot of beer" quips Blame, explaining that this is the fourth time he's worked with Pugh. There is usually no brief, he explains.

"We just get together, he shows me fabrics and things like that, that's why we do quite a lot of work backstage - sometimes the outfits aren't made until the last minute" he adds. "I love working with him. He's got a feel, a sense of creativity and if you actually look into things, they are really beautifully-made, really crafted".

It is approaching 6pm - one and a half hours past the show's slated start time - and the auditorium sounds packed. I briefly consider going back outside to watch the show but as I poke my head around the side door I twig that I'll never get a vantage point, it's too crowded. I have no choice but to stick with my back-to-front perspective of the production.

The models realign down the centre of the room. The music starts. The black and white figures are pushed out into the spotlights one by one - like fledglings from a magpie's nest. I am standing so close as they walk through the proscenium, I am almost on the runway myself.

"We've got a girl down! A girl down!" screams a hysterical PR through his Janet Jackson headpiece.

Apparently the clear cellophane wraps on the feet - which I originally figured were designed to keep the shoes clean until the show - were part of the styling.

Thunderous applause. The fledglings go back out for their victory lap, so does Pugh. When they return they clap - as does everyone backstage. Having not wanted to interrupt Pugh beforehand, I make my move to secure some quotes. And am finally busted by a PR who asks who I am, who I work for and just how I got in.

"I just walked in the door" I reply.

It seems fairly obvious that this is a breakthrough collection for Pugh - who was recently taken under the wing of avant-garde American designer Rick Owens. Owens' studio, as it emerges, helped produce some of these pieces, and the collection will go on sale in Paris in two weeks' time in Owens' showroom. It's a good fit for Pugh - and a big step.

"I'm sick of people thinking it's all like wacky and crazy because that for me has tones of bad quality and nothing that I do is" says Pugh. "I strive as hard as I can to make everything well. So I wanted to strip everything back, remove all of the paraphernalia like shoulder pads and whatever and still have a little bit of that but concentrate more on what I can do. I don't have to just do these big things".

Just as I go to throw to another question, the PR cuts me off to switch to another journalist.

I've jumped the queue - I don't want to be ungracious, so I step out of the way. Besides, I think I already have the answer.

What drives creative people in London? That's what I asked Blame during the show.

"Having a good time I think with it" he replied. "We're not always the most sensible ones about money and normally we have to go abroad to nick the yen or the franc or the euro or the dollar. But we have fun doing it here I think. And there's a nice sense of camaraderie between creative people. I mean you've got Simon Costin doing the set, Eugene doing the hair, me doing the accessories, Nicola [Formichetti] doing the styling... I mean I don't think in another city you'd get quite as fertile a team as that. They'd all be snapping at each other. Whereas in London it's like, 'Right... what do we have to do?'".

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