A film still from a movie Gareth presented in New York in 2009, featuring Gareth’s boyfriend, Carson, dressed as a queen and drenched in black rain.
Back in 2005, Gareth Pugh was living in a squat in London when all the important UK fashion magazines attached themselves to him like a Fred Perry-clad tumor. Fresh out of fashion school and an internship with Rick Owens, he was soon a style-page wank fantasy, representative of the type of hijinks English fashion clamors for. It was all justified.
Gareth’s first shows featured inflatable outfits and light-strewn garments. Everyone in attendance over the age of 30 offered mealy-mouthed praise—like it was all very well and fun and diverting but ultimately fey and immature. Attendees under the age of 25, however, cheered the models and clothes down the runway, feeling like somebody had finally reinvented fashion for the 21st century and rescued us all from retro regurgitation.
Six years on, fashion sites are overflowing with photos of androgynous kids addicted to black who look just like Pugh. His line garners the type of attention and praise usually reserved for the vaunted and dusty old guard. He shows annually in Paris and New York, working and hanging out with all the ritziest fashion people, like Karl Lagerfeld and Mario Testino. We’ve known him for a while, though, so we persuaded him to take a few minutes for the following little chat.
Vice: Everyone says you’re super-weird.
Gareth Pugh: Really?
Yeah. The artist Matthew Stone said that what people don’t understand is that you don’t think your lifestyle and work are weird because you’re so genuinely weird.
I don’t think about it. If I did I’d spend too much time not doing work. PJ Harvey recently said the same thing on TV—it wasn’t until two years after she wrote her songs that she understood them. What I do is more than just the clothes. It’s getting out whatever is inside that’s screaming the loudest. I wouldn’t call it therapeutic. It’s not that conscious.
It’s effective, though, whatever you’re doing. You’ve made it through quite a few tough times.
Yeah, for years my parents never really got it. They didn’t understand what I was doing in London—why I didn’t have a job and why I was doing all this stuff for free and going out so much. But if I hadn’t done all of that I wouldn’t be here.
Did you spend a lot of time worrying about whether or not it would work out?
No, I was just happy doing it. I wasn’t worried about what was next. There was a point a couple of years ago, right before a show, when I barely had enough money to get my team over to Paris. But I think it’s like Alcoholics Anonymous: Take every day as it comes.
How long did it take for you to sell something?
We didn’t sell anything from the poodle or gimp shows—nothing until the fourth or fifth show. My first show was such a last-minute thing. I was only really thinking about the show and not selling stuff afterward. But once you start showing, you’re on the treadmill and have to carry on.
Is that where your head’s at right now?
At the moment I feel very much between a rock and a hard place. People expect an amazing show, but in order to do that in Paris you have to sell a lot of clothes, which maybe means people have to be able to imagine the clothes on hangers.
Your first few shows were super-immersive—onlookers were right in there, like being in a music video or computer game. Does this explain why you’ve been making so many films?
With films I can sort of go back to pure aesthetics and show people the inside of my head and keep myself sane. I don’t want to just knock something out every season.
You recently opened a store in Hong Kong, right?
Yeah, it was set up by the people who run the import company over there. I worked on the design, but I didn’t get to see it until it was built. Walking around the corner and seeing my shop next to Gucci was freaky. Rick Owen’s wife, Michelle Lamy, thinks moneyed Chinese women like to look very chic, like avant-garde punks. I just make more sense over there. In America I’m seen as a little bit niche and weird.
So you’re liking China?
I love Hong Kong. There’s a rooftop restaurant there between the skyscrapers, river, and the sea, and it’s kind of like you’re on the edge of the world. It’s very postapocalyptic.
What’s your beef with color?
The designs are more about the whole thing rather than the details, and if I were to do the big shapes I do, color would maybe be too much. Pink or red would push it all over the edge.
I can see why adding color to clothing with massive triangular shoulders might be a bit rich.
Exactly, those shapes are more palatable in black. Also, I’m into silhouettes, which are black. Though we’re actually doing color this season: black, blue, and gold. Like an Yves Klein blue. The show is all aggressive femininity and submissive vicars and very Caravaggio.
What is with your affinity for triangles?
They are the strongest shapes we have. In architecture and engineering, for example, triangles are used to achieve internal strength. Also, triangles are ancient symbols of power and strength. I like the idea of making an outfit completely out of triangles. It’s very anti-body, and you can create some very unexpected and interesting shapes with a subtle reference to the power of triangles. On a woman it gives a certain tension that I really like.
And the mad alien silhouettes?
I would contest your use of the word alien. I think the silhouettes that infiltrate my work are simply an exaggerated version of the female form.
What’s the approach with your line year to year?
I don’t do India one season and Spain the next. I’m not one of those people who has to look for the next thing. I suppose it’s the search beyond the clothes. With everything creative you always have to have that dry sense of dissatisfaction with whatever it is you do. Searching for perfection but never finding it.
Do you and Rick Owens ever chat fashion?
I’m closer to his wife, Michelle. He always describes himself as the distant, stern father figure and she is like the overgenerous mother. She’s very critical about what I do, which I like. It’s good to have someone who doesn’t always give you unadulterated praise.
Do you find that you and Owens share an audience?
I don’t really have a cultish group of people into my stuff the way Rick does. He takes something and rips it apart. He’s more dragged through a hedge, and I like polishing something and making it as shiny as it possible.
Why is that?
Someone was asking why everything I do has to look so sharp and structured and clean. I think it’s because chaos and mess surround me. I’m quite a messy, disorganized person.
Let’s talk about your famous light-up dress.
I don’t know where it is. I like that it’s just dissolved into the ether. That show was a huge stress. I actually had to lie down on the floor backstage at one point because I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Legally, Casey Spooner could only model it if he signed a death waiver.
Is fashion really as much fun as it looks?
Driving to the Palace of Versailles with Jeremy Scott, Suzy Menkes, Jefferson Hack, and Anouck Lepère was pretty funny. Everyone wanted to see this Jeff Koons exhibition—Anouck tried to climb the fence, Jefferson got into a fight with a security guard, and Suzy Menkes was taking pictures. That was weird.
I guess you just start trafficking in a different world and weird stuff happens automatically.
Oh, and the time I’d booked my housemates a holiday in Gran Canaria but got flown to New York to shoot with Mario Testino. I ended up at the Met Ball afterward and found myself having a fag with Christian Slater in the toilets while David Beckham took a piss at the urinal. The toilets there are a real superstar clusterfuck. I just couldn’t work out why I was there.
Because of all your great work, obviously. Coming from the quiet of Sunderland, in northern England, has the sudden reach of your work affected you?
I worked with a blogger called dirtyflaws and she told me she didn’t really care about fashion until she saw my show. I might not have believed her if she hadn’t shown me the tattoo she had of one of my designs on her arm. It’s nice to feel that I’m doing something that goes beyond the environment it’s created in and that makes somebody think differently about something.
You once said that your designs were about the space around the clothes.
It’s totally relevant when you talk about clothes, though. My clothes aren’t about drawing lines on a silhouette. They’re about going outside of a woman’s figure and making shoulders and arms bigger. Maybe they’re like armor.
How do you mean?
For me, the bigness actually works like a sort of invisibility cloak: You look at the clothes instead of the person. We tried to do something invisible with the silver stuff last season. Silver reflects its surroundings, so it kind of becomes invisible.
What have you given your mum to wear?
She doesn’t have anything.
Ha! You’re well known for being tight.
[laughs] Yeah, but I have to steal my own samples as well. I don’t get a personal order quota. It’s a license. But I have given her a Rick Owens coat, which she loves.
How would you describe the way you dress? It’s pretty girlie.
I don’t think about it at all. I never buy clothes, so I don’t really have a choice when it comes to what I wear. I am very lucky to be able to pull a lot of Rick Owens and steal some of my stuff from the factory. But other than that I buy H&M hoodies and Topshop jeans. But I do have this very northern British thing about wanting to really dress up when I go out. I’m not trying to be a woman, it’s just really nice to feel like a different person—put a bit of slap on and make yourself look ten years younger.
What do you do with your days off?
When I’m not asleep? I eat Mexican food with my boyfriend. I don’t feel like I’ve had a guilt-free day off in a long time, to be honest. It’s actually quite sad that I can’t answer that question, though. I don’t really have any pastimes. I don’t read, I don’t file through eBay looking for vintage Norma Kamali. I watch Coronation Street and East Enders. Doing really normal stuff is like a break for me.
So you don’t sort of drag down fashion-wise and head home to Sunderland?
No, not at all—this is dragged down. OK, I’ve got my fur coat on, but this is like… this is my utilitarian studio wear.
There’s no sneaking out of the house in a tracksuit?
No, those days are passed. I won’t go into that any further.