Gareth Pugh: Send in the Clowns

Text by Franklin Menendez

In a relatively short span of time, Gareth Pugh has built a considerable reputation based on inflatable balloon tops, light-up dresses and gold harlequin suits. Ridiculous? Certainly. But these outlandish designs radiate an irreverent energy that has been largely missing from a British scene now spearheaded by the tasteful deconstruction of Preen and the delicate irony of Giles Deacon. London has taken a quiet turn as of late, donning an uncharacteristic restraint that is a far cry from the valiant theatrics of the early ’90s – the legendary spectacles of the then-struggling Alexander McQueen and John Galliano which have faded like distant memories into a nebulous, Arthurian past. Perhaps this is why young Gareth Pugh is stirring up such a buzz, for his collections seem less like carefully choreographed runway ventures than vibrant fashion explosions. Pugh may not yet be the stuff of legends, but he certainly displays the bold ideas that can alter the direction of fashion design.

So who is Gareth Pugh? The slight, somewhat elfish designer hails from Sunderland, a town in the northeast of England – i.e. Billy Elliot country – known more for its bleak post-industrial landscape than its cosmopolitan style. After an initial tenure at the local art school, Pugh fled to the metropolis and completed his degree at the venerable Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. There, he experimented with proportion mixed in with a good dose of imported, Northeastern bad taste and a penchant for eccentric irony. In 2003, the 23-year-old managed to produce a memorable graduate collection whose main piece – a bodysuit composed of inflatable red-and-white striped balloons – caught the eye and interest of senior fashion editor of Dazed and Confused, Nicola Formichetti. The “inflatable creatable” piece not only landed the cover, but was later featured in the Dazed exhibit alongside work by established British stars Hussein Chalayan and Stella McCartney – a remarkable feat for a virtually unknown up-and-comer.

After this initial splash, Pugh’s fledgling career took a few strange detours, most notably as a cast member on the reality TV show Fashion House – a mix between Project Runway and Big Brother – where he was evicted for being “too weird.” But perhaps his untimely departure from the ranks of reality TV was a blessing in disguise, for it ultimately led to a brief collaboration with Rick Owens at the fur house Revillon. At this established atelier, Pugh was able to refine his technical skills, working and manipulating luxury materials into fresh and unexpected concoctions. The stint certainly paid off; the following year, Pugh won the coveted sponsorship of Fashion East, a U.K. non-profit organization that funds emerging talent. In his two seasons under Fashion East, he presented two adventuresome collections, one based on the Pied Piper and one featuring an electronic dress which transforms modulating harmonics into light colors and patterns. This work solidified an avant-gardist vision paired with keen technical expertise – a sure recipe for success which came in 2005 when Pugh won the New Generation Prize, allowing him to mount his first solo collection on the official London Fashion week calendar.

It remains to be seen if Pugh will join the ranks of Brit fashion icons, or if he will be just another eccentric in a long line of Next Big Things. But if his collections thus far are any indication, Pugh definitely has the necessary zeal. Though his presentations may seem far-fetched, his sculptural clothing ingeniously intersects fashion’s current search for alternate proportions and volumes (remember, a bubble skirt seemed unthinkable only seasons ago). For his Spring/Summer 2006 offering under Fashion East, Pugh took this energy further, exploring the space around the body rather than simply re-tracing existing contours. Patchworking fur, plastic and wire, he experimented with materials, resulting in a fiercely directional display of structural ingenuity and unapologetic futurism that referenced the great pioneers of shape (certainly Paco Rabanne, but also André Courrèges and Cristobal Balenciaga). The centerpiece – a dress of phosphate printed onto plastic – created a dazzling light-apparition that single-handedly captured, if only for a moment, the bygone spirit of pure London spectacle.

Then there’s his much-anticipated solo debut for Fall 2006: inflatable jackets and Elizabethan ruffs on Pierrot-faced models, capped with a giant black bunny outfit. Unwearable? Sure, and perhaps even worse, familiar, since by now Leigh Bowery club imagery has become a stock reference for young designers. Vertiginous footwear, over-the-top makeup and the ubiquitous balloons have popped up in some incarnation or other on multiple runways, including Galliano’s. Perhaps most shocking in this wild mix were the looks that verged dangerously on the tastefully chic: a diamond patterned satin and silk Bettina blouse, paired with a high-waisted pencil skirt with panniers (i.e. a ruffled front), and a belted wool coat with fox sleeves. Stripped of their affectations, these pieces suggest a new sophistication, playful adventurousness accentuated (but not tempered) by luxury – and that timely stint at Revillon. These are flashes of possibilities to come, of brazen experimentation that yields (perhaps inadvertently) real clothes that recast our sense of line, drape and proportion.

Does this mean Pugh is heading down the doomed path of the tasteful, timeless and chic? Hopefully not, since it’s precisely that ephemeral, seriously wrong aesthetic that has made him such a favorite among fashion watchers. Ultimately these may be unfair impositions, since what’s really fresh about Pugh is his innate sense of lightness, his rediscovery of the true British legacy: a cheeky approach to clothes. Unlike their Gaelic neighbors, the British have always embraced the inherent ridiculousness of dress-up as they eagerly subverted stiff conventions. After all, clothes are just clothes – and the real challenge lies in discarding their preciousness to discover new and joyous combinations. As Vivienne Westwood has known all along, absurdity is less about performance than simple fun. And fun was precisely the dominant factor at the Fall show, with its carnival-like atmosphere and black-and-white balloons gleefully floating about. Sure, the path of his future remains uncertain, but amid the gold tinsel, balloons and clowns, this seems less of a pressing concern than simply enjoying the ride.


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