“The dark, dingy red light of Soho is all gone, now,” explained hair stylist Malcolm Edwards backstage after Gareth Pugh’s S/S16 show. “There’s nowhere that you have to knock on the door three times to get in; you never walk down Berwick Street not knowing if you’re gonna get your throat cut or get shagged.” “It’s such a sad fuck these days,” lamented Val Garland. Wandering through Brewer Street on a Saturday night to get to the NCP car park where the British Fashion Council has, this season, assembled its new home is a vivid testament to the fact. It’s a couple of doors down from a Starbucks and a frozen yoghurt shop, just past the metal-shuttered doors of Madame Jojo’s and what was once Raymond’s Revue Bar. It’s a Saturday night, and the only girls on the streets are looking for a low-calorie frozen dessert.
(Above image: Cindy Bruna wears Sequin sun Jacket, Tube top and Shorts)
Gareth Pugh grew up in Sunderland, but moved to London when he was 19 to study at Central Saint Martins. Back then, it was housed on Soho's Charing Cross Road and, as Pugh explains, “When you went to the Saint Martin’s library on a Friday afternoon, you could hear this dull, bassy sort of thudding from the strip club underneath.” It’s a Soho that has, over recent years, been swiftly dissembled and replaced by the glossy finish of gentrification and ever-rocketing rent prices. It’s a Soho that Pugh’s entire collection paid tribute to; a red-lit homage to not only the seedy side of the heart of London, but to the freedom that atmosphere can inspire. “Walking to the car park sort of feels like I’ve been heartbroken,” he continues. “Going down Broadwick Street, which used to be full of fabric shops and weird little independent places… it used to be this nexus of creativity. The Hare Krishnas would walk through with their drums, past the Phoenix Theatre, down Compton Street, amidst a world of pan-stick makeup and fantasy and theatre. It was salacious, and exciting: like Disneyland, but with a dark underbelly.” And, as soon as the first girl entered the runway, that feeling returned.
"It was salacious, and exciting: like Disneyland, but with a dark underbelly" - Gareth Pugh
A Different Side
One of the remarkable things about Gareth Pugh is that, for a man whose collections are renowned for their dark dramatics, he’s always surprisingly cheery. His references for the collection – the coat Penny Lane wears in Almost Famous, the bit in Moulin Rouge where Kylie becomes the spirit of Absinthe – aren’t necessarily the alienating underground ones you’d expect. “When people come to interview me, they tell me that they’re quite surprised by the kind of person I actually am,” he explained. “I felt a little bit sad about that so, this season, I wanted to show a different side of myself.” And, in spite of the heavy references to the Pugh archive – the candy cane red stripes that defined his early collections, the jackets and corsetry that referenced S/S14 – his newest offering did just that.
"This season, I wanted to show a different side of myself" - Gareth Pugh
The pieces in the show reflected all of Pugh's renowned technical precision – there were sharply tailored suits and immaculately fabricated leathers – but they were often adorned with sequins that refracted light like disco balls. His armoured corsetry, although stiffly constructed, was decorated with hundreds of pennies left loose to sway with the steps of each model – it was less desolate despondency and more Liza Minelli. Rather than falling into a mourning for the good old days, or a somber meditation on the impact of contemporary Conservatism on fashion and the arts, the show was a celebration of both then and now: an optimistic testament to what is on offer, even in 2015, for those willing to take a chance in what they believe.
The Freedom of Fetish
Thus far, this season has had more than an undercurrent of bondage. At Hood By Air, wrists were bound by handbags; at J.W. Anderson, it was ankles that were tied; Simone Rocha’s show notes described Shibari-style “ropes and ties and tension.” But, in spite of Pugh’s models being encased in tight latex, the women he sent onto his runway weren’t shackled or restrained: they were remarkably free. They walked with aggressive assertion and almost otherworldly confidence; they were supernaturally attractive even with their faces concealed under what Val Garland described as “nicotine stained” stockings. Their sexuality was empowering, they were vulgar and beautiful – “Divine meets Donna Summer” continued Garland. “Sex shop curtains meet Tina Turner.”
"Divine meets Donna Summer; Sex shop curtains meet Tina Turner” - Val Garland
Women in the audience were practically falling off the edge of their seats at the promise of becoming one of Gareth Pugh’s fantastical creatures – and, in an industry that can often ascribe a (sometimes more than) slightly patriarchal notion of female sexuality to its subjects, that felt deeply refreshing. It is not that often that women walk out of a sexy show (and that’s what it was, unashamedly sexy) feeling inspired by their own power – but what Pugh presented wasn't a fetishisation of women, but fetishisation for them. Earlier this year, Pugh explained that that “I always want to do something that looks powerful, that gives women strength – but I suppose that a gay man’s perspective on a strong woman could be quite one-sided. So I work with Ruth [Hogben] and Katie [Shillingford], and to try and develop that, and to make it into something that is believable and is approachable, and understandable." And perhaps it was that humility that resulted in such resounding appeal.
The Prodigal Son
When Gareth Pugh returned to London last season, he was received in the manner of a prodigal son; the industry was abuzz with excitement (and a bit of relief). Having spent the previous seven years showing in Paris, Pugh's A/W15 return was a deeply patriotic celebration of England – and while S/S16 was a less explicit homage to his country, it was his first season showing in the official BFC showspace and an exploration of what London has that Paris doesn't. "It's never going to be Paris here; Chanel are never going to do their show in London," he said. "Paris will always have that stuff over us – but that's fine, what London offers is a little bit of extra rein, a little more willingness for people to actually do things." "The thing about Gareth is that he likes to go there... and there's not many people you can say that about in fashion today," mused Garland after the show. “He’s clear and calm and concise and he’s really brave," said Edwards. "He’s got balls and he’s a gentleman – it’s a breath of fresh air. Working with him is like being fed. It’s being creatively nourished.”
"Working with [Gareth] is like being fed. It’s being creatively nourished.” - Malcolm Edwards
And, along with a collection that has been commonly regarded as one of Pugh's best, it was that nourishing creativity and boundless optimism that Pugh truly brought to Soho on Saturday night. With a million pennies surrounding the runway, people leaving the show kept picking up souvenirs (there was a brilliant irony in fashion's most renowned names trying to surruptitiously slip one-penny pieces into their Céline handbags). "Find a penny, pick it up, and all day long you’ll have good luck," he grinned. And that's what we were being offered at Pugh; the promise that, if we take a chance, then something special just might happen. It was a brilliantly British, penny-arcade version of the American Dream – and, if Saturday was anything to go by, we'll keep betting on Pugh.
All clothing and accessories from the Gareth Pugh Spring/Summer 2016 collection; All shoes by Manolo Blahnik; Hair Malcom Edwards at Art Partner; Make-up Val Garland at Streeters using MAC; Nails Marian Newman using MAC; Casting Shaun Beyen; Consultant Stylist Nell Kalonji; Models Alecia Morias, Cindy Bruna, Lisa Verberght, Susanne Knipper, Ysaunny Brito at Elite, Yumi Lambert at IMG, Clarice Vitkauskasm, Hedvig Palm, Liza Ostantina, Maja Salamon at Next, Alex Hochguertel, Dylan Xue, Irina Kravchenko, Phillipa Hemphrey, Varya Shutova, Waleska Gorczevski at Premier, Esmee Middel, Eva Berzina, Jada Joyce, Kadri Vahersalu at Storm, Aamito Lagum, Anna Grostina, Lena Hardt, Sanne Vloet, Sasha Antonowskaia atViva