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Self-portrait by Gareth Pugh
Self-portrait by Gareth Pugh

On Future Beauties: Nick Knight and Gareth Pugh In Conversation

In a conversation published in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2020, the two unpack their own definitions of beauty and their respective reactions to this tumultuous cultural moment

Lead ImageSelf-portrait by Gareth Pugh

The visionary image-maker Nick Knight and Gareth Pugh, the perpetual enfant terrible of London fashion, have worked together continuously across a 15-year span, their visions perfectly matched: distorted, contorted, slightly morbid, but strangely beautiful. Nevertheless, the backgrounds of the two are, on the face of it, wildly dissimilar. Pugh grew up in Sunderland, northern England – his father was a policeman. Knight, by contrast, was raised between England, France and Belgium: his father was in the diplomatic corps. Yet the creativity of both was born from the fertile ground of subcultures. Knight made his reputation by publishing a book documenting the skinhead scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties, of which he was an active participant, while Pugh’s first fashion looks were created to satisfy the theatrical demands of London’s nightclubs in the early Noughties. His trademark outlandish creations, such as figures dressed in frogspawn clusters of red and white striped balloons, as giant poodles, smothered in PVC and gimp-masked – looks first worn by Pugh himself, then his models – have a clear through line to the flamboyance of Eighties post-punk and new romantic partying. Less, “Look at me”, more “What the fuck?”

There are other parallels: Pugh originally pursued ballet before falling in love with fashion, explaining his fascination for transforming the body and, perhaps, the success of his collaborations with choreographers such as Wayne McGregor and Matthew Neenan of New York City Ballet. Through his teenage years, Knight wanted to
be a doctor, and his pursuit of photography ultimately came from the same point of view: an interest in people. The two have collaborated since the earliest days of Pugh’s career, when Knight gave over his website to a seven-day performance by the then-fledgling designer. Thereafter they collaborated on a number of films and photoshoots, each urging the other in pushing the boundaries of representation of the human form.

The connection is deeply personal, too: Knight officiated at Pugh’s wedding to Carson McColl in 2017. 

In 2020, they are working together once again, to showcase Pugh’s latest, 13-look collection for Spring/Summer 2021 via what Pugh dubs a “visual album”. It reflects another connection, that of devising visual identities through album imagery, videos and costume for musicians such as Björk, Lady Gaga, Massive Attack and Kylie Minogue. And fashion, in the hands of Pugh and Knight, is undoubtedly a performance – one created solely and purely for the love of the art. In conversation, the two unpack their own definitions of beauty and their respective reactions to this tumultuous cultural moment.

Telephone conversation between Nick Knight and Gareth Pugh, August 2020.

Nick Knight: Shall we talk about our new project to begin with? I’m not sure what we can say ...

Gareth Pugh: Well, in my self-portrait I am wearing something. A preview. We haven’t shown in London since 2018, so we wanted the first thing that we did after two years to be something that was a reflection of the time, but also something that is a distillation – an essence – of what we do.

The idea came about that we would do very few outfits. We decided on 13 because it’s Carson’s lucky number. I don’t see them as being propositions for things that people would wear. They are 13 very particular characters, and the characters are cyphers, to convey a particular idea or meaning. The pieces that we make in London are always the things that we put our heart and soul into.

We decided that we would present them like a visual album, with you, through film. Each outfit is inspired by a song. There could be 13 collections there if you really wanted – 13 pointed, aggressive almost, visually rich ideas.

NK: The forms you’ve made in this collection are a cross-breed. They don’t look necessarily humanoid. They’re a cross between sculpture and human – they’re not machines, more a different way of looking at how people could be. A lot of your clothes, because they have always been so sculptural, do come across as armour or some form of protection. Is that fair? Do you see yourself as making things that are in some way protecting the wearer?

GP: Whenever we do anything in relation to clothes, we always like to imbue that wearer with a sense of empowerment, of strength. The idea of clothing as armour, I remember talking to Daphne Guinness about that – and it’s funny meeting someone like Daphne for the first time, because you expect her to be this total rock star, which she kind of is. Yet, actually, as a person she’s very quiet, very shy.

She said something super-insightful – that she wears what she wears so that people will look at what she has on rather than look at her. It’s either armour or a cloak of invisibility. That is something that really resonated with me – we make womenswear clothes, we wanted to do something positive. Trying to empower, to make someone feel strong, supported. So it’s all quite cyclical in that sense, but yes, I couldn’t agree more with the armour angle.

NK: We need armour today.

“Systems are set up to benefit very few. People don’t like to be rocked. They don’t like their secure foundations to be questioned. I went to a huge amount of protests ... And there’s a point when you realise that rather than trying to organise from the top down, if you start organising from the bottom up, through communities, it has more longevity” – Gareth Pugh

GP: The collection, for me, feels really positive. I guess that was the spirit of the project. There was a sea of BBC News stories, crazy stuff – the explosion in Beirut, Covid-19, and then we have Donald Trump and the election and Brexit. All of this crap. And within all of that we wanted to do something that was a beacon of light, something that was positive, something that was hopeful.

NK: I think it’s partly the basics of the principle of equal-opposite reaction. If you have a vile situation, like we have with the pandemic, if you have morally corrupt and redundant governments around the world, people rebel. It’s the way the political situation of the Seventies fuelled punk. It didn’t create it, but it fuelled it. However vile Boris Johnson and his cronies are, there should be an artistic reaction to that.

GP: Systems are set up to benefit very few. People don’t like to be rocked. They don’t like their secure foundations to be questioned.

Carson and I went to a huge amount of protests – Brexit, anti-Tory, trying to effect change. And obviously none of that did ... It was important to do it to be seen, but none of that really seemed to move the needle.

And I think there’s a point when you realise that rather than trying to organise from the top down, if you start organising from the bottom up, through communities and effecting change, there is much more possibility of it working. Also, it has more longevity, because those people at the top are never going to choose to move the needle themselves. They need to be told or shamed into doing that. This whole situation with the pandemic has forced people into this situation where they have to change. Out of all of this madness, I’m sure – I’m hopeful – something great will coalesce.

NK: I think that there’s a real desire for change now and you see it reflected in so many different ways in contemporary culture. Through the Black Lives Matter movement, people have said, “That’s enough, you can’t keep on doing it that way.” Political expression through fashion is important because it’s so ingrained in us and our lives. I think now is a very important time to embrace politics in fashion. If fashion is devoid of life, it’s nothing.

There’s a sense of injustice, of ongoing injustice, which makes it very important to engage. The people have a voice now – they can start their own Instagram page, they can call out, the public have a voice. And that also affects what designers do, how fashion is seen, so they no longer exist in that bubble.

GP: You’re right when you’ve said in the past that an industry that is based on change is one of the slowest-moving industries with regard to interior change. Systemic change does take a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice.

NK: I do get surprised when I hear people being reactionary. You work in the fashion industry – why on earth are you being so reductive, so backward-looking? One wants the world to be a better place and one wants the world to be something that feels more inclusive and exciting. And you see things happening across the world that are so heinous and so morally corrupt you just have to react. We can’t see the death of democracy in America and Britain and not react to it. It really is quite shocking what we’re going through at the moment.

“You see things happening across the world that are so heinous and so morally corrupt you just have to react. We can’t see the death of democracy in America and Britain and not react to it”
– Nick Knight

GP: It is also quite fascinating to understand that link that fashion has to what’s going on around us and how you can track all of that. It’s such a cultural marker, an indicator.

NK: I do see it as a fundamental art form and fundamental way of expressing ourselves, which is culturally so relevant and so reactive and predictive of the times we live in, and predictive of our own self-image.

This is a strange age that we are moving into, because it is the age defined by the internet, where technology becomes fundamentally part of us. We enhance ourselves as beings by the use of technology, through biotechnology and technology itself. We are becoming a new species – and people don’t want to really look at that in an artistic or positive way. But we are creating new identities, different guises, that exist in the digital world rather than just in the physical world. So I’m interested in how you, as somebody who creates visions of the future or visions of the way people aspire to look, view that.

GP: My idea of beauty is a difficult one. For me it’s about the person first and then it’s about heightening them – it’s about all of these things we can add to them. I’m curious, what is your idea of beauty, Nick?

NK: People often talk about the Björk Homogenic album cover, and my 1997 Devon Aoki picture for Visionaire. Both are in a similar mould, for me – a cross-species kind of thing. It didn’t end up on the cover, but for Homogenic, Björk actually asked me to give her gills, as if she lived at the bottom of the sea. There is a real freedom in her mind – and some other people’s – of how they want to express visions of beauty, what they want to put out into the world. I hope those were both quite forward-looking visions of how humans could be.

GP: You are someone who excels at that. I think it’s nice to always exist within that space that is always questioning, is always excited by newness, because out of that comes something different.

NK: You asked what my idea of beauty is and I think it’s anything that I feel I haven’t seen before that touches my heart. So, within the Devon idea, it’s this fragile, almost childlike heroine who has taken on an adversary and emerges noble and proud. And the ideas that you create are these visions that take you to a different realm of humanity that we haven’t seen before. Are they half-technology and half-human? Are they cross-species, cross-gender? It’s the freedom of your work that I find beautiful, the freedom to be able to think and freely associate without fear. The future is a very funny thing, because it’s so subjective and so personal.

But the visions you produce certainly do have incredible beauty to them, but are from a different time, a different evolutionary point. What I find truly beautiful is the freedom of spirit, and to be able to express that. That’s what I get drawn to, in the different people that I work with.

I’ve been working with you for some time now, Gareth, and I will keep on, if you still want to. I want to work with you because it’s not transient. It’s that freedom of expression and projection of ideas that is fascinating. I find that beautiful.

This story appears in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2020, which is now on sale internationally.