Gareth Pugh: interview

We first met Gareth Pugh working out of a Peckham squat. Now, he's one of the world's most exciting designers. Time Out takes an exclusive peek at his new collection - just before it hits the London catwalks next week - and finds Michael Jackson, Swarovski armour and swarms of mice

  • Gareth Pugh: interview

    Pugh talks Time Out through his new collection at his Dalston studio

  • The streets in Dalston are choked with teens spilling out of the local McDonald’s as I head to Gareth Pugh’s studio in Abbot Street, E8, one Tuesday afternoon. The 26-year-old designer, currently the toast of London Fashion Week (along with Christopher Kane and Giles Deacon) has less than two weeks to complete his collection, and a group of messy-haired fashion students – all unpaid interns, including one who contacted Pugh via MySpace – are, heads down, working quickly and quietly, weaving bits of leather and fur as Moloko’s ‘The Time Is Now’ blasts from his dilapidated old hi-fi.

    Pugh, a lithe figure in slim black jeans and that signature asymmetrical hair, looks like he’s just stepped out of an Edgar Allan Poe tale. Right now, the pace is stepping up as he works to complete his fifth collection for the expectant crowd at London Fashion Week, who now count on Pugh to inject some liveliness into proceedings. ‘I was working here until 3am last night. I slept in a makeshift bed over there,’ he says in his soft Sunderland lilt, pale blue eyes looking over to a dusty corner of his studio.

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    The prototype for Pugh's jacket comprising a swarm of mice

    It’s now two-and-a-half years since the designer, who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2003, burst on to the London fashion scene with a macabre and monochromatic first collection that included a model trussed up like a drummer boy, complete with giant clockwork winder. His dark, brooding but captivating style has been the most controversial aspect of Fashion Week ever since. An alchemist of the avant-garde, Pugh has the ability to delight and disgust people simultaneously, making the killjoys at the Daily Mail fizz with fury while the fashion editors at Dazed jump with joy.

    The biggest shock this autumn is that Pugh is now actually selling his clothes. In London at Liberty, the Pineal Eye and Browns; in New York at Barney’s, Maxfield and Bergdorf Goodman no less. Such is the complexity of his designs that it’s costing the factory £160,000 to produce orders of £140,000; no one is going to be making money out of him for now, but it shows that Pugh’s backers consider him a long-term investment.

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    One of Pugh's helpful minions from fashion college

    A quick glance around the studio confirms that Pugh’s strictly avant-garde sensibilities haven’t been altered despite the fact he now has the pressure of sales to worry about. ‘This season everything is going to be a bit languid, like it’s been dragged through a hedge,’ he says, stroking the black leather mini-dress that’s been finely slashed horizontally. ‘It’s still going to be quite graphic but more kind of destroyed in a way.’ He tells me the collection of 15 outfits will draw inspiration loosely from Michael Jackson’s movie ‘Moonwalk’. He is most excited about the head-to-toe Swarovski outfit which is going to look like armour. ‘It’s gonna be a dress, legs, shoes, head – everything…’ And, if all goes to plan, there’s also going to be a showstopping – if controversial – coat with a swarm of mice made from minks’ heads. ‘We want to use these red beads as the eyes. It’s subtle, kind of dark in a way; it sort of brings it to life a little bit. It’s quite interesting.’

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    A black PVC ensemble from spring/summer 2007

    Unlike most designers who start the design process by drawing, Pugh begins by making the toile (the calico ‘prototype’ garments). ‘It should start with drawings, but I can’t really draw very well. You see how things work much better off the toile. Sometimes when I really need to explain how a fabric will hang, I have to do some sort of drawing to explain that.’

    Pugh has certainly pushed things forward since he started out with a tiny collection made from a mane of glossy black goat fur, leather and the legendary PVC that he brought to show us at Time Out three summers back before anyone knew who he was. For spring/summer 2008, he’s adding some cashmere, mink fur, suiting fabrics and melt-in-your-hands washed jersey. On closer inspection, it all feels a bit more luxurious and wearable, unintentional or not.

    ‘We want to do a few epaulettes with dangling fringes and a few military things,’ he says. But that’s the only thing with exterior volume. It’s going to all be very tight, but then you’ve got a few elements like these fringes which is new for me, because I’ve always been relying on interior structure to give it the shape – now I’m looking at the exterior structure to give the shape. Everything is going to come from the exterior. It’s not necessarily the way I’m going generally, but it’s the way I’m going for this one [he shows Time Out a densely pleated skirt]. It’s silk voile – it’s a little bit schoolgirl.’

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    From 80s pop tp '90s rave - the essential soundtrack to work to

    Beyond his designs, things have improved generally for Pugh since his early career in a squat-cum-studio in Peckham four years ago. These days, due to a few lucrative jobs such as designing the clothes for Kylie’s recent tour or a bespoke cover for the Sky Digibox, he’s renting a respectable flat in Dalston, just across the junction from his studio. ‘I’m not skint. I’ve got enough money to look after myself and buy food! It’s been this long slog, but I’m still not anywhere near where I want to be.’

    Pugh remains passionate about the city to which he fled from Sunderland after completing an Arts Foundation course six years ago. ‘London is one of the few places it’s possible for someone like me to show; it’s really easy for a young designer to get a lot of credibility.’ He is less complimentary about the British Fashion Council (BFC) which organises London Fashion Week. ‘They spend far too much money on trying to promote something that doesn’t need promoting,’ he says. ‘They fly in all of these journalists and stylists from LA to London and put them up in Saint Martins Lane Hotel just so they can say “Ooh, we had so and so…” What pisses me off is that the price of a first-class ticket from LA probably costs more than what they’ve given me to do my show. Somehow that seems very unjust. People see it as a joke.’

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    Inside the studio

    But for now, Pugh has a collection to finish in less than 14 days. He heads back to his work desk with its half-eaten Yorkie bar and endless ‘to do’ list. ‘I wanted things to be finished four or five days before the show, so I could concentrate on castings, models and fittings, but it’s impossible. And you need the energy – I need to make more outfits, right up until the end, to keep the momentum. Then everything’s really fresh.’ And with that he gets back to adjusting that body-hugging, leather mini-dress.

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