A Three-Legged Race

Amsterdam

9 May 2018

Gareth Pugh leads me to his studio through Somerset House’s meandering basement and we emerge onto a Victorian mews. With his long hair, high black leather boots and black T-shirt with the inscription “Don’t shoot me”, which reads like a scream, Pugh manages to fit in perfectly with his surroundings.

We are meeting to talk about the costumes he designed for the opera Eliogabalo, produced in 2016 at the Palais Garnier in Paris and shown in October 2017 at the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam.

Trained in costume design at the National Youth Theatre and later in fashion design at Central Saint Martins (CSM), Pugh has made a career out of blurring the boundaries between fashion and art, catwalk and stage. He has collaborated with leading creative figures from the worlds of opera, film, theatre and dance, such as choreographer Wayne McGregor for Carbon Life for the Royal Ballet in 2012 and Alea Sands for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2015. More recently, Pugh has worked with the digital-arts studio Werkflow on its Antigona project, presented at the Documenta Art Fair in Kassel, Germany.

Pugh’s aesthetic is based on an idiosyncratic use of volumes and stiff materials, which he transforms into wearable art. After beginning his career in 2005 at London Fashion Week, he won the prestigious Andam Fashion Award and was subsequently part of the Paris schedule for a number of years. For the 10th anniversary of his career, he returned to London Fashion Week. In October 2017, an exhibition of his archives was presented during Shanghai Fashion Weekend. It showcased a combination of catwalk designs, fashion films and costumes he created for Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. His work was also part of the Manus x Machina exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Before the interview, I had the misconceived idea that a fashion designer would find creating costumes to be a process of absolute creativity and freedom, one that didn’t require them to think about clients, markets and the fashion press. During the interview, Pugh told me that the complete opposite is true. Costume design is extremely demanding and requires diplomacy and tact. Nonetheless, it is apparent that Pugh thrives in face of these challenges.


What is your relationship to costume design?
My first experience with costume design was when I was 14. I travelled to London to be part of the National Youth Theatre and it was kind of an excuse to have three months of the summer holidays not spent in Sunderland. I couldn’t act, so I decided to apply for costume design. My mum had a sewing machine and I made lots of things and dressed up my auntie to make a crappy little portfolio. I got into the National Youth Theatre and was part of their costume-design department. It taught you all the basics – how to use the machine, how to thread a machine, cutting on the bias, hemming dresses and everything like that. That was great and I continued doing it the following summer holiday and the one after that. But then I didn’t really pursue it: I went to CSM, left and started to be a fashion designer.

So when did you come back to it?
In 2011, I got a call from Wayne McGregor, the choreographer at the Royal Opera House. To this day I don’t know where he got my number from, but he just called me up and said: “Hi. I’m Wayne. I’d like you to do the sets and costume design for a new ballet I’m doing at the Royal Opera House.” It was being thrown in at the deep end, big style, because it was the big stage at Covent Garden. It was a ballet called Carbon Life with Mark Ronson and it had all of these live singers on stage every night – Boy George, Jonathan [Pierce] from a band called The Drums. That was in 2012 and it actually came back last year, although Boy George wasn’t in it this time because he was doing The Voice. Anyway, I’ve done a few things with Wayne since then and we’ve worked on some of my shows together, but he then asked me to do a project with the Palais Garnier opera in Paris. They have worked with a lot of designers: they do a lot with Chanel and they did things with Riccardo Tisci when he was at Givenchy.

How did they find working with you?
I think they were quite impressed, because I’m hands-on and did everything myself. So based on that they liked me, although it cost me a lot of Godiva chocolates to get there: you have to bribe a lot of these people because they’ve been in their jobs for such a long time that they don’t really need to move very fast. So then an opportunity came along with this opera with Thomas Jolly, who had never directed an opera before: he’s a theatre director and actor. He got asked quite last minute to direct Francesco Cavalli’s 17th-century Eliogabalo to open the 2016/17 season at the Palais Garnier. They asked me if I would consider being part of the team and I agreed. It’s quite a fabulous building to call your office every now and again.

Did your experience in the National Youth Theatre and opera shape your perspective on fashion?
I guess so. I also used to be a dancer, so there’s an attraction to the stage or performance which very overtly trickles through into what I do. It’s all about fantasy and illusion, so that is certainly a part of my education which comes to the fore. I like that idea of drama and theatre in fashion because I think it needs it. Fashion can sometimes be too...

Commercial?
Yes. I didn’t become a fashion designer to be financially successful; I wanted to create things that I think are beautiful or to always do a show that I would want to go and see. Money helps – don’t get me wrong – but it’s not my main driving force.

So your experience with costume design supports your collections?
It gives you that sense of proportion because we work a lot with performers like Beyoncé or Lady Gaga. When you’re making stage wear, it has to be stage wear. It has to be big and larger than life, but I’m not sure if that part of it has informed what I do. Even without that kind of sensibility or education, I would be doing that sort of thing anyway.

What inspired you in Eliogabalo?
The director wanted it to reference an era, which is very difficult and which we didn’t really achieve. The way to explain the difference between what I do as a day job or for a show and what I do for the opera is that in the case of a show I get to design everything. The opera is working for a client. Or, actually, it’s working for lots of clients because you’ve got the director, the assistant director and every single performer. While it’s not like working with a cast of Mariah Careys, there are a lot of divas in that world. So everybody has to be happy and everybody has an opinion. It’s my job to navigate that and decide which opinions to listen to and which not to listen to. A lot of it is my design, but there’s also a lot of compromise involved.

Were you inspired by the narrative, the characters, the music?
It’s a baroque opera with a lot of harpsichord, so it’s very light on the music. I found this story fascinating. The third-century Roman emperor Heliogabalus or Eliogabalo was one of the first openly gay, transvestite historical characters. When the opera was written in the 17th century, people refused to perform it because it was too outrageous. That certainly appealed to me, as did the idea of creating this quite monumental character. Eliogabalo was supposed to be a child, but the singer playing the role isn’t, so there’s a certain suspension of disbelief that has to go on. I didn’t want to lose my handwriting in what we were doing, so we used a lot of devices that we definitely knew would work. The timeframe was tight and we had just come off a show where we did lots of really slick, tailored business suits, which we paired with halos that float behind the performers’ heads. We thought that because Heliogabalus was a sun god, that could be quite a nice device. I did a project once with the Royal Collection at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, which was about the Tudors being the first power dressers. I love the idea of how Tudor portraits were used more as propaganda than anything else. So this idea of a triangular shape leading up to Eliogabalo’s face was a way of injecting a little bit of geometry; a kind of sacred geometry.

Did they give you guidelines or constraints for the costumes?
Heliogabalus is so difficult to research. There’s not a lot of stuff online, although there is a book from the 1930s, Heliogabalus: Or, the Crowned Anarchist, written by Antonin Artaud in character as Heliogabalus. But I came onboard late and was really trying to play catch-up with everybody else. So Thomas and I sat down and went through each character. That was my cheat sheet and once I had that I was able to go away and populate that with ideas. Then it was just an exchange between us to get to the end point. Things change when you start to fit certain people. There are so many things you can’t do. You can’t cover their ears; you can’t cover their eyeline because they have to see the conductor; you can’t make the necks too high or too tight because they have to be able to breathe. There is an amazing performer called Emiliano [Gonzalez-Toro], who doesn’t have a waist at all, but who needed to look like a really buxom woman. We had to achieve that effect with braces because you can’t use a corset. There are a lot of difficulties that you have to work around.

Can you talk about how you didn’t choose a specific time period?
In Amsterdam the set has been painted gold, but in Paris it was totally black. The backdrop was black and the floor was black, so there wasn’t any kind of visual reference. The only architectural thing that they had on stage was the lighting, so in order to replicate certain Romanesque architectural features they would use light: shafts of light for columns, or lights that would go up to create the roof of a colosseum. The stage was very bare, so the costumes became set-pieces in their own right. There was a jacket we made that was more of a sculpture than a jacket, and which came apart down the middle. The costumes were omnipresent and it was important that they were monumental.

But I’ve noticed that the costumes seem to reference different periods.
We didn’t want it to be fixed in Rome or antiquity or anything, because it’s not really a costume opera. For me, it was interesting because Eliogabalo premiered in Paris during the run-up to the US election. The timing was apt because it is essentially a story about a child emperor who doesn’t have a clue how to run the empire. Now it has come to Amsterdam on the anniversary of Trump’s election. But we didn’t want to reference that overtly, or be in your face. That would just be pastiche.

One of my fashion students wanted to know why you used very minimalistic shapes and more plain, sculptural design rather than embellishment.
It goes back to me wanting to have my own handwriting in what I do in my work. I don’t really do a lot of embellishment, at least not straightforwardly. Eliogabalo is a baroque opera, but to approach it that way, especially at the Palais Garnier where you have all of this baroque-ness around you, didn’t seem right. I wanted to do something that felt starker and more direct. Also, there are a lot of important characters, and they all had to look different. Apart from for Eliogabalo, there are hardly any costume changes. When a character comes on stage, you need to know who they are instantly so you can follow the story.

How did you create costumes that make that kind of impact, but which keep the singers comfortable at the same time?
Emiliano, who I mentioned before, was great to work with because he was super into it. He has a very difficult costume and we had a prosthetic made that went all the way down from his hairline. Emiliano is quite a big guy, and his costume is quite big too, and he was sweating so much underneath all of it that he developed a really bad rash. So he stopped wearing the prosthetic and instead we consulted with the makeup artist Val Garland, who does my shows. Val previously did Lady Gaga’s horns, so she transferred that idea into this character and created these horns and crazy contouring using stage makeup. There were other people whose costumes were quite simple, but they still had to get comfortable with what they’re doing on stage and the choreography. It’s a balancing act and sometimes a bit of a fight. Franco [Fagioli], who plays Eliogabalo, needed to be quite outrageous. His jacket that comes apart in two halves uses magnets and you can’t really move when you wear that, but it looks incredible. I think Franco understands the importance of creating an image.

So what is the structure underneath?
Just plastic. It’s a big plastic sheet that you chop up, but we spent about a month making the pattern for it. I thought that if I’m going to spend all of this time making a pattern, I’m going to use it myself, so we used it in my spring/summer 2017 show, which was actually 24 hours after the opera opened. The one in the opera is much more complicated than the two in my show, because it’s covered in fabric and silicone, and then embellished.

Did you have to make a lot of changes from your initial ideas or sketches?
Not with the majority of things because a lot of these costumes derive from things that I’ve already done for my shows. We had these incredible leg braces made from a really stiff leather from autumn/winter 2015, but one of the soloists didn’t want his to be made out of such a stiff fabric. His had to be made in a soft leather, so they kind of look like Peter Pan boots. They don’t look great, but if that’s all he can wear then I’m not going to push it. You have to relinquish control, although I’m a Virgo so that’s very difficult for me to do. But there are more important things in life.

What was the colour scheme based on?
It was a no-brainer to go with purple for Eliogabalo because it’s very sun god: quite theatrical, but quite a noble, religious colour. He obviously loved gold, so the scheme became purple and gold, and then blue and gold. Because he’s a sun god we did this incredible, crazy expensive embroidery which was like a huge kaftan. He also has a kind of bath robe on that’s made in blue silk fibre with gold sun-ray embroidery. He had to be the central focus, so all of his costumes are quite noticeable. We also used red for him, which I go back to in my own work as a signal of danger, especially when he’s dressed as a woman. I quite like the idea of red on a woman because it says a lot of different things.

And for the other characters?
There are two characters who are the heroes of the piece: Gemmira who executes Eliogabalo and Alessandro who becomes the new Caesar. We decided to go for something that was quite stately and wise: a very dark blue and a white halo. Alessandro is quite big and so we wanted him to look like a column – something quite solid, stoic and heroic. Because he was betrothed to Gemmira, we decided to make a female version for her. Her costume was based on justice. If you look at the statue of Lady Justice outside the Old Bailey, take away her sword and scales, then you’re left with the “justice dress”: we kind of copied that. It’s a very obscure reference, but she is the one who passes judgement on Eliogabalo, and so we thought Lady Justice was the perfect character to base her costume on. Then there is Eritea, who is raped at the very beginning. Thomas wanted her costume to look like she was a little bit dishevelled, so we did this very simple dress in off-white silk, but when she comes back after being raped the dress is soaking wet. It’s an old trick that prostitutes used to use in the 18th century so that their clothes would cling – which was quite dark because they looked sexy and beautiful, but they would die of pneumonia. We wanted her to look like something had happened, but without that obvious idea of putting blood on or ripping the fabric. So we wet the dress and she wore this wig that clung to her neck and came down in rat tails. It looked a bit dishevelled and the idea was that once someone is raped, they carry that with them throughout. Her wig would constantly look wet as a reminder of that.

There seems to be more freedom for creativity in costume design than in collections.
No. I was actually thinking about this before you arrived. When I do a show, my models are paid to wear the clothes; when you do an opera, the singers are there to sing. Some of them understand that there is a need for spectacle, but they’re primarily there to sing. They’re really good actors, but the costumes aren’t the thing that gets them into character. It certainly helps to have a good costume, but I feel a lot more able to push things with my own work. With opera, the clients have to be happy. With my own work, I only have to please myself.

Is costume design a good experience for a fashion designer?
Yes, for certain fashion designers. I don’t think every fashion designer would excel at the theatre because it takes a certain eye, a certain approach and a certain sensibility to make something that translates well on stage. When I do a show it’s my opportunity to stretch my legs, whereas doing an opera, you feel like you’re running a three-legged race – you’re always tied to somebody else you have to bring along with you. With fashion, I can just run.