For a long time, few within the fashion industry knew what to make of Gareth Pugh. Was he an artist using the catwalk as a vehicle through which to express his aesthetic – fashion's answer, perhaps, to the Chapman Brothers? Or was Pugh a fashion designer with such a limited budget that knitting with refuse sacks and making dresses out of balloons was the only option?
Some of Pugh's earliest work included a not-so-little black dress with cellophane-fringed shoulders that appeared almost a full metre wide, and an equally oversized illuminated coat that glowed with pinpricks of light, all wired up inside. Most famously, Pugh designed a catsuit created to mimic the silhouette of a giant poodle, straight out of the dog-grooming parlour. Its ears were made out of condoms.
One thing was certain: there was considerable buzz surrounding this young designer, both in and outside the insider circles. Pugh, with his slight frame, alabaster skin and fine features, was the driving force of a London club scene that hadn't been so energised since the halcyon days of the legendary nightspot Taboo. The more accessible face of this group of friends was Agyness Deyn – the two remain friends and frequently share fish and chip dinners, apparently. Pugh also shot to fame – and a degree of notoriety – as an integral part of !WOWOW! a creative community of artists that lived in a squat in Peckham, south London, and were as impenetrable to outsiders as they were glamorous.
Remarkably, and despite the fact that the style and fashion press couldn't get enough of his work, until 18 months ago, the designer hadn't done anything so banal as sell a stitch of clothing. ("Who do you think I am? Rumpelstiltskin?" he said to me when I wondered, not unreasonably, about the possibility of his producing a selling collection way back when.) Pugh had, though, dressed Kylie for her Showgirl tour and, indeed, Marilyn Manson. Although the designer's collections are aimed at women, his designs are sometimes shown on men not for any self-consciously subversive, gender-bending reason, he claims, but because "male models are just cheaper". Given that Pugh is an extrovert, famed, on occasion, for an extreme – a very extreme – personal style, he has often been compared to Leigh Bowery. His dark aesthetic, uncompromising vision and evident raw talent also leads, inevitably, to parallels being drawn between himself and Alexander McQueen.
"When new designers emerge, people always judge them by the values that they know," says the photographer Nick Knight, who has worked closely with Pugh almost since the day the latter graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2003. "That's because it's quite difficult to see them as something apart from that. Gareth provides a very surreal and personal vision of the world and that's not easy to define."
"I think Gareth is interesting because people don't quite understand what he's doing," confirms Jefferson Hack, publisher of Dazed & Confused – the magazine championed Pugh's degree collection on its cover only months after he graduated. "When I first saw Gareth's work, I knew that I loved it and I obviously felt confident in his ability, otherwise I wouldn't have put it on the front of the magazine so early on. I presumed, though, that he would probably end up showing once a year, maybe in a gallery, and produce a limited edition of 10 pieces, say, that might sell for £50,000 each. Now, though, it's becoming clearer and clearer how important a designer he is and what his place in fashion might be."
If ever proof of that fact were needed, it came earlier this year when Pugh was awarded The Andam (Association Nationale pour le Développement des Arts de la Mode) international fashion award. Supported by the French government as well as the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent Foundation, the LVMH Group, Swarovski, Yves Saint Laurent (Gucci Group) and more, it ensures that €152,000 (£120,000) will be injected into his label. It is the largest prize in fashion and Pugh follows in a long line of highly respected Andam-supported fashion designers, including the Belgian Martin Margiela and the Dutch-born Viktor & Rolf. Most importantly, Pugh will show this season in Paris, not London, alongside fashion's biggest names. London Fashion Week has been good to this designer but it remains a kindergarten by comparison.
When I arrive at Gareth Pugh's studio in Dalston, east London, at 10.30am as planned, I am greeted by an assistant who tells me that, actually, I must wait outside for a minute or two. "I think," he whispers, "Gareth might be asleep".
This, some might argue, is just as it should be. A self-proclaimed night creature, Pugh prefers to work and play into the small hours rather than to get up with the birds. He eventually surfaces, somewhat bleary-eyed, dressed in skinny jeans torn at the knee, a grey sweat top and white trainers. Save for a billboard sized photograph by the artist Matthew Stone ("it's a picture of our friend, Boo") propped up against one wall, the space is un-mannered to the point where it seems almost industrial. There's nothing as fey as inspiration boards loaded with whimsical reference pictures. In one corner, though, is the immediately identifiable head of aforementioned poodle. Decapitated.
"Yeah," says Pugh, "that was me being mean to one of my work experience people. I had to send her down to the family planning clinic in Camberwell on a Friday night to get a load of condoms because it was the only thing that you could blow up that would be that big and stay in shape."
Lest anyone assume the legendary headpiece was simple to realise, "It was actually a very lengthy process," he says. "We had to blow the condoms up really big, cast them with plaster of Paris, cut them down the middle so that it opened up, cover the open mould with cling-film and then cover the inside with expanding foam so that we could get rid of the plaster but be left with a perfect image that was really light. Then we joined the two halves together again and covered them in velvet, which is why they're still around. It's the idea of creating something permanent out of something that would normally be here today and gone tomorrow."
Why a poodle? One could be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of wry statement concerning the primped and preened nature of the fashion industry but – and as is often the case with fashion that seems unfamiliar to the point of shocking – the reason behind it is more straightforward, and indeed comic, than that. "The starting point for that show was fairgrounds," Pugh says, deadpan. "You know when you make those little balloon animals? It's always a poodle you make, isn't it?"
On closer inspection, this high-impact piece reveals the quieter – and significant – side of this designer's work. The sheer scale and audacity of it almost undermines the attention to detail and rigorous workmanship that went into its creation. And so, for example, on another occasion, when what looks like a huge, hooded, black and white printed coat comes down Gareth Pugh's catwalk, it turns out that it is, in fact, patchwork, and that every small square has been sewn on to the surface of the garment by hand.
"You know, I spend three months working on the show and I end up with 15 outfits," says Pugh. I remind him of our conversation two years ago. "Yeah, I suppose in a sense that does make me a bit like Rumpelstiltskin. Rumpelstiltskin with a life behind that as well."
The life story behind Gareth Pugh, 27, goes something like this. He was born in Sunderland, and, until recently, his mother worked at a call centre for the Littlewoods catalogue. "I spent a summer doing it, too," says her son today. "With one of those head-pieces, like Janet Jackson. 'Littlewoods! Gareth speaking. And would you like that in buttermilk or lavender, madam?' She did it on and off for, like 25 years." His father and elder brother, both called Trevor ("my parents were being very imaginative there") are policemen. "I don't think that anyone ever thought there was a possibility that I might do that!" Pugh says.
Aged 10, Pugh's mother, Lesley, took her son down to London to see The Phantom of the Opera for his birthday treat. "That was really the first time," he says. "It was in the West End and I remember walking through Soho and it was just so different. It was much sleazier back then, girls sitting on stools in the street and every other one of what are now coffee shops was a knocking shop or whatever. I thought: 'Oh my God, that's amazing. This is somewhere that I really want to be."
Since the age of eight, Pugh had been taking ballet lessons ("like Billy Elliot"), but at 16 he had to choose between a career in dance or fine art – he opted for the latter and any interest in fashion was only fuelled by one summer spent in London working in the costume department of the National Youth Theatre. He told the management there that he was 15, but was a year younger.
Pugh left school with straight As in fine art – sculpture, photography and sociology. "I wanted to do textiles but I did sociology because of my mum and dad. They wanted me to have an 'ology'. At the end of the day, it did me the world of good because it's interesting. You find out a little bit more about how things are interlinked."
There followed a foundation course, also in Sunderland. "I'll tell you this great story," says Jefferson Hack. "I'm sure his mum won't mind. We were doing an exhibition with Gareth in Nottingham and she was there. She's lovely. She told me that when Gareth was at art college doing his foundation, he used to make her lie naked on the kitchen table so that he could do moulds of her." To describe this woman as tolerant, then and supportive of her son's ambitions would be an understatement.
For his part, Pugh says that although an application to the Slade School of Art to study sculpture was all filled in and ready to go, he never sent it. He thought it would compromise his first choice: to go to Central Saint Martins and enrol on the feted fashion BA course there. He'd heard about it on the BBC Clothes Show and read a profile of the legendary – and formidable – Louise Wilson, who heads up the MA course.
"When I got to Saint Martins on my first day, the people on the course were so different to me. A lot them had done their foundation course there, everybody seemed to know each other, they were like 'mwah, mwah, how was your summer'? I felt really out of place." That didn't stop him being the star of his year, however. "There were these great teachers there," he says, "like Howard [Tangye], who taught Galliano, he's been there for years. I remember he said to us: "Don't think you're going to be designers when you leave, because you're not. And I always joke with my helpers that when they're at college and they have their final collection, it's called a final collection for a reason – it's the only one they'll ever do. Hahahaha."
If the reality of the highly colourful and hugely creative British fashion education system and the Saint Martins degree course in particular is that very few designers actually go on to start up their own labels when they graduate, the exception that proves that rule is Gareth Pugh. "I realise that only very few people get the opportunity to continue what they're doing at college for a job," he says. "Because I don't think anyone there dreams of a job on the high street. So many people leave with huge aspirations and then have to go, 'OK, what can I do with them?'"
What Pugh did was immerse himself in the culture of !WOWOW!.
"When you leave college it's tempting to expect something to be handed to you, but it wasn't like that. It was like a decision had to be made: do I get a job, or just stick it out and see what comes?
"There was this squat in Peckham with a group of people living there. I always lived round the corner in my flat because I had housing benefit, but my studio was there. But I remember the day everyone moved into it. It was this huge tile warehouse and the back door was open and you walked upstairs into a nightclub and the TV screens were on and there were drinks on the tables and a tramp asleep on one of the banquettes – as if the club had just finished. There was a gym there, too, working saunas and sunbeds. And on the next floor up again was an evangelical church – also abandoned.
"It was absolutely amazing and very decadent, but also stressful, going out and not knowing whether you'd ever get back in again. For me, though, trying to work under those sort of circumstances was not all that conducive."
The turning point came, he says, when Kylie Minogue's stylist, William Baker, turned up with a bag of black fabric and asked Pugh to transform it into a showpiece outfit. "It was like a tiny paper bag, but the fabric inside was worth £1,500. And we had this rampant dog in the squat which was just ripping things up. Thankfully, it got hold of one of my T-shirts, but not the contents of that bag. I started Kylie in the squat and had to finish it in the living room of a pub landlord who let me use his house because we'd been kicked out."
"I remember when I first met Gareth," says the Nick Knight, who has worked on several projects with the designer, both for i-D and Dazed & Confused magazines, and for his fashion website, showstudio.com. "Nicola [Formichetti – creative director of Dazed & Confused] brought him along to this thing we were doing for Showstudio, where people sent in clothes and stylists from across the board customised them. Nicola did that and Gareth and Kylie's troupe of dancers wore them."
Later, Knight invited Pugh to contribute a performance of his own. "He did this series where he would come in one day and be transformed into a very convincing show poodle on a rotating gold stand with a big red rosette on him. The entire next day he spent making a stack of cards. He piled up these cards and invariably they would fall down or if he'd get to the top, he'd start all over again. Finally, he did something called 'Make-up-Athon' where he sat in front of a mirror and made up looks for himself. He'd cover himself in treacle, then jam, then cream, making himself up as a cake, then he'd stick a candle into his nose and light it. He did look, after look, after look. It was very taxing and we ended up with this fairly extreme and surrealistic cabaret."
In the meantime, for his day job, if you will, Pugh continued to design clothes, finally producing garments to sell in partnership with the west-coast American designer, Rick Owens, and his wife, Michelle Lamy. His current autumn/winter collection was produced, for the most part, in specialist factories in Italy and is available at only the most upmarket and innovative stores around the world – Browns in London, Colette in Paris, Seven, Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman in New York. A single piece sells for thousands, and only the most open-minded and confident women are ever likely to wear them.
'I think there has been no one really since McQueen who has had such a precise point of view," says Jefferson Hack who has, once again, put Pugh's collection on the cover of the latest issue of his magazine (photographed, neatly enough, by Knight). "The type of person he is reaching out to is a very sophisticated consumer, a very sophisticated woman who understands fashion. They are statement pieces, the production qualities are incredibly high and he uses extremely decadent fabrics. Gareth is not just a club kid whose ideas come only from street culture, although that's what a lot of people think. Rick Owens and Michelle Lamy have been great for him in terms of enabling him to use really luxurious fabrics and spend time researching his collections. These are not just clothes knocked out in some East End factory, but involve high-end Italian craftsmanship. Very few people understand how hard someone like Gareth works. He is, today, more of a luxury brand than many of the obvious names that call themselves that."
It's safe to say that Gareth Pugh has come quite some way in the past five years and now, entering the spotlight in Paris, he may go a lot further. "There's only a certain amount you can do showing at London Fashion Week," the designer says. "At the end of the day it is about making money and there's nowhere you realise that more than when you go to Paris. Although it never started out as some kind of business plan, in hindsight, the over-the-top shows and all the attention really set me up. For someone who is relatively new at the whole selling thing and who's never done any advertising, it's worked out quite well."
"Gareth follows in a line of people whose extreme personal visions take you to a different universe," adds Knight. It's like John [Galliano], Yohji Yamamoto, Lee [Alexander McQueen] or Vivienne Westwood. I think that now he's also becoming more focused in his vision and we're seeing him dealing with the problem of designing clothes in a more direct and succinct way.
"What will be interesting is to discover what happens when he gets a large amount of money behind him. The ability of a designer to make women attractive and transform his or her own feelings into clothes that are very different from everybody else's is unusual and important. I'm sure Gareth has that."