You are designing costumes for an opera for the first time. Was designing for the stage something that you’d always wanted to do?
Gareth Pugh :I’ve always had an appeal for the stage. Through ages fourteen to sixteen, I attended costume courses during the summer break from school, at the National Youth Theatre’s ateliers, in London. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that it was my first experience in fashion design because it was more about facilitating another designer’s ideas rather than designing myself. It wasn’t until I went to Saint Martins College that I started to design, but my education in theatre really marked my formative years.
How has this teenage theatre education since nourished your work?
Many show business artists have worn your designs: Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, etc. Beyoncé Knowles said she felt empowered to impersonate her on-stage persona Sacha Fierce by wearing your designs. Would you say that is because your aesthetic is theatrical?
How did you meet Thomas Jolly and how did you join the artistic team for Eliogabalo?
What persuaded you to get involved in this project?
G. P. :I’m fascinated with opera and ballet because both these art forms represent a freak of nature. I mean, the way ballet dancers can move and what opera singers can do with their voices is simply incredible. The way they express emotion is so singular and specific to their particular art form that being part of it is a great joy. When my involvement in the project was still in discussion, a friend of mine suggested I read Antonin Artaud’s first-person novel about the young Emperor’s life. And I’ve been carrying it around with me ever since. I found the story absolutely captivating and thought it had a lot of contemporary echoes.
Was the concept of chaos the main element in your understanding of the piece?
For the costumes for this production of Eliogabalo, were you more inspired by the flamboyant baroque era in which the opera was composed or by the immaculate and sculptural Antiquity in which the opera is set?
Did you also decide to emphasize Eliogabalo’s sexual ambiguity?
In Eliogabalo, not only are the sexual boundaries broken but also the boundaries between men and gods…
G. P. :Absolutely. Another important idea that comes across in the costumes and that crosses over with my upcoming show is Eliogabalo being a self-proclaimed sun god. Being British, Elizabeth the First comes to my mind. She used to paint her face and wear very austere silhouettes, representing herself as something more than human, like a deity on Earth, to justify her domination. I worked with the Royal Gallery in London on an exhibition about the Tudors; they were the first “power dressers”, an historical version of Thierry Mugler I guess! The triangular silhouettes of the Tudor era were an inspiration for Eliogabalo’s costumes. You just have to look at the Eiffel Tower to know how important triangles are! they are the strongest shape in physics. How a triangular silhouette directs all the attention to the face and a dynamic towards the sky – hence towards the gods – creates an impression of power and of being untouchable. But people eventually see though the veneer. And very fittingly, the libretto sets the scene of Eliogabalo’s downfall when he’s bathing. Because when he’s the least dressed is when he is the most vulnerable. The production ends on Eliogabalo stepping into a pool, and stepping out the body covered in gold, and then getting killed. As if he’d condemned himself by wanting to become immortal.
How collaborative was the creation process with Thomas Jolly?
How would you describe the process of designing the costumes for this production at the Paris Opera?
G. P. :It’s been an incredible experience. For the ballet, it was very different. Because I did a lot of the work myself: they gave me mannequins and it was very to the body. With Eliogabalo, it’s been a very different process. It was split between my studio in London and the opera. We’ve been creating ideas and trying to figure out over here how best to make them a reality. Obviously there were limitations, in concern for the performers. Accessories I love like masks were out of the question. But we push it as far as we can while keeping the clothes reasonably easy to evolve with on stage. And not every costume is so visually impactful or crazy. You work around the performers and in the constraints of what needs to happen on stage. For example, for the Gladiators scene, we created those big arm-pieces but when everyone comes together and starts working on stage, it ultimately informs your choices and we adjusted the design according to the choreography. I have to remember it’s not all about the costumes! With my show, my boys and girls just have to walk up and down, there’s a little bit more to it here! (laugh) But don’t get me wrong, it’s a good problem to have, constraints stimulate the imagination. Another difficulty is that there are so many people that I need to please. It’s like working for a client I guess. It was quite difficult sometimes because I’m not used to working with so many departments and so many people. It’s been a steep learning curve but everybody in the Ateliers who has been working on the project is very talented, with magic hands. It’s been a privilege to be part of this.
How does your collaboration with artists invited at the Paris Opera nourish your personal work?
G. P. : It happens quite naturally. For example, I had the chance to meet Marie-Agnès Gillot last year through Wayne McGregor at the Palais Garnier and we struck an artistic friendship. She is a formidable character, I asked her open my last collection. As I said before, it was all about strong, powerful women, so she was perfect for it. The fashion industry can be very cynical and someone like Marie-Agnès, who is so inquisitive, so willing to push herself is very inspiring to me. I feel like it’s much more my world. And as for my next collection, since I’d never designed costumes for an opera before, the way I approached it was very much the way I would design a collection. So there are a lot of things that we (my studio’s team and I) have created for the opera and then adapted in using for the fashion show. I guess my new collection and the designs for Eliogabalo sit together but are nonetheless very different things. My show for the London Fashion Week opens exactly 24 hours after the premiere! It’s going to be quite a logistical mind-mess to get me back to London in time and ready for the show, but it’s also very exciting!
Your reading: Eliogabalo sewn with gold