Encounters

Eliogabalo sewn with gold

Interview with Gareth Pugh — By Milena Mc Closkey

The lyrical season of the Paris Opera opens with Francesco Cavalli’s Eliogabalo, directed by Thomas Jolly. To make this rarely performed and sulphurous work his own, the young stage director called upon the talents of British fashion designer Gareth Pugh, in whom he confided the costume design for the production. The dark characters present in the couturier’s shows, with powerful and distorted silhouettes, are somewhat reminiscent of the haunted Shakespearian figures to which the stage director dedicated most of his early career to. Both also enjoyed meteoric rises in their respective industries. Gareth Pugh is a recent graduate from Central Saint Martins College when he is discovered by Rick Owens and invited to work with him in Paris. Two years later, in 2005, he founded his own studio. His collections soon achieved tremendous critical success. For a decade already, Gareth Pugh has been rising in the fashion industry thanks to the audacity and modernity of his creations. The thirty-something designer, yet full of youthful gentleness, has currently made a home of the Paris Opera.     

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?

G. P. :The interesting thing for me in theatre is that it’s all about an image, presenting an idea and a fantasy. That’s what I’m most attracted to. And the idea of something not necessarily related to the reality that everybody understands as their own, representing a different world. It’s similar to film, or photography, in how it presents an alternate reality to whoever’s watching. And I guess that’s what I do in my own work, there’s a lot of synergy there. For my shows, we always have a very well thought underlying story or narrative but that we don’t necessarily want to put across too overtly. We know what we want to do and what we want to achieve, but I guess at the end of the day, it’s clothes! It’s difficult to explain so much in a fashion show, the thought that goes behind it, especially in a fashion show context. There are a lot of things that are left unspoken, but I think that sometimes it’s the best way to do it.
© Gareth Pugh

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?

G. P. :I never say what I do is costume, but it definitely has a sense of theatricality. How could I deny that? Basically the way that I approach collections is thinking a lot about different characters. Our shows are very character based. For me it’s always the same person but in a different guise or different costume. The characters that fill our shows are the medium to convey a strong visual experience, so the catwalk is a sort of stage. The image we are trying to present is quite detached from reality. You won’t meet these characters walking down the street. They belong to the same world that theatre or opera characters belong to. I think fashion should be aspiration, it should be about fantasy. I only get two opportunities a year to have that dialogue with an audience, so it’s important to make it the most intense and compelling experience as possible. As in theatre, there is so much work that goes behind it, but it’s one moment when everything comes together. To me, that’s the beauty in fashion and in theatre. So much time has been spent on everything you’re seeing, but it’s fleeting, it’s live. That is very much the thrill of it. Anything can happen.

How did you meet Thomas Jolly and how did you join the artistic team for Eliogabalo?

G. P. : The only experience I’d had on a project like this before was when I worked with Wayne Mc Gregor on his ballet Alea Sands which was given at the Palais Garnier last December. So I worked with the Paris Opera’s Ateliers and met Christine Neumeister, the head of the Costumes Department. It was she that suggested to Thomas Jolly that we work together for Eliogabalo. And it turned out that he was familiar with my work and had used it as reference and inspiration for previous theatre projects. So he was quite excited at the idea of working together.

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.

© Gareth Pugh

Was the concept of chaos the main element in your understanding of the piece?

G. P. : The chaos symbol – arrows going out from a central point – is one of the motifs we recurrently use in his costumes for this production. It’s quite interesting to think that Cavalli originally composed this opera for the Venice Carnival. Eliogabalo has the social function of the Carnival King, the jester, the fool. The opera opens on him committing rape and the rest of the story is about him wanting someone he can’t have. His childish petulance is ridiculous and highly dislikeable. Ultimately his downfall is cathartic for the audience; he is like an acidulous sorbet that cleanses the pallet. Everyone hates Eliogabalo so that everyone can be unified and pacified. He is the necessary evil that channels all the underlying violence and chaos of a society. Power is such a corruptive force. It’s what I was working on in my show last season. It was about this female character who commands respect but also provokes fear. I was interested in that interplay where this female figure could be seen more as a demonic figure rather than a deity.

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?

G. P. :We didn’t want the costumes to be tied to a specific period of time, they obviously hint at both. We are using codes that are quite recognizable. Eliogabalo’s costumes are very neo-baroque, with a byzantine inspiration. He is wearing purple for a lot of the opera, and gold is used quite heavily on his costumes, as well as gold faceted appliqués inspired by Roman mosaics. The explosive dynamic of arrows and sunrays is very present in the designs; symbols of chaos and anarchy are stitched into a lot of the clothes. Cornelia Parker’s incredible installations of suspended fragments that look like frozen explosions were also an inspiration. We’re trying to really embrace the ambiguity of the sun: it is a quite feminine symbol which can represent warmth, the dawn of a new day and the beginning of something but can also represent power and destruction.

Did you also decide to emphasize Eliogabalo’s sexual ambiguity?

G. P. :For Eliogabalo, we have an Emperor costume and an Empress costume. There are a lot of moments where we dress male characters as women. Although we didn’t want to disguise their masculinity, we wanted to make clear that it’s a man in a dress. It’s showing that ambiguity and uncertainty quite visibly, we’re not trying to mask it.

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.

© Gareth Pugh

How collaborative was the creation process with Thomas Jolly?

G. P. :We talked a lot at the beginning about the story and the characters, he showed me what he wanted to do for the set and the lighting and I understood then what the aesthetic was supposed to be. I understood it wasn’t supposed to be something so baroque or historical. It needed to have a very architectural angle, which is perfect for my work, that has a certain rigidity to it, like wearable sculptures. He has given me a lot of freedom. He didn’t set any stipulations or constraints about the costumes. Most of what I came to him with, he loved. Things evolved naturally.

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!

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