Gareth Pugh’s Fashion Show Lacked Fashion, But Not Passion

Can you have a fashion show without catwalk, models, and actual clothes? At New York Fashion Week, British designer Gareth Pugh showed off a new kind of “show.”

Matteo Prandoni/

Well, they are called fashion “shows,” but one of the most hotly anticipated events opening New York Fashion Week audaciously jettisoned the fashion almost altogether on Thursday night.

For the past six years, British designer Gareth Pugh has shown his collection during Paris Fashion Week. So when it was revealed he would instead be showing in New York, it quickly became one of the most buzzed-about shows of the week. The announcement that it would be a costly “immersive live performance” made it an instant curiosity, one not to be missed.

It was also a bold decision for Pugh.

Not because of his ambitious presentation—his previous works have involved pumping chlorine into the space to put the audience in a trance and a multi-sensory experience which involved a virtual reality helmet—but because New York is not typically known for its “creative” shows. Instead, designers tend to focus more on business, making sure buyers view the collections, and less on dramatic presentations.

Pugh literally did the opposite.

“Fashion is very stuck in its ways, and I wanted to present something that would make people think, and maybe move the needle a bit,” the Central Saint Martin graduate told the New York Times. I know it’s a big risk,” he added. “And I’m worried. But I think it’s good to light a fire under your bum every once in a while.”

Not to mention, his collection would not be ready to present in-person.

Due to the earlier-than-usual arrival of New York Fashion Week, which typically takes place later in the month, the performance, which included both video and live dancers, served as a substitute for the unfinished collection, which was inspired by “an obsession with British folklore and its multitude of rites and rituals,” as Pugh explained in the show’s notes.

“British folklore has this very inextricable link to nature and the elements,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s much more about referencing Pagan gods … and its very linked to the cyclical nature of agriculture and farming.”

The three-part production, sponsered by Lexus Design Disrupted initiative, took over Pier 36, a 125,000 square foot recreational and entertainment warehouse, and embodied the “essence” of the collection, as Pugh explained.

Eight electronic pillars constructed a stylized stone circle that acted as the stage for the show’s opening. Each “stone” showcased pre-recorded videos of models wearing Pugh’s colorless collection. A stoic figure in a white floor length dress and razor-tailored bodice was accessorized with a giant bull skull as a mask. Another model, covered from head to waist in white flowers, danced. One in a hypnotic black and white patterned pant suit struck poses while a women in a thin, white coven dress seemed to cast spells on the audience. There was even a free-spirited frock made of ropes, which flung about through her ritualistic dance.

From there, the audience shifted to the middle of the room. A smoke tornado spawned from the ground. Performers danced to choreography by Wayne McGregor while similar dancers—projected in videos by Pugh’s longtime collaborator Ruth Hodgon—were displayed on massive screens.

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The finale consisted of a lengthy dance routine that mimicked the movements of animals in nature. A giant screen gave viewers an aerial view of the routine before switching to a woman in white slowly rising—the long strips of her white dress expanding to the far corners—before perching high above the crowd in a symbolic form of the phoenix and ending the show.

“For me, [British folklore] was an interesting parallel with fashion…the idea of building something up and knocking it down,” he said. “As with the phoenix, when something ends something else begins, so for me it’s kind of like an optimistic take on things.”

While the show itself was a grand production—Pugh’s most expensive show to date—the fact that it lacked any physical models donning the designs is what really challenged the dynamics of what we, as spectators, have come to expect from the industry’s most anticipated presentations. In order to stay relevant to the public, do collections need to be psychically seen by the bloggers, club kids, and celebrities (Sarah Jessica Parker, Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen, Andy Cohen, Coco Rocha were in attendance), whose opinions matter far less than the powerful buyers who will see his complete collection in a few weeks time?

Pugh, ingeniously maybe, wants it both ways: to create a bubble of hype with the tastemakers, and then, when the collection is ready, to show it to the people who will sell the product for our consumption—an entirely calculated marriage serving creativity and commerce.

Pugh’s presentation was well received by the crowd, which whistled, cheered and clapped after both renditions of the presentation (the repetitive show “instills that cyclical nature and the idea behind the collection”) commending his artistic efforts. It was everything we expected it to be—a stunning visual display of both his designs and the concept art that embodied its essence.

It generated buzz and kept Pugh on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But, when the collection is finally complete, the frills and extravagance will have disappeared, allowing buyers and investors a straightforward view of his highly acclaimed designs. The rest of us will have to wait until the pieces hit department stores before reveling in the brilliance that is so entwined in Pugh’s collections.