• Text Tempe Nakiska
  • 19th September 2016

A night at the opera

Passers by a certain Soho car park on Saturday night may have thought the were witnessing the echoes of an underground tribal rave. They wouldn’t have been entirely mistaken – from the drums that pounded through its walls (and our skulls) to the mean boots Gareth Pugh’s models stomped in, it had the ritualistic energy of losing it to a beat.

Pugh’s collection riffed on themes of power, corruption and self-destruction. A dramatic black hole headdress set the scene and gave way to sun crowns and sharp black tailoring, regally gilt like sun-worshipping armour. The show was the climax of a monstrous 24 hours for Pugh, having been at the Palais Garnier in Paris (where he once showed his collections, before coming home to London) the previous evening where he witnessed the debut of the 60 costumes he designed for the opera Eliogabalo. Written by Francesco Cavalli in 1667 for the Venice Carnival, the opera traces the story of a young emperor in imperial-era Rome, whose OTT decadence, tyranny and destruction leads to what Pugh calls an “empire eating itself.”

“He’s an agent of chaos, a crowned anarchist, emerging amid a climate of greed and narcissism,” he said in the show notes. And that notion of an empire destroying itself “felt alarmingly relevant.” In light of Brexit and our current political state – in the UK, the US and beyond – Pugh’s grand interpretation of a world steadily fucking itself hits scarily close to home.

As the looks progressed the black was shot through with flowing purple pieces, drawing largely from the ecclesiastical vestments of Francis Bacon’s 1953 study Pope Innocent X, whose painted black hole of a mouth could be felt in that first look and which to Pugh represents “the ultimate symbol of insatiable hunger and consumption.” The fall of that power was channeled through the third and final chapter of the show, in which the rich and severe gave way to softer sunburst graphics in earthy tones, like sunlight from an evil darkness.

When Insomnia by Faithless (a gut-sinking club classic) blasted for the final walk you knew it was Pugh’s dark little joke. Having shot straight from Paris the night before, any sleep he managed was probably at 186mph – on the Eurostar to London. For a designer who reins supreme over the art of theatrics, that sort of pressurised drama makes a lot of sense.