Filtering into the Victoria and Albert museum for Gareth Pugh’s much-anticipated return to London Fashion Week, the atmosphere was calm, the guests quiet and the room dark. Pugh has spoken at length about how he’s drawn to a kind of magnetism between opposites and this was already a room of contrasts as the black corners of the echoing space were cut through with a handful of almost impossibly white spotlights. That darkness only seemed to expand as the opening film, directed by long time collaborator Ruth Hogben, appeared projected on the wall. Exploring ideas of transformation, catharsis and identity, the film ended with a burst of flame engulfing subject Aymeline Valade’s bound torso and paint-daubed body, red-smeared arms drawn wide in a ghostly premonition of a burning St George’s flag. Clearly Pugh’s decision to show in England hadn’t been taken lightly.
More darkness shielded the first look from sight as the model crept across the room, the great hook of a helmet-like headpiece emerging from the gloom and suddenly her face, painted white and striped with a cross of red, caught and illuminated. Pugh’s masterful, gothic manipulation of the silhouette was ever-present in incredibly slim, double breasted military coats, wide belted capes and high gleaming rubber boots. Layers of plastic straws added a thick, fluid texture that glittered in white light and a black fur overskirt split open at the front was tribal, strong and strange. While this was clearly a powerful, political show, one wondered if, without the ideas of contrast and conflict present in the production, the entirely black collection would perhaps have lacked some of that bite on its own.
Gradually the soundtrack by another long-time collaborator Matthew Stone introduced echoing, distorted samples of chanting from Sunderland football fans. While the show notes wrote of a collection 'fierce and full of a hope' the heavy emphasis on hooliganism in the production and styling took it to a rather more uncomfortable place, particularly in light of last week’s racial attack in Paris by Chelsea football fans. Pugh’s musing on the British identity can be summed up by Stone’s repeated, distorted sample of that classic football chant, 'who are you?' You’re left with the feeling that between all the bared teeth, nationalism and English pride Pugh’s been wondering something the rest of us has been wondering for a while; what exactly is it that makes us, us?