He counts Beyoncé, Rhianna, Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue among his A-list fans – but for one international fashion designer, Sunderland will always be home.
You’d expect Gareth Pugh to be flying around the world dressing celebrities and supermodels with his latest collections.
But, basking in the sunshine at the Stadium of Light, he couldn’t be happier to be back in his home city of Sunderland.
“I know Sunderland like the back of my hand,” says Gareth, 36, in an exclusive interview with Fashion North to celebrate his return to the city to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Arts from the University of Sunderland on Wednesday July 4.
“Sunderland was a great place for me to grow up in,” he added. “It’s one of those places that has a lot of opportunities if you have a creative mind. There is a lot of interesting things that you are able to do if you are able to seek them out and find them.”
Gareth moved from Grangetown to London when he was 19 and is among the most influential designers today. British Vogue has praised him, saying: “his genius is undeniable”, while US Vogue editor Anna Wintour is a fan.
But nearly two decades on, none of this has gone to Gareth’s head and he still gets homesick for the North East. It was his mum’s old sewing machine that Gareth used to make the clothes for his finals at Central St Martin’s, London, for his graduate collection in 2003.
“The thing that I really miss most about not living in Sunderland anymore is the sea. I love the idea of being on the edge of something.”
Although he admits he is quite scared of the sea, unsure if it’s because of its depth or just not really knowing what’s under there, he says there is something that feels humbling about it.
And he’s nostalgic about growing up on Wearside, recalling: “I used to work at a place called Janet Frazer’s where my mam worked for 25 years, it was a call centre for Littlewoods catalogue and there is a little road down to the beach just behind where the old Janet Frazer’s building used to be and that is quite a special place as well.
“It’s kind of post-industrial; all of the concrete slabs down there are the foundations of a big warehouse that has since been knocked down and yeah you get those beautiful kinds of aggressive waves coming over and there is that inter-play between nature and concrete-ness that I think is super interesting and I find that quite beautiful.”
In fact Gareth was so inspired by the seaside that he used it as inspiration when asked by high-end London department store Selfridges to do an exhibition called The Flipside, questioning brands on radical luxury.
“For me it was the idea of time and being able to just think, you know? Because, there is not really a lot of that, especially in a world of Instagram and emails and you know being connected to everything 24/7,” he says.
Gareth’s idea included him and his mother walking along Seaburn beach. Using two cameras facing away from each other, they would walk towards the camera and then away from the camera and it would be presented on two screens in a big room in Selfridges. He describes that the sound builds to a crescendo as he and his mother pass through the room and then disappear off into the distance as the sound softens.
“We actually had to come up twice to do it because we came up around Easter time to do it but we got snowed off the beach because of horizontal hailstones and, yeah, we just basically filmed this walk,” he says.
Some of Gareth Pugh’s outfits from his 2017 London Fashion Week Show | Photo credit: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire
In 2009, Gareth expanded his Fashion shows into Fashion films. Having just done a menswear show in Paris three weeks earlier he made the pragmatic choice to make a film for his womenswear collection.
“It is very difficult to do anything different with a fashion show. So, the idea of changing or trying to represent the world that you are trying to create via a fashion show but via film just seemed like a natural progression really, because there is so much more you can show with a film than you can with a show.
“With a show, obviously a girl has to be able to get into an outfit and walk up and down a runway in front of a lot of people, whereas with a film you can really tightly control what people see and it gives you a lot more freedom to create more extreme things that don’t necessarily need you to be able to walk.
“But I’m a Virgo, I’m very much a perfectionist — other people might use the word control freak.
“When you do a show, the moment you send that model out you kind of relinquish control,” he adds.
For Gareth, his shows are more about just the clothes you see on the catwalk, and the idea of working so hard on a collection for a model to put their outfit on back-to-front, or a photographer to use the wrong photograph, can completely change the way people view his shows.
“Not only did we do the film but we also shot our own pictures and released them at the time of the show which again is a quite interesting idea of having that control over what people are taking away from it.”
But for Gareth, fashion film is only the beginning. He believes there needs to be something else: “I’m just currently trying to understand what that could be.
“You know the fashion industry, is an industry so based on change yet there is such a reluctance to change the way it’s presented.
“It’s the same with magazines. Magazines are still kind of gripping on, and I understand there are arguments for and against everything, but I just feel like there is just such a reluctance to evolve and change. So, I’m quite excited to try and mess with things a little bit more.”