Kathryn Ferguson

...the acclaimed director and curator hosts NJAL's Fashion Film section

by Mariel Reed
Belfast born filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson is best known for her experimental work in Fashion Film. After completing a Masters in Communication, Art & Design at The Royal College of Art (RCA), where she pushed for the acknowledgement of fashion film as a genre, Kathryn has become a reputable director, curator and lecturer. Her work spans across the fashion industry and has been featured in many festivals and exhibitions including at the 59th Berlinale, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, ASVOFF Barcelona, MTV and Vogue. She has worked with some of fashion’s most influential icons including Lady Gaga and some of the best up-and-coming designers like Katie Eary and Richard Nicoll. Besides continuing her celebrated career as a director, Kathryn is working with the BFC to curate the Fash/On Film festival and lectures regularly at Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion.

What sparked your interest in Fashion Film? Was it the Fashion or the Film?
It was my early love of both fashion and film. My interest in short format filmmaking began at a relatively young age. As a teenager growing up in Belfast in the 90’s I enjoyed MTV. I was always particularly fascinated with Chris Cunningham and Hype Williams’ video work and their ability to merge sound and moving image to such an intensifying extent. Bill Viola’s work thrilled me when I first saw a show of his in a gallery in Belfast.

I was equally enamored with the fashion photography of Nick Knight, Lee Miller and Helmut Newton. This was coupled with my father owning a rather eccentric VHS tape of short excerpts from his favourite films, a kind of video mash up tape from the 1990’s. The opening scene of 'Apocalypse Now' opened the tape then suddenly cut to Sinead O’Connor’s ‘Troy’, then to a video of Pink Floyd playing in the Pompeii amphitheatre and continued in that vein. It was all very intense and powerful imagery.

I think this tape was one of my biggest and earliest influences. Then during my BA in Fashion Communication & Promotion at Central Saint Martins (CSM) in the early noughties, I had a friend who had been interning at SHOWstudio. She would come into college and tell us about the video shoots she’d been on and try to show them to us on old computers using dial-up Internet. As a young student I was stunned by these videos.

After Discovering your passion and talent for fashion film, you decided to do a film-based masters at the RCA. You did your BA at CSM. How have these two prestigious universities contributed to your style? How do they differ?
I had very enriching experiences at both RCA and CSM. The most rewarding experience to take from both colleges was an ability to collaborate and a driving desire to discuss, critique and share ideas. My experience at CSM was much more fashion focused due to the nature of the course.

By the time I applied for my Masters at the RCA I was very interested in learning more about experimental film. Once there, I had quite a hard time convincing my tutors that fashion film was a genre to consider seriously. My frustration lead me to give college-wide lectures with a fashion PHD student Nathaniel Beard as a way of explaining the purpose and importance of the fashion film. During this period at the RCA, I had a burning desire to create more personal video work. My time at the RCA was two of the best years of my life. I made lots of new work, shared ideas and it culminated in the making of my film ‘Mathair’, which ended up being a very personal exploration of my Catholic upbringing in Ireland with my mother.

What distinguishes a fashion film for you?
My perception of a good fashion film and what stimulates me has changed quite dramatically over the past eight years since first becoming aware of them. In 2003 when I was shown the moving image experiments happening at SHOWstudio, I was utterly bowled over by the spectacle and fantasy. I remember a friend showing me ‘MAC III’, a collaboration between Nick Knight, Alexander McQueen and Michael Clark . I decided there and then that I wanted to experiment with moving image, sound and fashion. I feel now that while I will always appreciate the spectacle of fashion-image-making and the fantasy it creates, I think the filmmaking itself needs to be paramount. I now find myself most drawn to films with a purpose, a story even if it’s a non-linear narrative. I feel storytelling is key with the garments in a supporting role rather than in the lead.

You are known for your expertise in the field. Even though it is a relatively new genre, why do you think it has so quickly taken off?
The recent explosion in fashion filmmaking has really put it on the map. However, it has in fact been bubbling away for decades. Designers such as Ossie Clark and Barbara Hulanciki experimented with film as a means of showcasing their designs. Even more recently in 1998 Bella Freud collaborated with John Malkovich to create moving image experiments as a means to present her seasonal collections.

SHOWstudio has been pioneering the genre since 2000. However, I feel the reason for the current explosion in activity has a lot to do with one specific platform – the Internet. The Internet is now one of our main windows for viewing film. It’s much quicker now than ever before so the viewer can enjoy an HD video experience on his or her laptop. Camera equipment also has a lot to do with it. When the Canon 5D Mark II arrived it was a liberating moment for new filmmakers. No longer were the crews and equipment necessarily required to shoot a high quality piece of moving image.

What has been a fun project that you worked on recently?
There have been lots recently! I am in the middle of curating an extensive fashion film exhibition for the British Council in China that will open in October. The exhibition will be an exploration of British-made fashion film from early cinema experiments to the current day. This has developed off the back of a touring fashion film programme of screenings, talks and filmmaking workshops that I’ve been working on with the British Council since November 2011. This programme has travelled to Sarajevo, Moscow, Ljubljana in Slovenia and Lagos in Nigeria, and will then tour the world. Meeting and working with the British Council has been a thoroughly enriching experience. It’s a fantastic opportunity to work and have a dialogue with creatives from all around the world.

I have also joined a curatorial panel at the British Fashion Council. The panel and I launched the first UK-based Fashion Film Festival called Fash/on Film in February 2012. Aside from my curatorial work I have my own video projects that I’m working on. Fellow filmmaker Elisha Smith Leverock and I are writing our first short film together, I am in currently working on an experimental music video and two other short films. Very recently I joined London College of Fashion as an Associate Lecturer where I am delivering a project on fashion film. I am finding working with students very fulfilling.

As a director, how do you decide how to portray a collection? What can you NOT leave out of a fashion film?
I think an early dialogue between the director and designer is critical. It should be a very organic process beginning with the first sketches of a designers collection integrating with the directors early ideas for a concept. The films work best, in my eyes, when this conversation is apparent and they have created a vision together. The concept in a fashion film is most important.

How has technology changed fashion film? With everyone running around with flipcams and SLRs, how can we control quality?
I think the main thing that’s needed in a fashion film beyond camera quality and whether it’s HD or not is quality concepts. The strongest idea could be conceived on a grainy phone camera and still be highly effective.

Models vs Actors…In a fashion film, who deserves the leading role?
It totally depends on the brief and the films purpose. I personally like working with actresses, dancers and performers when it comes to filmmaking. I think showing real bodies in a fashion context is also critical and interesting.

What is the importance of a story in fashion films. Should they be exempt from a plot?
It’s totally subjective but I now feel all film whether it’s fashion, music and art needs a concept and narrative even if it’s non-linear.

What are your next steps?
Aside from my curatorial practice, I have three new films in production. I have a personal desire to write stories about strong woman and to create good role models for future generations of females. My personal goal is to create work I am proud of in this area. There needs to be more female voices in filmmaking in general. I am thrilled that fashion film has encouraged so many woman to pick up a camera for the first time. I try as much as possible to curate fashion film programmes with female directors in mind as I believe how women perceive other women in film is very important. I have the upmost respect for filmmakers like Ruth Hogben and Elisha Smith Leverock who also share this ideal on creating films showing females as strong and empowered.

How do you think this genre will evolve?
I think storytelling, technology and hopefully better budgets will move this genre on in a positive way. For the quality to improve, young designers and emerging directors need funds to create a film just like they would with a fashion show. Narrative filmmaking will hopefully continue to lead the way and I am thrilled to think what new technologies are coming our way. I’m all for embracing future technologies and moving with the times. Holographic shopping in one's bedroom, 3D animated lookbooks, who knows, it’s exciting!