Peter Strickland on clothes, class and new film In Fabric

Peter Strickland, long one of the UK's most interesting filmmakers, returns with a sly horror about a demonic frock. He discusses the death of the high street, Britain's obsession with class and his fascination with how clothes make us feel

Feature by Philip Concannon | 14 Jun 2019
  • In Fabric

“I buy a lot of dodgy DVDs, that's no big secret,” Peter Strickland says halfway through our conversation. We’ve been discussing the demise of the High Street, the simultaneous rise of online shopping, and the lost thrill of making an unexpected discovery after chatting to a sales assistant or patiently browsing through the aisles. Having a website guess what you want based on your prior purchases just doesn’t have the same magic. “Oh, the algorithms!” he groans. “They drive me mad. I just want to speak to a human being and flick through a rack. There's something physical about flicking through records and that process of discovery and talking to people, and I think something would really be lost if we only did things online. You know, we all shop online and we have to sometimes, but when I go into DVD stores they're empty now. It's just tragic.”

In Fabric is Strickland’s homage to a lost era of retail, recreating the plush and palatial shops he remembers from his youth. But this is no rose-tinted nostalgia trip. As soon as you enter the Dentley & Soper’s department store to take advantage of its winter sale, you might sense that something feels off. The ostentatiously costumed and overly attentive staff, led by Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed, address the customers in odd, contorted phrases that sound like they’ve been twice filtered through translation software (“Did the transaction validate your paradigm of consumerism?”), and they exhibit a genuine panic in their eyes if any shopper dares to return a purchase.

One item in particular that sends a chill up their collective spines is a red dress, purchased by single mother Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). This dress – listed as 'artery red' in the store's catalogue – has a life of its own. Driven by a murderous instinct, the dress floats from one owner to the next, seemingly a perfect fit for their disparate bodies, until it renders those bodies lifeless.

It's Strickland's most extravagant premise to date, and it's also his biggest and most ambitious film. The director's previous features have focused narrowly on a small group of characters, and have often felt hermetically sealed within a single environment, but this time he is opening up the narrative and telling his story from multiple perspectives. Aside from Dentley & Soper's, In Fabric invites us into Sheila's home and place of work as well as a chintzy Greek restaurant, before switching focus entirely halfway through the film to a new set of characters – washing machine repairman Reg (Leo Bill) and his fiancée Babs (Hayley Squires). It creates a darkly comic panorama of quotidian British life, which in Strickland's view has unnerving, Kafka-esque undertones.

“I think it's because I lived in Eastern Europe too long. In Eastern Europe, Kafka is regarded as a social realist, and I think it's very important not to be surreal for the sake of it. Everything has to be grounded in some kind of reality. It is exaggerated but there's still a link to real life,” he explains. His time spent away from the UK has allowed Strickland to look at the country from the outside, highlighting different aspects of British culture. “It's this petty-mindedness. So much British humour comes from one-upmanship and making people look stupid – that's just a British thing and you don't get it so much in Hungarian humour. And class hits you like anything here. I guess because I'm middle-class I'd never really thought that much about it, and it's only when living abroad that it really hits you how class seeps into everything in this country.”

Class isn't the only thing seeping through this movie. Strickland also examines the relationship we have with the clothes we wear, and how deeply intimate that relationship can be. “I really wanted to explore this idea of bodily fluids on clothing because, you know, all clothing has bodily fluids: sweat, blood, cum, whatever. It's very taboo but it's such an everyday thing, and there's something haunting in that. Objects have a power. A dead person's clothing can make someone cry, so objects are not just objects, they're very powerful things that create human emotions. I think the film is just using the haunting as a device to explore ideas about... not about fashion – which I'm not very interested in, as you can probably tell – but about how we feel when we wear clothing and how we feel when we see clothing.”

This tension between the outré and the everyday is at the heart of In Fabric. It's a tension that extends to the performances too, with Marianne Jean-Baptiste's grounded, naturalistic work clashing with the theatrical otherworldliness that Fatma Mohamed brings to the movie. Strickland found that the costume design was the key in bringing these characters to life, giving his design team a very different challenge to the sleek and elegant The Duke of Burgundy. “Reg has a fleece jacket, Sheila has an ordinary coat, and what I loved about working with Jo Thompson in costume is that she's not afraid to put those on a character,” he says. “Sometimes people are like, 'It doesn't look good on my portfolio!' but she was so good like that. She didn't care about the portfolio; she just cared about the characters. Yeah, Reg looks really, really plain in jeans and a fleece jacket, but that's his character. So I was really liberated by that and I think what's good about having the plain clothing is that it really contrasts with the staff in the store. My favourite moments are when you've got Marianne's plain jacket with Fatma's very flamboyant costume.”

That taste for flamboyance, combined with the immersion in classic genre cinema and a fetishistic attention to details of texture and sound, is what sets Strickland's work apart from his contemporaries in British cinema. He's come a long way in the decade since his self-funded debut Katalin Varga, but despite the bigger budgets, realising his exacting vision is still an uphill struggle. “We had more money than my previous film and I thought, 'Wow, this is great!' But then we had more than triple the amount of actors, more than triple the amount of locations and so on, so that money doesn't go far at all. Plus we shot it in London, whereas the last film was shot in Hungary, which is cheaper. It was tight, very tight, but you just have to make it work somehow.”

The biggest challenge may yet be to come. Just before our interview, Strickland was meeting with the great American independent producer Christine Vachon (Carol, Boys Don't Cry, Vox Lux), who may finally help him get his long-gestating film about gay life in 1980s New York off the ground. “It was going to be my next film after Berberian and then after Duke, it's on and on,” he says with a sigh. “It's just so difficult to get money for that kind of thing, just because of what it is. You can't sell it to many countries, hence you can't make the money back. If it was cheap I reckon we could do it, but because we have to recreate a lot of nightclubs, it's really difficult.”

Don't expect a documentary-like recreation of 80s New York, though; the vision taking shape in Strickland's mind has been fuelled by artists like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wakefield Poole and James Bidgood. “I mean, I can't recreate the clubs because I wasn't there – I was in my school shorts in Reading – so you might as well go completely the other way and make it into this cinematic netherworld, which has its own logic,” he says. “I'm trying. The cynic in me suggests it's just going to go on like this, but I hope not.”

In Fabric is released on 28 Jun by Curzon