House of Fashion: Designing the In Fabric Poster
Sensuous, hypnotic, intoxicating, the cinema of British filmmaker Peter Strickland is all of these things and a whole lot more. He constructs worlds of vivid imagination based in their own distinctly timeless spaces and visual proportions, expounding his own brand of nostalgia that’s away from the realms of pastiche but evokes worlds with immersive, dream-like sensibilities where everything is ever-so-slightly off.
Perhaps the only person to perfectly capture the look, feel and zest of Strickland’s work is long-time collaborator Julian House, Partner and Creative Director of independent cross-media agency Intro. Known for a dedication to old school craft and technological skill that has simultaneously become synonymous with Strickland’s methods, House has been visually conveying the filmmaker’s distinct styles since the name-making Giallo homage Berberian Sound Studio through to The Duke of Burgundy.
Now comes In Fabric, a stark, darkly comedic horror that tells the story of a nomadic “artery red” dress that literally kills. While Strickland’s most outwardly accessible film yet, it posed the fundamental question: how do you visually represent a film that is as much about cursed couture as it is a lament for the dwindling allure of retail? The answer is nothing short of breathtaking, but the journey to it wasn’t so straightforward.
We paid Julian a visit to discover just how he came up with a poster that’s widely being heralded as a striking work of art in and of itself, and perhaps the best poster of the year.
“Peter knows that I’m into similar stuff as him, so visually and musically we have similar sensibilities and tastes,” begins House at the Intro studio nestled behind Old Street tube station in London’s east end. “One thing he knows from what I do with my work, whether it’s been with the band Broadcast, who I’m friends with and he’s a fan of, or my own record label Ghostbox, is that I approach certain things not in a retro or ironic way, and Peter is very interested in creating or evoking almost a parallel place where the fictional world bleeds into the real.”
House, who began working with Strickland through the animated title sequence he made for Berberian Sound Studio amongst other contributions, draws inspiration from the likes of Saul Bass, Iginio Lardani, Jan Švankmajer, and the surrealist posters that came out of Poland and the Czech Republic in the 1970s, particularly, he says, through the way “they came at it from a strange, uncanny angle, tugging at stuff from the unconscious. Things that have elements of the past are involved, but where the dream elements stop it being just an empty reference.
“I think there are certain things that veer into contrived kitsch and retro that Peter wants to steer clear of because he knows that’s what I’m about in what I do and what I want to avoid,” he continues. “I want to avoid stuff that feels like it’s got air quotes around it or is an obvious reproduction of something. With Peter’s films, there are a lot of elements that are connected to Italian horror but they’ve never really been about Italian horror films. He’s never made a Giallo film, he’s made a film about the making of a Giallo film. In Fabric has the sumptuous weirdness of Giallo but isn’t Giallo, for instance.”
This is clearly evoked in the posters for Strickland’s previous films, which are awash with vivid montage and chopped up imagery, seamlessly blended together and anchored by beautiful typography. Operating in a world where the onus on film posters to appeal to the masses by ticking every formulaic box is becoming increasingly pronounced, the challenge was for House to come up with a design that both cut through the visual noise and became emblematic of the off-kilter nature of the film.
“There are a lot of different angles in the film we couldn’t all tie into the poster,” says House, “but I think we were lucky in terms of the fact that we realised in the beginning that you’re not going to say everything about it or include all the actors. For me, it’s about starting from a point of what’s striking and what’s going to captivate people.
“Early on I realised that we had this motif of catalogue imagery that’s been chopped up with scissors, which we could use to imply something macabre without being an obvious bloodied hand or something gory. I think what’s worked well is that in a way the difficulty of saying which actress should we feature out of Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Hayley Squires, Sidse Babett Knudsen or even Gwendoline Christie caused so many problems that in the end we had to go with an arresting image instead. It ended up working really well.”
As ideas started to emerge on paper, so did that “very 70s, groovy, glamorous” focal image of a catalogue model, hands aloft in elegant repose and draped in that now iconic chiffon, silk and satin evening gown which, as described by Strickland’s own unique verbiage, is perfect for those candlelight glances and canapé conversations. Only her inner skeleton is exposed.
“The final image we used was something I explored early on, inspired by Švankmajer and surrealism where there’s something quite gruesome and strange about ripping open an image, which is quite violent and unsettling but at the same time not being specifically gory. I think if it would have been a bloodied skull behind the face it would have been too horror-esque, whereas the thing with the 17th Century anatomical medical imagery I used is that it is disturbing but it’s not real either, so it’s once removed.”
Blending together other graphic devices such as typography and jagged pinking scissor effect to give that faux pre-existing department store catalogue feel, House was adamant that the design had to maintain a certain tactile quality through the actual physical design, which he did through very analogue techniques. “I knew we’d be playing around with it a lot, so I approached it in a film technique way, ripping the printed picture open, putting a green screen behind it and photographing it on a light box so you capture that three-dimensional shadow. This way the lighting is just right but you can digitally move things around in Photoshop; you needed the torn paper to look right, but also had to have the digital component to try further options and ways of assembling it all.
“I think what works is that rather than it being a straight collage it feels like the poster is actually ripped and you’re looking through, which separates it from merely being something cut out and stuck on. You’re looking into a world, and there’s a whole other mental process that goes with that. The poster itself has become a talking point because of the film, and vice versa.”
A horrific but subtle evocation of the past, the vintage-looking In Fabric poster and indeed House himself now join a throng of contemporary designs that challenge the standardised approach to film posters. Designers like Vasilis Marmatakis, whose posters for Yorgos Lanthimos’s films (particularly The Lobster) House greatly admires through its odd, simple but arresting use of multiples. “You see good posters nowadays that actively try and get peoples’ attention, and I think the more you try and tell people everything the less you’re able to do that.
“I think what’s interesting with In Fabric is that the critical interest has been so positive because nobody actually knows what to make of it, so we needed a poster that invites people to ask “What is that?”, which is also the response to the film,” he concludes. “It’s the closest thing I can think of to falling asleep and having a weird dream, but without there being any typical dream things going on. It’s coming from a particular imagination which is what people respond to, so you’re spending time in someone’s mind which is a very weird place to be.”
“I think any working relationship is really just about the fact that you can try many different ideas and figure out what’s working and what isn’t, but you know is not going to go wildly off piste. Peter knows that I’m going to know where he’s coming from, whether it’s through music or Eastern European cinema of the 60s and 70s, and we’ll find the right thing he needs. I don’t know what Peter’s next film will be, but I’d hope that you could be in a completely different world but we’d be able to find an angle or way into it.”
[Words by Ed Frost]
In Fabric plays in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 28 June