KATHRYN FERGUSON, FILM DIRECTOR
I first discovered filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson’s work when I came across Four Tell, a short film commissioned by Selfridges for International Women's Day in 2013, which explores the successes and achievements of four female role models. Beautifully shot and impeccably styled, Four Tell is undeniably gorgeous, but its depth – like all of Kathryn’s work – goes far beyond its aesthetic appeal. An intimate portrayal of a quartet of creative heavyweights (the ‘four’ the film takes its title from are none other than Bella Freud, Sharmeadean Reid, the late Zaha Hadid and Caryn Franklin), it’s full of genuine pearls of wisdom about work, creativity, and personal fulfilment. I watched it three times, before sending a flurry of exclamation-filled WhatsApps to the friend who’d originally sent it my way.
As Selfridges’ Resident Film Director, Kathryn directs and oversees all moving image content for the brand, making fashion films that often examine female identity, beauty, and power – themes frequently explored in her other work, which include award-winning films for fashion designers, international brands and musicians such as Chloé, Vogue, Nike, Sinead O’Connor, and Lady Gaga. Hers is a body of work that unshowily put forward a modern, inclusive version of womanhood, one that’s celebratory of the female form, and – importantly – the female mind.
Having balanced her film-making practise with curating exhibitions for the British Council and the Birds Eye Film Festival, as well as lecturing at Central Saint Martins, the Royal College of Art, and the London College of Fashion (where she is now a Fashion Film Research Fellow), Kathryn is a treasure trove of insights on how to make it work within the creative industries. Over a glass of wine we talked about what it takes to succeed as a female creative, operating outside of your comfort zone, and the messages she wants her films to convey. Over to Kathryn...
PUTTING IN THE WORK
I think social media and the Internet make it appear that success happens overnight, but of course it doesn’t. I’m amazed at how hard-working my peers are – I don’t know anybody who’s done well that hasn’t worked incredibly hard to get there. London can be particularly hard for creatives because it’s such a saturated market, so if you want to get ahead you’ve really got to put the time in.
"The most important thing I think female creatives need to have is resilience."
STEPPING OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
I was 25 when I first started working in film, and one of the very first things that happened was being asked to show one of my early films at the Birds Eye View Film Festival. As part of the film screening they asked all the filmmakers to take part in a post-screening Q&A but I was so low in confidence that I wasn’t going to go to the screening, because I hadn’t ever had any experience of talking about my work – and I’d only ever made this one film. But then my mother, a strong Belfast woman, just said, “Are you joking me? You’re gonna go, and you’re gonna do it, and you’re gonna keep doing it until it doesn’t bother you anymore. Just get over yourself and get on with it”.
That was a huge landmark because I’d been about to talk myself out of a really great opportunity, and instead I just went for it. And then I did it again and I was a tiny bit better, and then I did it again, and slowly it got a bit less excruciating – I think I even got a bit of a kick out of it!
ON HOW SHE GOT STARTED IN FILM
I studied fashion communication and promotion at Central Saint Martins, which is where I made my first film. I really enjoyed the course, but I left with no real skills. I got a real taste for film during my final term there, and begged my tutors there to teach me what they could – there wasn’t a film component to that course at the time. After leaving, I went into two solid years of freefall: of not really being able to get proper work, or knowing where to position myself. I was doing fashion assisting at magazines, a bit of art direction on films, all assisting jobs or internships. I really wanted to make films though, so I started experimenting and created short test films in my free time, just to try things out.
The most important thing that happened was that I submitted my graduation film into Birds Eye View. It was chosen for their UK shorts programme at the ICA, and ended up touring around various film festivals that summer. After that, the CEO of BEV asked me to curate a strand of fashion film for them, and we ended up launching the ‘Fashion Loves Film’ element of Birds Eye, a programme that ended up running for six years and celebrated female directors working within the emerging genre of fashion film.
Back in 2008 fashion film was so new that I really struggled find ten films, so for that first screening so I had to create a chronological programme of films that went right back to 1998. Over the course of the following six years, I was massively inspired by all the superbly talented women that began experimenting with fashion film – for us, it was our music video, and our way to break into film in what was traditionally a very male dominated industry. I took this first screening and subsequent new role from BEV as a positive sign that I should try to work in film, and decided to quit everything else that I was doing – which was scary as hell, but it was the best thing I ever did. It was an experimental and financially tough time, but I was 25 and thought ‘what have I got to lose?’.
That year I started to make a lot of films, mainly for UK fashion designers, and started getting more and more work as a result of putting my work out into the world. I also decided to apply for a two-year masters at the Royal College of Art, which gave me something to focus on. During that period I got an exciting commission from Dazed to work with Lady Gaga, via Susie Lau (Dazed’s then Digital Editor, more commonly known as style blogger Susie Bubble). That was a big break. That film came out during my first week at the RCA.
I found my first year at the RCA hard, as I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go down the art route or down the commercial route – but that’s kind of what the RCA is for, you’re meant to explore. In my second year I sought out Julie Verhoeven [the legendary British designer and illustrator] who was one of the tutors on the fashion course there, and asked her to be my mentor. I’d shown her work at one of the Birds Eye Views screenings the year before, so she knew me already – but even still, she was wildly generous, meeting me for tutorials even though she didn’t have any obligation to! We’d meet maybe once every six weeks, and she’d hire out films for me to watch on her staff card. She was amazing – someone I could really communicate with.
ON FILM AS COMMUNICATION
I came out of that MA with a piece that still means a lot to me, called Máthair, which is Irish for ‘mother’. It was very much a visual exploration of my own mother’s story – I was trying to explore where her femininity sat within Ireland, and the structure of how it treats its women. It was a very experimental film, and the best thing about it for me was that it was the first time where I could take the visuals of a fashion film, but apply them to something much more personal, that communicated something much more real. It was a really important step as I realised I wanted to keep making work that is visually striking and draws people in, but also packs a punch with whatever you’re trying to say. If you can aesthetically draw people in, you’ve got more of a chance of them engaging with what you’re trying to say.
"I realised I wanted to keep making work that is visually striking and draws people in, but also packs a punch with whatever you’re trying to say."
LANDING HER SELFRIDGES GIG
After I left the RCA in 2011, I joined a production company where the reality of trying to work within the commercial film industry really hit home. I realised very quickly how saturated and competitive the market was, and had to work extra hard to try win pitches and communicate my ideas. I had to take on other types of work to financially support myself, so that I wasn’t solely relying on film for an income.
For a couple of years after graduating I worked as a film curator and workshop mentor for the British Council and was lucky enough to travel around the world with them curating fashion film exhibitions and running film workshops. I also began teaching at the London College of Fashion. I would have been in dire straits if I didn’t have these other roles bubbling away at the same time as trying to working as a freelance director.
Around that time I was invited to give a talk at an International Women’s Day dinner for the W Project, and the creative director of Selfridges happened to be there with two of their creatives. They came up to me afterwards to tell me they’d enjoyed it, and I didn’t think much of it beyond that – and then six months later they got in touch about a project, which turned out to be Four Tell. So I’d just encourage people to go and do everything, and meet everybody – you never know who you’re going to meet.
I enjoy the educational side of what I do, and teach occasionally – I did a lot of teaching for three years, which was tricky to balance with my filming schedules, so I moved into research [at the London College of Fashion], which allowed me much more flexibility. I’ve met some amazing students who’ve really affected how I see things, like Charlie Craggs [trans activist and creator of Nail Transphobia] who used to be one of my students. She was so talented, and we really bonded.
HER FUTURE PROJECTS
I’d like to make more political work. We're heading into an interesting – and worrying – time, and more than ever female voices need to be loud, and to be heard. I moved to Margate this summer, and I've just shot a film about an amazing tidal pool that was built there in 1937, and the diverse community of swimmers that use it. I started swimming there with an old friend from Belfast (who also happens to be a journalist) the week after Brexit, and we kept meeting all of these interesting characters there, and realised – against the backdrop of Brexit and a changing Margate – what a beautiful, diverse, free space it was… somewhere for all to enjoy. So together we decided to create this film about wild swimming, community and how people are feeling in a post-Brexit UK. We're hoping to release it in early 2017.
THE BEST BITS OF THE JOB
I love the variety and not really knowing what’s coming. It’s quite terrifying in some respects – but also very thrilling because I always have the sense that something amazing could be round the corner. I love that I can communicate to people, and that feels really great for someone who definitely struggled to express myself and communicate when I was younger, especially as a teenager. It feels powerful, and empowering for me.
"I want people to see themselves in my work, and to feel empowered, not reduced."
I hope a lot of the work I make is speaking to younger girls and making them think about things in a different way, because there wasn’t a lot out there when I was a teenager that gave me much guidance. I want people to see themselves in my work and to feel empowered, not reduced, as a lot of fashion and advertising imagery can do that. There’s still a long way to go but I’m going to keep chipping away at it.