HKIFF Hidden Gem: 'In Fabric,' the Ghost Story Set in a Department Store

Courtesy of TIFF
Romanian actress Fatma Mohamed, who plays a sinister saleswoman, has appeared in all four of Peter Strickland's features.

British director Peter Strickland challenged himself to make a thriller that takes place in "the most boring setting possible."

Houses, hotels, prisons, hospitals and even schools have successfully provided the bricks-and-mortar background for ghost stories' cinematic chills for decades. With In Fabric — which had its world premiere in Toronto’s Midnight Madness and is screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in the Kaleidoscope section — rising British director Peter Strickland has housed his film’s creeps in a department store.

An ominous and eerie tale set during a winter sales period in early 1990s London, In Fabric centers on a cursed scarlet dress and the ill-fated customers — led by Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies) and Hayley Squires (I, Daniel Blake) — who find themselves persuaded to take home the frock by the shop’s mysterious, near-robotic saleswoman, played in somewhat sinister fashion by Strickland regular Fatma Mohamed.

“I have a huge fondness for old department stores, which are all dying out now,” says the director, who returns to TIFF four years after debuting The Duke of Burgundy at the festival. (It also screened his breakout horror pic Berberian Sound Studio in 2012.)

Inspired by a secondhand piece of clothing he once purchased, only to find some unspecified “bodily stains,” Strickland started wondering who had worn it and what had happened.

“I guess part of me wanted to write a genre piece and a ghost story but do something different, take away the tropes, the haunted house and look for the most prosaic, boring setting possible,” he says.

The store Strickland ended up shooting in is the once-famed Allders department store, which closed in 2013 after nearly 150 years of operation. Its vast size enabled the production to practically set up shop in the former business. “It was a huge store — we ended up turning it into a studio and shot lots of scenes there. It became our little base,” says Strickland.

Despite being set in 1993, the aesthetics of In Fabric’s own fashion house appear to lie firmly in more muted, creamily light tones of the 1970s.

“Department stores were out of time anyway; they still looked like the ’70s in the ’90s,” says Strickland, who adds the only giveaway of the true date was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of a newspaper. 

Despite its haunting and occasionally deeply unsettling moments (don’t worry, there are genuinely funny scenes), In Fabric still provides a warm, welcome return to the time, not so long ago, when the mighty department store ruled the retail world.

“I think a good shop is like another world ... not chain shops, these independent stores,” says Strickland. “There’s the social aspect, especially for someone who buys DVDs and records. I can’t stand algorithms telling me what I should buy.”