Kerry Curl is one of our panelists for the opening night of Meet Your Maker and will be joining a panel of other successful creatives who are actively trying to change the fashion landscape to include more diversity as well as the promotion of vintage in the mainstream. Sans Pareil will be publishing a series of interviews with our amazing selection of speakers.
Curl is an award winning photographic artist working with photography, moving image and installation. With a focus on portraiture and fashion, her practice draws on the influence of the past in today’s world to question the idea of nostalgia,
sustainability and consumerism. Kerry was on the board of Norwich Fashion Week from 2013 to 2018, coordinating the Vintage show from 2014 to 2017, and director in 2017. Her images were selected for the British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Britain in 2017 and 2019. A firm believer in creativity with purpose, her work aims to start a dialogue about how we consume fashion.
Firstly, tell us who you are and what you do?
I’m a Photographic Artist. I work primarily with photography but my work also explores moving image and installation too. I mainly focus on portraiture and fashion. A personal interest in history means I frequently draw on the influence of the past in
today’s world. I am currently working on an ongoing personal series titled ‘This is Not Nostalgia?’ which explores whether curating influences from the past necessarily means the images themselves are ‘retro’ along with questioning the idea of
nostalgia, sustainability and consumerism. It’s become a long-form project, beginning in 2016. Working on it over this period has meant that a by-product of the project is that I’ve become acutely aware of how attitudes towards second-hand
fashion haven’t just continued to evolve but have done so at a rapid rate.
I wear a lot of second-hand fashion myself so really enjoy working with people and brands who are looking at sustainability themselves too. My style of working transitions through into documentary photography, which takes me to documenting
from a backstage perspective at events like Fashion Week; I’m pleased to see much more sustainability and conversations about how we consume fashion on the schedule as we move forward.
What inspired you to start on this path?
It’s certainly not been a linear career path. I was always interested in photography. I know some people have deeply personal stories of how they discovered their love for it, were given a camera by a relative etc but I myself can’t pin point a deep and
meaningful experience or moment in time. But growing up in the 80s and 90s, I do remember devouring what imagery was available through magazines, film and album art. That may well have been because having parents who were both blind meant that there was next to no visual imagery in our house, but lots of music. There used to be a stall on Norwich Market which sold singles that were no longer in the charts for really cheap, maybe 50p or something, and I would base my purchases solely on the imagery and art work. It was shall we say an interesting way to discover all kinds of music from The Clash to Bonnie Tyler, but more relevantly for my future career, it informed my whole aesthetic and visual approach.
Photography at school wasn’t available and so in hindsight I realise I really had no outlet for it or scope to develop it into a career and certainly no-one was telling me it could be one. However I continued with it as a hobby which helped break up the
mundane 9-5 jobs I ended up working in. I was lucky enough to be able to develop photography skills through the adult education system, a system which does not exist in the same way today, which is a real loss. Being able take classes for a few hours a week to gain multiple City & Guilds qualifications over the years really allowed me to progress not just my photography but myself too.
At 37 I decided the time was right to immerse myself in photography through education once again and so I made the decision to apply for university, enrolling on to the Norwich University of the Arts’ Photography BA (Hons) course.
It’s probably no surprise that during university my work became heavily influenced by previous decades which I combined with my own personal love of second-hand fashion. This personal interest fortunately chimes nicely with the increasing interest in the mainstream for sustainability in the fashion industry. There’s growing desire for sustainable fashion as consumers begin to ask where their clothes come from. Weirdly, the consumer demand for sustainability now imposes a commercial angle on what was until recently an egalitarian or perhaps bargain-basement attitude, which wasn’t there as much before. These are interesting times to be contributing to fashion media.
Why are you passionate about sustainability in the fashion industry?
It’s simply a conversation that we 100% need to be having. Some of us have been having it for a long time already and for us it’s simply not a trend it’s a dialogue. Ten years ago when I was writing a business plan for a vintage clothing business which
never came to fruition, “sustainable fashion” were my key words.
In 2014 I began working on Norwich Fashion Week, a project which grew to become a Community Interest Company (CIC). I worked on events across the whole week but specifically the Vintage Show. As a team we were keen this shouldn’t be too era
specific. Norwich had a big vintage scene at the time and victory rolls and petticoats were an easy sell but we felt we could push that beyond a specific target audience and make it much more open to all. If you enjoyed fashion why not second-hand and vintage? We were right because those shows sold out every year with a waiting list for tickets and these were venues with capacity in excess of 200 people. The appetite for different was there. The desire to see second-hand clothing in a ‘fashion
show’ context was huge and this was before the current spotlight was shone on consuming with a sustainable mindset. I knew there was an appetite for it because I was quite literally feeling the energy in the room. That project has now come an end but I’m so proud about what we achieved and the success of those vintage shows has given so many people the inspiration to not just buy second-hand, but support small businesses and get involved with their own making and creating. I was responsible for producing promotional imagery for the show and we were creating these brilliant photoshoots with second-hand fashion.
Fashion imagery doesn’t need to be all about the latest new mass-produced piece of clothing.
A by-product of the way I create is that I often find myself working with pre-loved/vintage/sustainable clothing and in 2017, when I was shortlisted for the Fashion Photography Award at Graduate Fashion Week, the work I presented was a
body of work from my ‘This is Not Nostalgia?’ project and when writing a presentation about the project I said…
“Fashion in 2017 is beginning to feel less about aspiration – “buy this and you will be happy” – than it is about inspiration. We live in an era where creativity in personal style is now being nurtured by the mainstream in a way it wasn’t in the past. Social media has started to break down the boxes and identities that people were forced into (forced themselves into?) in the past. Instead of “buy buy buy”, we can focus on “think think think”.
Those with an off-beat approach to style find themselves less and less likely to be ghettoised as “alternative” than before. There’s a tolerance in the mainstream for different approaches in a way that would be unimaginable in the 80s or 90s. The
digital age has democratized access to images and ideas that would once have been obscure or inaccessible. You are not restricted to the grubby dog-eared stock in your under-resourced local library, or on what happens to be flavor of the month in The Face or NME. In 2017, an image maker can be a self-curating cultural magpie in a way a predecessor in 1987 could not have imagined.”
Fast forward to the now and the focus on thinking, connecting and taking control of our own consumption is perhaps stronger than ever. However, there’s so much to learn about what “sustainability” actually is, what it can mean. The area I know best is second-hand and vintage but there’s so much more to look at…fabrics, supply chain, working conditions. It’s not a simple area to unpick and I’m finding that not all questions have answers. For total transparency, not everything I buy is second-hand but I’m trying to make all purchases thoughtful ones. I’m absolutely trying to figure out how I contribute to the conversation and how to make good choices both in my consumption and my creative output.
What do you love most about fashion?
That’s a really hard question to answer! I think it’s because there’s just so much diverse creativity in one place. What I mean by that is that so many different creative disciplines all coalesce in the fashion space: design, visual art, photography, film,
music, performance, craft skills…there is probably no field of artistic endeavour that does not have a place under the umbrella of “fashion”. On a personal level, it is identity: who do I want to be today?
What are some challenges you have faced or had to overcome?
When I was first making this work there was this negative attitude and people were saying “yeah but is ‘second-hand fashion’ even ‘fashion’? Sometimes when I want to submit to magazines, there is this barrier of “no vintage”, “no second-hand”, which is still there. That is starting to change with the mainstreaming of sustainable fashion, but it is definitely still there. Technology and the ability to self-publish online get you part of the way over that, but obviously you want to reach a wide audience. There is also a bit of a psychological hang-up going back to my own experience of growing up in the 80s and 90s, where second-hand was completely socially unacceptable and marked you out as a pauper or a scumbag. The fear of someone shouting down the school corridor ‘Did your mum get that from Oxfam?!’ was real! But that sentiment also motivates me, too. I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the fact that second-hand was once really uncool. What is the best advice you have been given? I suppose it’s “make the work you want to make”. The course director on my degree said that and it really helped me, because I was able to see that the work I wanted to create was valid and relevant and, well, “art”.
In another lifetime, what would you want to be doing for a job?
Still something in the creative industries, now that I’m here I can’t imagine not being in this world on some level. What you realise when you’re surrounded by super-talented people is that so many skills are transferable and all the influences become
a heady mix. There’s so many things I’d love to try my hand at, but if I’m forced to pick one, maybe I’ll say fashion designer!
Who/what is currently inspiring you?
So many people and things! Creativity-wise, I’m still drawn to work made in and inspired by previous decades with a personal interest in the seventies. Film and music is a never-ending source of inspiration for me. I love the work of Jo Gollings
and Patrick Holly (popularly known as Jo and Pat Skinny), who were the key figures behind the aesthetic of the band Pulp back in the 90s. With a strong retro Seventies influence in the wardrobe styling of the band, the Skinnys described the concept as “an ethos rather than a look but definitely had seventies New York Studio 54 thrown in there”. This “ethos”- based approach matches my own attitude to image-making and forms an important fact in my work. In terms of people and creative platforms, I’ve really enjoyed watching Fashion Roundtable develop, they’ve really evolved the talk of fashion and for me it’s become both a useful and interesting resource. The Birdsong brand has inspired me because not only are the designs beautiful, they are really transparent with the making process, the stories of the makers and I think it’s fair to say they champion women. I really enjoy getting that behind the scenes look at brands and I think smaller designers are great when it comes to this, because their story is so personal. A designer I worked with recently, Morwenna Farrell, kindly let me into her working space, where I documented her screen-printing process and it brought home to me just how hands-on small independent designers can be with their product. It’s not just the creativity side, it is the physical making side, and so the pieces are infused with a personal touch from the designer.