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Fashion illustration flexes strength within industry, no longer competing with photography

By Jackie Mallon


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Illustrator David Downton

Fashion illustration is on the rise in our industry and setting its own rules of engagement. For decades illustration had been displaced by photography which perfectly satisfied the needs of brands’ marketing and communication departments, while art directors, models and highly paid photographers conceived of beautiful editorial for consumers to pore over in magazines. Where once the likes of Kenneth Paul Block sketched the clothes as they appeared on the New York runways from his front row seat, a bank of photographers captured every design detail and could have the images in the hands of social media managers almost immediately.

But print media has receded in importance and beautifully photographed content is within the means of any smartphone owner who happens to be in the right place at the right time. Fashion illustration has surged in popularity across social media during lockdown, but an exquisite fashion illustration cannot be achieved with the latest Apple technology or filters. Fashion illustrators no longer need to compete with photographers, and are confident that both art forms can exist independently but side by side. Recent industry activity only bolsters that belief.

Illustrator Gladys Perint Palmer

Nick Knight in his mission to push the boundaries of online fashion communication regularly invites fashion illustrators to interpret the runways for his SHOWStudio website. This week in a collaboration with V Magazine, Knight called upon the illustration community to project their artwork onto the bodies of models wearing Schiaparelli and Viktor & Rolf spring haute couture thereby harmoniously marrying the two and three dimensional aspects of high fashion creation. Fida (Fashion Illustration and Design Awards) has just wrapped up a series of crits in which industry-leaders were invited to critique the artwork of Fida members who were live sketching the London collections of Simone Rocha, Halpern and Molly Goddard among others. Critics included Biba founder Barbara Hulanicki OBE, illustrator Richard Haines and academicsfrom internationally renowned fashion schools such as Parsons New York, CSM in London, Mumbai School of Fashion and Istituto Maragoni Florence.

Live sketching returns to runway shows

Jack Irving invited a handful of illustrators to his recent London show to capture the inflatable theatrical creations that have made the designer a favorite of Lady Gaga’s, while elsewhere in the city an exhibit of fashion illustrator Gladys Perint Palmer’s work seduced attendees of London Fashion Week, including Suzy Menkes, away from their hectic catwalk calendar. During Paris Fashion Week British designer Giles Deacon conducted a live drawing class in collaboration with Perfect Magazine featuring models which included Bimini, the breakout star of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, wearing makeup by Pat McGrath and garments by Richard Quinn. Influencers and editors hunched over drawing boards earnestly sketching models’ posing in high fashion in an art room setting is not a sight we’ve been accustomed to seeing on the social media feeds of fashion week devotees. Deacon has previously conducted illustration workshops for brands from Apple to Alexander McQueen’s Sarabande Foundation.

Connie Gray, co-founder of Gray M.C.A. gallery in London which specializes in fashion illustration told FashionUnited in January at the NYC launch of their Drawing on Style exhibit held during the Masters of Drawing event, “Fashion illustration, until quite recently, had almost been second-tier. It had been slightly looked down upon because it was illustrative art, it was commissioned work.” The tide certainly seems to be turning.

Fendi Spring 2022 featuring Antonio Lopez art
This week sees the opening of Legends Only, an exhibit of work from perhaps the leading fashion illustrator of our times, David Downton, at London’s Claridges Hotel where he has been Artist in Residence since 2011. Downton began his high fashion career drawing backstage and front of house at John Galliano's Dior shows. Last year, Bil Donovan, another Artist in Residence, in this case for Dior, described the enigmatic appeal of fashion illustration to WWD: “It almost blurs the line between fine art and commercial illustration. Fashion illustration, at least [for] high fashion, you’re not only selling a product, you’re selling the essence of the product. Some of the work is so abstract.”

When designer Kim Jones contacted the estate of Antonio Lopez to use the late artist’s drawings for his Fendi spring 2022 collection, in stores now, his aim was to move beyond simply emblazoning artwork on garments, as exemplified by the 2017 Lopez-inspired Kenzo collection. Instead Jones weaved his fluid brushwork and bold mark making into garments through intarsias, jacquards and abstract motifs so that the spirit of the artist was integrated into the design.

London illustrator Sue Dray recently posted on social media a film montage of her many appearances sketching at London Fashion Week, a lone figure behind an easel nestled in a wall of photographers. Guests seemed as intrigued by what she was creating as what was shown on the runway, reminding us that fashion is an art as well as a business. An illustration sketched in real time acquires high value when viewed through the modern lens of slow fashion and our growing appreciation of artisanal product or hand craftsmanship. A runway sketch, while executed at speed, is the antithesis of fast fashion's breakneck product drops and highly produced generic imagery. While the clicks and flashes from the intimidating bank of cameras are to be expected at runway shows, for guests to see the human hand glide expertly across the page, to be aware of the blend of hand/eye coordination, to witness the creation of a piece of art at the end of a model’s exit provokes an entirely different response.