Fashion and Illustration: A Heated Love Affair

by Christina Donoghue on 30 November 2021

When the great fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez turned up on the Fendi runway last season, we wondered: is fashion illustration having a resurgence? Or has it always just been? Tracing SHOWstudio's support for the art form over the years while reviewing its current place on the world stage, Christina Donoghue untangles the industry's longest romance.

When the great fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez turned up on the Fendi runway last season, we wondered: is fashion illustration having a resurgence? Or has it always just been? Tracing SHOWstudio's support for the art form over the years while reviewing its current place on the world stage, Christina Donoghue untangles the industry's longest romance.

Illustration has been around longer than fashion photography, yet over the past two decades, the term 'resurgence' has been bounced around all too frequently regarding the cherished art form, existing in an echo chamber made up of countless articles and exhibitions that speak of this 'new revival'. But did it ever truly go away? I should clarify here that I did not propose this article to support fashion's much-talked-about 'resurgence'; it exists instead to counteract it somewhat. There's been no resurgence in fashion illustration because it's always just been, plain and simple.

The very term 'resurgence' and what it represents is the antithesis of a discussion that's always been deemed popular. Back in 2003, the writer and author Dominic Lutyens penned a piece for The Guardian titled Sketch show with a byline which alluded to somewhat of a 'resurgence' in illustration. Then just weeks ago, whilst skimming over the press release for the exhibition Drawing on Style, I stumbled on a remark made by SHOWstudio's ex-editor Lou Stoppard in 2016: 'To me, it feels illustration is very much having a moment in the spotlight'. As of late, the industry has been talking about the resurgence of the fashion illustration all over again, what with the great Antonio Lopez's work turning up on the Fendi S/S 22 womenswear runway.

Fendi S/S 22 womenswear
Paul Klee said drawing is taking a line for a walk, and I actually think fashion drawing is taking it dancing - David Downton

So, ​​'What makes a great fashion illustration?' This was a question Stoppard posed to fashion illustrator David Downton in 2015. 'Magic, movement, the mark of a hand', Downton blurted out in response, before clarifying: 'Paul Klee said drawing is taking a line for a walk, and I actually think fashion drawing is taking it dancing.' There is an implicit sense of childlike wonder that can be elicited from Downton's response, an air of magical charm that doesn't quite match up when written or retold. His reaction to Stoppard's generic question is immediate, ingenious and instinctive; representing his true views on an art form to which he has, without a slither of doubt, dedicated the entirety of his life to. I'd first like to tell you just how a fashion illustration can dance.

The 'dancing charm' of illustration Downton so fondly speaks of has always piqued my interest, right from the primary act of hanging prints and pictures on my childhood bedroom wall when I was younger. Each illustration straddled a different decade, style and art movement that I was soon to be made more aware of during my inquisitive years spent as a teen. I saw anything to do with art history as the equivalent of a wet dream; illustration was my gateway into the past. From Paul Poiret championing Georges Lepape over 100 years ago to Christian Dior striking a career-long collaboration with René Gruau. Then you have Kim Jones teaming up with Lopez's estate on intarsia furs and handbags - perhaps a somewhat less successful attempt at capturing the late illustrator's magnificent flair - once described by supermodel Pat Cleveland as inciting an 'orgasmic feeling'.

There was also Fleur Cowles' imitable Flair magazine (1950-51) which ceased production 70 years ago. A magazine so beautiful, it laid bare a portal to another world. Issues contained the likes of Gruau and René Bouche as well as Saul Steinberg. Even Jean Cocteau's own illustrated fantasies adorned the publication's inside pages at times, likening Flair to a one-way ticket inside the dreamy aristocratic and artistic circles of 1951. 'Nothing evokes the past so potently as an illustrated magazine, limp and dog-eared, and tear-stained perhaps for the ever-insistent passage of youth, and the dream of happiness,' William Packer wrote in The Art of Vogue Covers 1909-1940, which is unmistakably true.

Saul Steinberg for 'Flair' magazine

Fashion illustration holds a mirror up to the society in which it exists, allowing just about anyone a glimpse into a designer's universe. It is a tool that has stood the test of time. A craft even the most revered pioneers of fashion technology and digital experiences which define our current time - SHOWstudio's director Nick Knight being one of them - continue to hold endless respect for.

Drawing on Style sold itself to visitors as 'a testament to the rise of...stunning pieces into collector's items that shot to popularity once again during lockdowns when photoshoots could no longer take place'. Implying some sort of lockdown revival for the beloved art form, once again I was left scratching my head. Sure, the physical presence of the fashion illustration may have dwindled on the magazine front over 20 years ago, as photographers Blumenfeld, Newton, and Avedon slowly overtook illustrators Bouché, Gruau and Lepape in the race to have their work featured on the cover of Vogue. However, as far as interest is concerned, the attractive medium of drawing has never wavered in its ability to subvert the gaze; a contentious notion long since associated with fashion itself. The industry's radiant love affair with illustration runs too deep to wax and wane, and its relationship is one that involves a lifetime of infatuation, let alone deep admiration.

'Woman In A Rose Hat' René Gruau

While championing illustration as part of his process and subsequently his whole brand, the designer Paul Poiret was the first in fashion to fully grasp the necessity of collaboration in marketing and advertising through the medium of illustration during the early 20th century. With the help of his right-hand men, Paul Iribe and Georges Lepape, this was all made possible. Poiret liberated the female silhouette from the corset, which was shown to the world by his illustrators who helped him to gain the recognition he deserved. Circling back to Downton, Poiret's illustrations also danced, not merely because of Lepape and Iribe's skill (in which they undeniably held), but also because Poiret's name is forever tightly bound to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes through the innumerable amount of costumes he made for the theatrical company. Inspired by Léon Bakst's extravagant designs during the same period, both designers heralded a new sartorial craze amongst the upper echelons of Paris' inner circles at the time.

What also helped was the period in which Poiret lived and thrived in. 'In those days film posters were drawn, but then it was an art form', Downton pointed out in his SHOWstudio interview. In the early 20th century, before photography took fashion by storm, film posters, exhibition posters and the like were all illustrated - making poster art something to be celebrated in its own right. Even one of the 20th-century photography greats Alexey Brodovitch made his name by winning the Le Bal Banal, 1924 poster competition - a party for Russian émigrés in Paris - in which Picasso came second after him. Yet somewhere down the line, the wondrous world of drawing as advertising lost its way as various art posters coincidently lost their magical charm, becoming more animated, glossy and less stylish in the process.

The power of persuasion lies at the core of every successful fashion image and illustration, Knight told me: 'The job of photography is to express the feeling and desirability of the clothes. Great images ignite a sense of excitement, making you want to buy. The creative freedom that great fashion photography has, in terms of its ability to express itself without the boundaries of reality, undoubtedly brings it closer to the medium of fashion illustration; they're surprisingly very similar and in tune with one another.'

Two of Poiret's gowns, 1912. Georges Lepape

Fashion hasn't just shown its appreciation for illustration over recent years but has rather indicated a gripping infatuation with the medium, a sort of frenzied explosion that champions illustration in all its glory - with every flick of a pencil and stroke of a brush. Retreating back to John Galliano's mightily impressive designs during his Dior years, in which he conjured up the most alluring of fantasies season after season, Knight told me that, 'Every time we started a new campaign John would give me illustrators to look at, which always seemed to be his point of departure. His first reference was Louis Icaart, then his second reference was Giovanni Baldini, and skip to a couple of seasons later, and he was referencing the work of Antonio Lopez.'

Mirroring Galliano's illustrative dreams on the runway this season was Fendi, also choosing to honour the work of Lopez by, rather unimaginably, stamping the illustrations straight onto Kim Jones' creations that were sent down the runway. Recalling the Fendi S/S 22 womenswear collection, Alexander Fury wrote for AnOther, 'Kim Jones adores Lopez: he has a number of his works hanging on the walls of his London house, and based a Louis Vuitton collection on his work when he was artistic director of menswear.' This artistic partnership verged closer towards empty commercialism and lazy referencing rather than a complimentary meeting of minds.

Earlier this year, the exhibition poster for HOME by Ronan Mckenzie's new exhibition Armour delightfully reverted to the good old days of advertising by including an illustration by artist Hannah Buckman. For HOME by Ronan Mckenzie to commission an illustrator for a show that didn't once touch upon the subject of illustration in its content, is intriguing and in a tech-obsessed society, proves the hand-drawn still lives on for young fashion creators.

Le Bal Banal, 1924. Alexey Brodovitch
Fashion hasn't just shown its appreciation for illustration over recent years but has rather indicated a gripping infatuation with the medium, a sort of frenzied explosion

Vogue Italia got into the illustration game this year, choosing to publish an all-illustrated edition to start the year we all so long to forget: 2020. Empowering illustrators from around the world, the publication invited eight artists to design a different cover of the January issue. Listing their reasons for doing so, the magazine's editor-in-chief Emanuele Farneti explained in his editor's letter that the decision lay in part to illustrating (pun intended) their love for the planet.

The act to combat fashion's detrimental impact on global warming? Replacing photos with illustrations, their intention lay in hiring artists to 'show clothes without photographing them'. Aka, no flying clothes and bodies to photoshoots around the world. The result? Covers varying in style from collage painting to Japanese fantasy-meets-Italian renaissance, each depicting a model wearing Gucci. To revert back to the days when magazine covers were illustrated during a period when the world is more digitised than ever before indicates, if not anything else, a gripping infatuation with the handmade medium; a sort of frenzied explosion that champions illustration in all its glory - with every flick of a pencil and stroke of a brush.

From Poiret and Lepape to Antonio Lopez and Fendi on the runway this past September, fashion's love of illustration has endured since its inception and will continue to do so until the end of time. To state the already stated obvious: The resurgence isn't happening now; it happened 20 years ago (at the very least) and, for the most part, has kept happening since.

Georges Lepape for 'Vogue', 1930
René Gruau for Yves Saint Laurent
Back to top