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Essay: Drawing on Style

by Connie Gray on 10 September 2016

Connie Gray, co-founder of Gray M.C.A. and a curator of Drawing on Style traces fashion illustration's path throughout history.

Connie Gray, co-founder of Gray M.C.A. and a curator of Drawing on Style traces fashion illustration's path throughout history.

Carl ‘Eric’ Erickson (1891-1958) ‘Empire Coat by Schiaparelli’, Vogue, 1936

Fashion Illustration is back! As if by magic, fashion illustration is returning as today’s fashion editors look to illustrators to bring something fresh and innovative to their pages. Yet, the elegance and beauty of fashion illustration is certainly not new.

For many years the names of Gruau, Bouché, Eric, Simon, Mourge, Blossac, Bérard, Landels, Block and Lopez had virtually been forgotten. Their work archived in the portfolios of the fashion and art schools where they trained in their youth or lovingly kept amongst a devoted, almost secret circle of admirers who were attuned to the rarity of the original drawings of the period. But now, year on year there is a renewed surge of interest in these original ‘masters’ as the contemporary eye is refocused on the drama of original fashion illustration.

Through out the golden age of fashion illustration (1930s to 70s), these 'masters' were commissioned to illustrate the couture and ready to wear collections each season in Paris and later New York and their work graced the front covers and pages of Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, The New York Times, L’Officiel, Jardin Des Modes, Elle, W Magazine and Women’s Wear Daily. Saks 5th Avenue in the US was a huge advocate of using illustrators and understood better than almost anyone the power of a great illustrative piece. In the world of beauty, Elizabeth Arden frequently invited illustrators to draw her latest product, most notably American artist Henry Koehler, whose work appeared in Town and Country and The New Yorker throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Of paramount importance was their ability to translate the next season’s look into a beautiful alluring image that every woman could imagine becoming if she too wore that suit, scent or evening dress. In truth, they were the unsung heroes of the fashion world.

Yet throughout their careers these great fashion illustrators rarely became household names. Commercial artist was strictly their title.  Even the great Diana Vreeland would call imperiously for 'the sketcher' rather than by their own name! In today’s world, when looking at a fashion story in a magazine or newspaper, more often than not the photographer behind the lens goes almost unnoticed unless the story is shot by one of today's greats such as Mario Testino, Annie Leibovitz or Nick Knight. In earlier years the illustrators’ names were equally underplayed. Of paramount importance was their ability to translate the next season’s look into a beautiful alluring image that every woman could imagine becoming if she too wore that suit, scent or evening dress. In truth, they were the unsung heroes of the fashion world.

But what made a fashion illustrator into a master? The key was the training they received at art school. The artists spent hour upon hour drawing from life, day in and day out until they understood every nuance of the life form, coupled with their natural flair for understanding the drape of fabric and cut of a bias. This alongside their ingenious ability to work at high speed, even sometimes from memory, was the key to being a true master.

Each artist naturally developed an individual style. Some used a gentle humour such as Bouché, others a distinctive line as Gruau and Simon. Gruau sealed his name in fashion illustration history following his commission by Dior to illustrate the first Miss Dior advertisement in 1947; he chose the now iconic image of the white swan, black bow and pearls. Bérard’s success in the theatrical world translated to his fashion style, whilst others explored the use of a backdrop to set the scene, most notably Eric, who was the first to use this technique by bringing a realism to fashion illustration. Eric was the industry’s most important post-war inspiration as the artist others most aspired to be compared to, right up to the 1970s.

As photography reigned supreme into the 1970s and fashion illustration slipped from the mainstream, two names bucked the trend. Lopez and Block. Lopez’s exuberant style was both political and radical. He illustrated perfectly the vital form of expression, electricity and colour that New York pulsed to at the time, leading to continual work with Elle and his great champion Woman’s Wear Daily. Kenneth Paul Block blended fashion illustration and portraiture with exquisitely fluent high-energy sketches that captured the sophistication of the era’s socialites and celebrities.  As chief features artist for WWD he helped transform the once dowdy W Magazine into the bible of the jet set during the 1960s and 70s. It was to Block that Diana Vreeland turned to when she launched her first exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts by commissioning him to draw the exhibition poster for Cristobal Balenciaga. 

Fast-forward to today and as contemporary fashion illustration goes from strength to strength, today’s contemporary illustrators are taking inspiration from these original 'masters'. In the US one name stands out as a 'contemporary master'.  

Bil Donovan. A true artist. With not only a natural raw talent for depicting beauty and elegance within the world of fashion but also, and perhaps most importantly, an acute understanding of the importance of drawing from life. His remarkable relationship with his brush and ink captures the essence and spirit of a moment in just a few intensely beautiful brush strokes.  His unique work has lead him to being appointed the first Artist in Residence for Dior Beauty.

Championing contemporary illustration in the UK is SHOWstudio, an award-winning fashion website, established in November 2000 by Nick Knight. Its innovative and ground breaking projects have defined the manner in which fashion is presented on the internet, pioneering fashion film and now recognised as the leading force behind this new medium, offering a unique platform to nurture and encourage fashion to engage with moving image in the digital age. SHOWstudio has worked with the world’s most sought-after filmmakers, writers and influential figures of contemporary fashion, including Tom Ford, John Galliano, Kate Moss, Alexander McQueen, Tracey Emin and Lady Gaga. They also offer a physical platform showcasing contemporary art and fashion illustration. Each season Nick Knight selects the most inspiring young fashion illustrators to interpret the new seasons fashion collections. The work of Tobie Giddio with her use of fluid movement brings a unique twist whilst Blair Breitenstein uses colour and naivety to powerful effect.  

Drawing On Style (2016) is a fusion of the very best 20th and 21st Century fashion illustration. The exhibition highlights the elegance and poise of the original masters, the beauty and understatement of Donovan who draws so deeply on their tradition and provides the bridge to today’s cutting edge illustrators with their dynamic conceptual use of colour and vibrancy. At last this powerful, elegant, attitudinal school of art is receiving the recognition it so richly deserves. Fashion illustration is back and here to stay.

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