I was considered the fastest pencil in the field, a mannequin need only do her turn down the catwalk at a fashion show, and voila – an illustration.
– Joe Eula
A famous, venerable fashion writer (who was once an illustrator himself) told me that fashion illustrators “say they sketch at fashion shows, but they don’t really.” At the time I remember thinking, somewhat arrogantly – I’ll show you that they do! Of course, people have been sketching away at runway shows ever since runway shows emerged at the turn of the last century, though this history has yet to be written. This post is just a few scraps of information I’ve managed to collect.
Very few runway sketches ever see the light of day – it’s a challenging task to capture the fleeting moment of a catwalk turn with any kind of elegance, and most runway sketches aren’t much more than scribbles. Scribbling is just fine – sketching at fashion shows is another way to take notes, and it makes sense to capture visual information… well, visually. Occasionally critics and journalists will dash off doodles in between point-form notations – I’ve heard that Suzy Menkes does this – but of course such information is anecdotal, and not much evidence can be found of it as writers aren’t known for being proud of their artistic efforts.
It’s hard to imagine now, but early fashion shows were small affairs intended for wealthy clientele, and there was very little access for either photography or illustration. Photography, as a new medium, wasn’t considered to be classy – and sketching was frowned upon because it was used to steal ideas. In her wonderful book Fashion Is Spinach, Elizabeth Hawes recalls her early years in Paris in the 1920s, surreptitiously sketching at fashion shows so American department stores could knock off Parisian designs:
When I stole designs from the French dressmakers, it was, originally, a game which I developed between me and the mannequin. Her part was to try and get the dress out of the room before I could master the cut of it. My part was to digest its intricacies without missing a seam or a button. I was good. By the time I’d finished my second season of sketching, I could have designed you as pretty a Chanel as the master herself.
But swiping her designs accurately was violent mental exercise. If you made any more moves with your pencil than enough to write the equivalent of a number, someone suddenly leaned over your shoulder and grabbed your paper out of your hand. And these were the sketches the buyers wanted most.
– Elizabeth Hawes, Fashion is Spinach
[Kenneth Paul] Block travelled regularly to Paris to report on the couture shows from the early 1960s onwards. He never knew what kind of reception he might receive, since WWD was often feuding with designers. Sometimes he found himself ‘off the list’ and had to work ‘from dictation’. At other times there was special treatment and access. It is a tribute to Block’s skill that it is impossible to tell his real and imagined images apart.
– David Downton, Masters of Fashion Illustration, pp. 151
By the 1960s, fashion houses were photographing their runway shows using in-house photographers, but the shows still weren’t constructed around the photography pit as they are now. By that time, illustrators were made welcome as part of the press. John Fairchild, the EIC at Women’s Wear Daily wanted his paper to appear distinctive and artistic, and so WWD had a whole department of illustrators, most notably Kenneth Paul Block, whose runway work is incredibly prolific and admirable. His drawings aren’t fanciful or abstract, they are essentially reportage, showing the clothing with both accuracy and flair.
It is important to learn the phrase “La Premiere Rang Surélevé”, the first raised row, usually the third or fourth, where the view is better. Yves Saint Laurent used to seat his mother in the first raised row.
When the rows are not raised, it is another matter. From the second row, you can find a sliver of a view. From the third row you see only the heads in the first row. The fourth row is death. I have perfected the spot-and-sprint approach. Wait for the right moment, crouching, just before those with the standing tickets are let in, then leap—vault, if you will—into the front row. Timing is everything. If you leap too soon, the rightful occupant of the seat may turn up (generally Marie-José Susskind of L’Official who is always late) and you have lost both your new seat and your old seat.
– Gladys Perint Palmer, Fashion People
Block’s successor is undoubtedly Gladys Perint Palmer, whose book Fashion People is the only exclusive collection of live runway sketching I’ve ever seen, and contains a few comments on the challenges of runway sketching itself. I would categorize Perint Palmer as a “society sketcher” as well as a runway sketcher – she is able to recognize and record the fashion show attendees along with snippy little over-heards and humorous gossip. She’s not just interested in the clothing and the fantasy, but in the absurd scene as a whole, and she records the fashion show phenomenon as it reached it’s apex in the 1990s, when runways became theatrical and the scene was beginning to explode into the media spectacle it has now become.
It happens very quickly! It’s really difficult to get details, so I focus on the shapes and the silhouettes–the shoulder, the length of the jacket, the shape of the head/hair. It’s challenging but so much fun–like a quiz show where you have to answer 20 questions in a minute!
The most successful live runway sketcher working now is Richard Haines. He’s the master of capturing menswear – his experience as a designer, and interest in a specific, sophisticated-casual aesthetic has served him very well. The rumour I’ve heard is that is his sketches sell for $1000 each, and considering there’s no one else who can do what he does, I’m inclined to believe it.
… and then there’s me. I’ve been live-sketching at runway shows for over five years now, so compared to the masters of the craft, I am still just a baby, though I’ve had the remarkable opportunity this past season to adapt the form to the touchscreen and bring live runway sketching into the 21st century.
Most live runway sketchers do their greatest work towards the end of their career. Elegance only comes with experience. It’s a skill that takes a lot of practice, and getting access to get that practice isn’t easy to do, either. But the rewards are many – it’s a rush of adrenaline as your eyes and hands race to render an immersive experience in a bizarre, overwhelming environment. When a great sketch appears out of nowhere in seconds, it feels like fashion is an electric current coursing through your body. I believe my runway work has given me a more profound understanding of fashion at an instinctive level. It brings fashion illustration into the physical moment.