New York Fashion Week SS14 – zen and the art of live runway sketching

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Last season was a high note for my career so far, so I knew it would be tough to follow up. Still, I felt determined to ride the momentum somehow, and decided to come to New York for an extended visit so once fashion week was over I could stick around for a couple weeks and hopefully show off my portfolio.

I spent a month – and what is for me, a lot of money – preparing for this. I needed to create a beautiful portfolio of work, and without a client secured ahead of time this season I was relying on my own modest merits and the kindness of PRs to get access to shows. I re-evaluated and refined everything I could – my appearance, the style of sketching, my request emails. I consciously prepared for this fashion week like it was a performance, and considering the quality of the final portfolio and the adventures I experienced this week, I feel I succeeded, if only by my own standards. I know I need to be patient. It takes many, many seasons to develop the skill, hundreds if not thousands of drawings, and of course the luck of being in the right place at the right time so the right person can recognize the value of the work.

Sometimes, it can feel like everything about fashion is conspiring against me. I get lost in a sea of celebrities and cameras and corporate sponsors and designer bags and fame and money and fame and money and fame and money. Especially in New York. In such an environment, whatever it is that I have to offer – some talent, some ideas – does not seem to belong. And yet, there I am, paintbrush in pocket, trying to score a seat so I can draw, watching and listening to everything and recording nothing because I can’t afford a smartphone.

Every season has a theme. SS14 could be: zen and the art of live runway sketching. Because, it’s about work, skill, technique and process – and not about money, fame, or “making it”.

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These first three sketches are from Ralph Rucci. Being in that environment was fascinating – surrounded by society women. In the middle of the room, shining like a supernova, was the ever-effervescent Carmen Dell’Orefice. Everyone in the room was watching her – she looked like she lives in a palace, and yet was incredibly animated and open, adoring the attention. I sketched her and presented her with the sketch, and she thanked me. I was able to thank her for sharing her experiences in the forward she wrote for David Downton’s book, how amazing it was to learn any small piece of information about a time when fashion illustration was a far more elevated art. She took my hand and told me that she didn’t have room for the sketch as she lives in a very tiny apartment, and that she is in pain because she needs both of her knees replaced. She told me that you can choose not to let the pain take you down, that you can rise above it. And so she was, rising above it, beautifully, she is absolutely magnificent. I returned to the last-row seat I had stolen inspired to overcome my own minor struggles, to create beauty in spite of any obstacle, like Carmen.

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Ralph Rucci’s models moved at incredible speed, but I’ve discovered this is an advantage not an obstacle – the faster you have to sketch, the less “worked” it looks. Just a few economical lines can express elegance, if they are the right lines.

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The sketches above and below are Nicole Miller. Last season at her show, I discovered how big is too big when it comes to live runway sketching. After many seasons of trial and error, I have found my ideal size of paper – about 11″ x 15″. Correctly placing the figure in the paper is also a consideration, as I want to leave a good margin around the figure so someday it could be framed. Considering I started sketching at 4″ x 6″ many years ago, and for many seasons crushed multiple figures onto a single page for economic reasons, giving the figures room to breathe takes a real leap of faith that the drawings could be considered worthy of framing. The fact that every sheet of paper costs a few dollars, and the success rate (by my ever-rising standards) hovers around 10%, this means that I burn through a lot of resources to achieve a few moments of transcendence.

If you recognize these moments too, please consider buying a print (9″ x 12″, $75) or an original (11″ x 15″, $300). Supplies are very limited! Email me for details. Your support means more than I can possibly express. Thank you.

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The following two sketches are from the Nautica menswear show. I love having the opportunity to sketch menswear – I don’t get enough practice at it, it’s a unique skill on it’s own separate from live sketching.

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Of course, Richard Haines is the undisputed king of live sketching male models and my own efforts don’t come near to matching the ease and elegance of his work. I admire Richard’s work so much. He’s spent many, many years doing it and deserves everything he’s got – the amazing clients, the fancy car service, all of it. Sometimes I can feel a bit envious of him, of course I do, as I’m standing on sweaty subway platforms, or forced to sit on the floor, and just generally dealing with some awfully difficult conditions to sketch. But he comes from a different era – maturing professionally when money was cheaper – and it’s futile to compare my own experience to his. He provides the proof, that illustration can still be recognized and relevant despite – or maybe because of – its anachronistic nature. And that keeps me going – because I have to keep going, and be persistent, to eventually with years of experience develop my own sense of ease and elegance, to someday have my own car and driver. Maybe in another 20 seasons, or 40. However long it takes.

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Below is a sketch from the Hervé Léger show. This was one of the most insane fashion shows I have ever been to. I took my dear friend, the writer Rachel Rabbit White. Rachel was researching a beauty story, so I had somehow persuaded the PRs to give us backstage access. It was her first fashion show, and it was an overwhelming experience. Every time I took out my paintbox, a cluster of cameras would form around me, and when I put it down they would all just disappear. It was frenetic, and very tricky conditions to draw in as I was constantly being moved around and there was no place to be that wasn’t underfoot of the crowd of models, makeup and hair artists, photographers, media, PR people, security guards, and so on, constantly moving around, everybody trying to do their own tasks on top of one another. Rachel and I still managed to get a sweet selfie though.

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Once we managed to sneak our way into the runway room, we were shunted out of the seats we’d attempted to steal by an officious volunteer and were squished at the back in standing room. I’ve never seen a tent so ridiculously packed with people, and so many of them wrapped in tight bandage dresses. After being crushed up against a beauty queen in a sash (!), I grabbed Rachel’s hand and whisked her to two of the few seats left in the last row. If I can’t sit, I can’t draw, so I did what I had to do. We watched as Nicki Minaj came in with her crew of body guards and everyone went nuts. If you were to contain everything that is excessive about New York Fashion Week in one scene, Hervé Léger was it. It went right past awful to flat-out absurd.

Once the show had started, we were so far from the runway and the house lights weren’t raised, so it was almost too dark to draw. I had to get Rachel to hold her phone over my paper so I could see what I was doing. The fact that I managed to get even one decent sketch out of that whole experience amazes me. I can’t even really tell you what the clothes were like. There were fringes and little leather corselets, I think.

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The sketch above is from BCBGMAXAZRIA, the first show I sketched this week. Below is a sketch from Nanette Lepore, the last show I sketched. In between was 100 other sketches, and to me the difference between the two is remarkable. To an outsider, runway sketching might look like an incredibly repetitive practice, and it is. Maybe no less repetitive than any other fashion job. But to me what is most incredible is the journey I’ve been on over the past 6 years, and how every season the sketches get better and better. I’ve thought about doing a gallery show, and I think the most interesting way to do it would be to display every runway sketch I’ve ever done since I started just scribbling tiny figures with pencil, to what I can do now, so the story is really the journey of developing a skill.

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After Nanette Lepore, I went to lurk outside the Proenza Schouler show, where something else exciting happened: I was shot by The Sartorialist. This was a satisfying event, because it affirms that the work I did on my appearance was effective. There’s more to this story too, but for various reasons I’ll have to wait to tell you all about it.

The sketches below are from Jeremy Laing‘s show. His show was one of the first ever that I sketched live, so it’s always so gratifying to be able to return. The privilege of watching a designer develop his own style and vision over the seasons is one thing that makes coming back for more punishment every fashion week worth it.

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This season Jeremy introduced menswear and a bolder, brighter colour palette. He is a technique-driven designer with a strong sense of gesture, which makes his clothes an absolute pleasure to draw.

One thing he is not is a personality-driven designer. Jeremy in person is very reserved, focused on doing his work rather than performing his role. His sense of restraint and rigour is reflected in his designs and the type of fashion show he puts on – even so, there was a celebrity element in his audience this season.

One of the themes of this week for me was the idea of “making it”, and in the audience at Jeremy Laing was ex-party girl Cory Kennedy. I had already sketched her at another fashion show, as she was sitting alone with big sad eyes and I was right behind her. I showed her the portrait and I had to ask her what her name is – it’s a good thing I didn’t assume because since she’s blonde now, I actually thought she was another internet-famous party girl. Looking at Cory makes you think about what the “it” is in “it girl” and also in “making it”. And whether “it” is something we really want, or if we just accept that we’re expected to want “it”. The conventional wisdom is that we need “it” in fashion – that must be the reason why she’s at Jeremy’s show – but somehow it also seems like she represents the antithesis of the philosophy of Jeremy’s designs.

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The sketch below is what I consider my absolute favourite sketch of the week. There is just enough to carry across the attitude of the model and the silhouette, not too much. Every line looks swift and sure. This is what I’m trying to achieve, every time my brush hits the paper. If only it were as easy as it looks.

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The last four sketches are from the J. Crew presentation. I usually prefer to sketch runway than presentations – I find that when models are standing still and are aware that you are sketching them, the process becomes too mannered. However, sketching at a presentation also has some advantages – it means that I am seen at work by many influential members of the media, whereas if I’m stuck in the back row at a show no one really knows I’m there. I was instagrammed by a couple of high-profile fashion people, and saw my follower count get an instant boost as a result.

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One development this week that I’m proud of is finally figuring out how to effectively render models of colour. I really made a big effort this week to sketch as many models of colour as I could, but I kept screwing up the sketches every time I tried to add their skin tone. I needed to make all those mistakes. Drawing white models is easy because you can just leave out the skin tone altogether, but it’s a cop-out to keep doing this, especially when the black models are so beautiful and expressive, they deserve to be featured and celebrated and drawn, and the most important part of doing that is emphasizing and not ignoring the colour of their skin!

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The other upside of sketching at a presentation is being able to take the time to render prints and patterns, and Jenna Lyons provides so many gorgeous surface details to work with, and combines them in such delightful ways.

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The way that the clothing is styled at J. Crew shows a nuanced understanding of attitude and gesture which makes it fun to draw. There was a a sense that the label is combining traditional preppy with more flamboyant hip-hop sensibilities, and the result is a look that is precise and prescient, reflecting the idealized culture of America as it truly wishes to be seen. Getting the opportunity to see this sophisticated fashion work so intimately is truly a great privilege.

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Thank you to everyone who made this week possible, all of the PRs who graciously offered me access, everyone who saw and complimented my work, all of the beautiful models and talented designers, everyone I encountered who played a part in this adventure. And thank you for reading my post, viewing my sketches, and supporting my work.

2 thoughts on “New York Fashion Week SS14 – zen and the art of live runway sketching”

  1. You should certainly do a show Danielle! It would be so interesting to see it all together. And I think your model of colour sketches are some of your most wonderful, there’s a warmth and unity to that last one that I love.

    Love your posts as always.

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