thoughts on contemporary fashion illustration

Whenever I attend a fashion illustration exhibition, or otherwise find myself in the company of fashion illustration enthusiasts, I hear variations on this sentiment: “fashion illustration is having a moment“! My inner reaction is always: is it, really? What does this mean, exactly?

A moment.

To me, “having a moment” in the context of fashion means that for a period of time, fashion shines the spotlight on your particular specialty, attention shines on the work across all media, rates inflate, and superstars emerge – that is, names become recognizable even to outsiders. Photographers had a moment in the 1950s and 1960s. Designers had their big moment in the 1970s and 1980s. Models had their moment in the 1990s. Currently, bloggers and fashion editors are both having their moment. Outside of these “moments”, the practitioners of their respective crafts carry on doing their thing, and a few outliers will make a name for themselves on an individual basis, but for the most part careerists receive relatively modest levels of scrutiny and interest.

I think fashion illustrators had their moment in the 1940s. That was when Bérard and Gruau were superstars – their artwork was featured on magazine covers, and their work even influenced designers rather than the other way around. At that time, fashion illustration was everywhere – mail-order catalogues, advertising, home sewing patterns – a lot of hands were needed to create all those drawings. When I was in school, I voluntarily studied fashion illustration texts from the 1940s, in which it was clear that fashion illustration was treated as a common, appropriate profession for young ladies to occupy themselves with between graduation and marriage. Fashion illustration paid, sometimes quite well, as Elizabeth Hawes documented in Fashion is Spinach.

So, no, I don’t think fashion illustration is having a moment right now, or will anytime in the near future. That’s just wishful thinking. The current state of fashion illustration is a tiny niche on the periphery of fashion’s consciousness. Even within the industry, the names of fashion illustrators aren’t well known. When you tell people outside of the fashion industry that you are a fashion illustrator, the reactions are always quizzical. Which is fine – you can’t make a moment, even if a moment can make you. Just know that if you pursue a fashion illustration career now, your chances of become rich and famous doing it are virtually nil. Even fashion illustrators at the top of their game right now live in middle-class, relative obscurity.

A career.

Despite reduced circumstances, fashion illustration still carries on. There are about half a dozen well-known, respected fashion illustrators with names that are recognized, at least within the industry. For some reason, most of them live in London. Beyond that, there is a small cohort of full-time working fashion illustrators struggling to make a name for themselves (I include myself among this number), and a much broader population of amateur, and part-time fashion illustrators who often combine their work with other professions. There are also the more general illustrators who also occasionally do fashion work.

Fashion illustration is currently making the media/technology shift along with the rest of the creative world. Along with illustration as a whole, fashion artists are increasingly creating careers online. Personality has always been an essential component of creating a name for yourself, and the up-and-coming cohort of the future-famous (moment withstanding) tend to also be bloggers – most notably Danny Roberts, Kathryn Elise, and of course Garance Dore. As the internet has become the starting point, the role of the agent or editor as the mediator in launching an illustrator’s career is waning.

There are two main ways to build a career as a fashion illustrator. You can create an original body of work and sell it as originals and prints, either through galleries or online. This type of career is more on the “art” end of the spectrum. Or you can assemble an online portfolio, based on which freelance clients will hire you, as I do. This is more aligned with the “commercial” side of the business. Or you can do both. There is a third, more obscure stream you can sail down too – but I’ll get to that at the end of this (long) post.

A trend.

One thing I find fascinating and unique about modern editorial and commercial fashion illustration is its susceptibility to micro-trends. Illustration is very rarely used in major fashion magazines now, and for some reason when it is it seems that certain styles tend to be ubiquitous for short periods of time. In the late 1990s as computers were just beginning to be used as a tool, vector spot illustrations were suddenly everywhere. Though Jason Brooks actually works in Photoshop (example above), he has become the most well-known example of this slick style. When editors became tired of the digital look, there was a reactionary shift back to classic painterly effects, notably David Downton and Stina Persson.

This lovely 2004 ad campaign for Choice by Calvin Klein was illustrated by the multitalented Charles Anastase. Anastase used photo-realistic pencil rendering, done so tightly that every hair was articulated. This was a major campaign and I remember seeing and remarking upon it at the time because fashion illustrations are so rarely on billboards. It would have been great if it had inspired more brands to commission illustrated campaigns – but instead it inspired a host of photo-realistic pencil-rendering fashion illustrators. This has become the most common style of fashion illustration, and now in 2012 it is dangerously near saturation.

It is very difficult to differentiate the styles of illustrators who use this technique unless they combine it with some other element (like Richard Kilroy‘s linear effects). There are also copyright and ownership issues when the illustrations are based on fashion photography, not to mention the identity of the models. In a way, the proclivity for this style of shifting analog illustration towards photography mirrors photography’s own migration towards illustration with digital dependency on photoshop. Perhaps it indicates a future category of imagemakers, the photostrators? Still, my heart goes out to the illustrators whose careers are based on this style, which is not likely to keep fashionable favour forever.

Never mind the medium, no fashion illustrator is immune to the ends of trends. The main thing that differentiates fashion illustration from any other type of illustration is its currency. A fashion illustration’s essential quality must always reflect the attitudes and tastes of its time – as a result fashion illustration dates very quickly and fashion illustration careers are rarely long ones unless the illustrator is remarkably adaptable, like the great Antonio.

An idea.

The other aspect of fashion illustration that differentiates it from the rest of the illustration industry is that it also plays a vital, creative role in design development. As an illustrator who also creates ideation sketches, design drawings and technical flats for designer clients, I have a very personal interest in fashion illustration that is used for practical purposes. To me, these are often the most fascinating types of fashion illustration, and I find it poignant that such a huge swath of drawn material is not for public consumption. It bothers me that when fashion illustration is discussed, its hidden industrial role is so often ignored.

This is why fashion illustration will never be eclipsed by photography. Sketching plays a secret, significant role in fashion: the genesis of an idea.

5 thoughts on “thoughts on contemporary fashion illustration”

  1. Two things. First I agree with your interest in practical purpose. This is important as anything which anything which is not believed remains decorative. (Jean Cocteau) and as the ‘cross stitch sampler’ that which no longer serves a useful purpose also goes the same way.

    The other point is that the more technology is forced upon people, the more they hanker after the ‘handmade’ or a return to the real, which you mentioned. The pencil photorealism is technically brilliant but strangely lacks the aura of a great photograph. Sometimes I long for a mark which isn’t there, though without it, the picture is unbelievable.

  2. This has proven very helpful for me, as i am writing an college essay on fashion illustration where i trace contemporary fashion illustration back to the pre-modern era. Its lovely to have a insight into the subject from someone who works in the trade, thanks

  3. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    Evelyn – I agree the trend towards photorealism is a peculiar development which could be a post unto itself.

    Katie, I’m so pleased you found the article useful.

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