There is a revival of the art of fashion illustration in our digital age – when illustrations were once de rigeur because photographs were too expensive or didn’t exist yet, now they have returned with a vengeance. It is no surprise. Illustrations have the ability to freeze moments in history through the loop of artistic style and the latest trends in fashion. Illustrations have various elements that can create a fashion fantasy. John Galliano once said of his tutor Howard Tangye: “He made me understand line on the page and on the human body.” But then the nineties hit, and the rise of the internet and photography diminished the influence of fashion illustration. Nevertheless, the market is currently saturated with the latest documentary fashion photography like an echo to the beginnings of Nan Goldin. With that nostalgia comes a reckoning for even earlier methods: the drawing.
Let’s start from the beginning. Fashion illustration had its heyday in the early twentieth century but slowly declined in 1932 after Condé Nast realized that photographs on the cover of magazines sold a lot better. Sure, there was Erte who dominated the covers of Harper’s Bazaar, and later fashion illustration resurged in advertisement via the work of illustrators like Rene Gruau and Antonio Lopez. Many illustrators to this day are inspired by the techniques of the great illustrators of the 1930’s. The modern illustrator Piet Paris take his inspiration from Gruau. Like Gruau, Paris style is graphic, with big surfaces, thick black lines. He creates women with long legs and thin waists.
Photography opened up the documentation of fashion to a larger audience and subsequently made fashion illustration an anachronous medium that seemed unable to compete. There was one key exception to this — fashion illustrations were still used Italian Vogue, courtesy of Franca Sozzani. Italian Vogue and illustrator Mats Gustafsson created a perfect partnership. Gustafson was able to conjure the atmosphere, the feeling and the lifestyle that was being projected in ways a photo did not. In the 1980s, the legendary editor Anna Piaggi – known for her extreme makeup, sartorial mashups and peculiar headgear – tried to keep fashion illustration alive with her magazine Vanity. In the magazine, Piaggi put the spotlight on prominent fashion illustrators, including the now renowned Antonio Lopez. Lopez is seen as one of the most inspiring illustrators of recent past, and his recent post-mortem MAC collaboration speaks to his influence in the realm of fashion and beauty. Alas, Piaggi’s attempts to keep illustration alive – and illustrators relevant — were short-lived. Many advertisers found the magazine a niche, and posting their advertisements thus wouldn’t be profitable.
One of the great contemporary photographers, Steven Meisel, used to be an illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily. Meisel later became a revered photographer and showed of his skills through different tools: a camera lens. Andy Warhol too walked this path from the doodle to directing a pose.
Fashion photography underwent changes since the arrival of the smartphone and the different image-editing apps that are available. Rankin and Nick Knight pushed the boundaries by creating media platforms for fashion photography and film, and in 2013, Knight commissioned seven illustrators to interpret catwalk looks from key designer labels.
The digital age, which once was the reason for a decline in fashion illustration is now the engine behind its popularity. With direct selling platforms such as Etsy, and video tutorials on illustrations, anyone can create their own illustration and so establish a myriad of different styles. One other medium that fashion illustrators have adapted to is video. Julie Verhoeven is illustrating music videos and Tanya Ling designed animation for Louis Vuitton. Mauritzio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari, the founders of Toilet Paper, were the duo behind the animated spring campaign (2014) for Kenzo with Devon Aoki. Nick Knight once said on fashion illustration: “Fashion illustration has been enjoying a renaissance in the digital age […] thanks to the skills of a young, tech savvy generation of illustrators.”
It is a good time to be a fashion illustrator. These days there is no prescribed way of working or universal style. Anything goes. The blogosphere is filled with talented artists who reinterpret street style and runway looks into imaginative creations, such as Hayden Williams. Modern artists adapted to the changing nature of fashion illustration. They show their illustration with help of mixed-media: digital art and sometimes even photography. Lots of good young illustrators such as Masaki Mizumo, Laura Laine and Sandra Suy .The same can be said for the illustrator Francois Berthoud who experiments with new ways to portray clothes. Richard Haines illustrated a limited edition book for the menswear collections of Prada.Prada later used those illustrations for their mobile app which included a virtual tour of La Palazzo Prada. Take Sandra Suy, who was commissioned by Chloe to create a series of radiant illustrations to celebrate their 60th anniversary.
It seems ironic that in the age of the instant image, many magazines and platforms are realizing the importance of an illustration again – this lost art, revisited in snapshots on Instagram, discovered on Flickr and Tumblr. The old meets the new meets the old, all over. It is a modern – or perhaps more accurately, a timeless — way of storytelling. It may never gain momentum and become the most prominent medium in which fashion operates, but no matter. From the use of digital technology to the sheer beauty of using pencil and brush: the art form fashion illustration is here to stay.