Drawing the Line: The Art of Illustration

David Downton brings back the art of illustration.

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Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Scoop issue 09/29/2008
Unceremoniously usurped by photography in style magazines during World War II, fashion illustration continues to flourish across a variety of media including flyers, textiles and posters. The last two years in particular, according to Downton, have seen an upswell in interest, with a variety of artists tapped for brand collaborations. These include James Jean for Prada’s fairies collection this spring, and Tanya Ling, whose prints feature on Louis Vuitton’s cruise 2009 collection.

Like the dramatic art-world ascent of once-off-the-radar graffiti artists such as Banksy, the niche genre of fashion illustration is set to take off with a spurt in collectors of original works. “There is a market for it, but because these artists are principally focused on fashion illustration, they’re often categorized out of exhibiting opportunities, so I’m filling that niche,” says William Ling of London’s, which opened in April 2007. He adds that, whereas historically illustration was a hand-drawn or painted art, new takes center on hybrid digital and hand-drawn techniques, either done by hand or computer. Ling discloses he’s busy working on what he claims will be New York’s biggest fashion illustration exhibition, due to open in February at an undisclosed venue.

“Fashion illustration is all over the place, but it’s not in the place where you used to find it,” comments Downton, alluding to the craft’s heyday in the early 20th century when leading artists—including Georges Lepape, Etienne Drian, André Edouard Marty and Erté (Romain de Tirtoff)—were the first port of call for fashion magazines such as La Gazette du Bon Ton, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. “They were the Mario Testinos, the Steven Meisels [of the day]. Paul Poiret commissioned several fashion drawings and textile print designs from artists including Paul Iribe, Georges Lepape, Raoul Dufy and Erté. At the time, photography was not considered an art form but a method of recording,” says Downton, citing as example the illustrator Carl Erickson, who enjoyed a 30-year contract with Vogue from the Twenties to the late Fifties.

Erickson’s delightful watercolors included one of two bathing beauties in front of a striped beach tent, commissioned for the cover of Vogue’s “hot weather fashions” issue of July 1, 1934. “[Erickson] would stay at the Ritz and charge shirts from Turnbull & Asser. They were artists and had a first-class lifestyle,” marvels Downton.

Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, who started out as a commercial illustrator, are among major art-world figures to have dabbled in fashion illustration. “The line is so blurred between fine art and fashion illustration,” comments Downton. “Warhol is the classic case of somebody who, midstream, closed the door on fashion illustration, as he knew it wouldn’t be taken seriously.”

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