Drawing the Line: The Art of Illustration

David Downton brings back the art of illustration.

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Special Issue
WWD Scoop issue 09/29/2008
With a new generation of photographers nipping at its heels, illustration’s spell over fashion began to fade during the mid-Forties, with Vogue’s Edna Woolman Chase declaring illustrators too costly and difficult to deal with. “In the Thirties, photographers such as Man Ray were exploring extremely innovative ideas with photography and were trying to apply it to fashion,” says Cally Black, author of 100 Years of Fashion Illustration. Photographers, in hot demand, successfully bumped illustrators from the front covers of style bibles, with the genre largely relegated to the accessories and lingerie sections by the Sixties. But it was René Bouché’s death in 1963, according to Black, that truly marked the end of an era.

A few nods to the art have surfaced since, including the avant-garde style magazine Vanity in the Eighties, edited by Anna Piaggi, and La Mode en Peinture, the illustrated fashion magazine in the Eighties published by Assouline.

Downton’s own accidental foray into fashion illustration can be traced to July 1996 when, as a 37-year-old freelance illustrator, he was sent by The Financial Times to sketch a Versace couture show held at the Ritz hotel in Paris. “It was like stepping into Narnia. I had no idea that this spinning universe existed,” he says, recalling with a guffaw his bungled attempts to capture the likes of Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Shalom Harlow sashaying across a marble catwalk stretched across the hotel’s swimming pool. “I couldn’t get the rhythm of it at all well,” he says, adding that even today the form is hit and miss—producing one drawing for every 10 that are “rubbish.”

Downton honed his craft by “bluffing his way into off-limits fittings and show rehearsals where he would knock out preliminary skeleton sketches using a brush pen and Rotring ink or “anything that will make a fast, indelible mark.”

But for all his support and creative liberty at a time when the art has no received style, no one way of working, Downton concedes that it’s unlikely that illustration will ever rise again to become fashion’s dominant recorder.

“What is fascinating is that everyone loves it, but they don’t know what to do with it. Valentino would allow me in to draw because he loves drawing, but he wouldn’t necessarily have used it in a campaign,” says Downton, recalling an exchange he had recently with a model backstage at a Dior couture show. “She saw me sketching, came over and exclaimed, ‘Oh, that’s so new,’ and I thought, no, it’s so old,” says Downton. “I found it quite sweet. It is sort of unusual, I guess.”
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