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The Career-Making Elevation of Fashion Illustration

By Jackie Mallon


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Although the death knell for fashion illustration was struck as far back as the end of the first world war, that’s ancient history for a new generation of image makers who are snatching up brushes and applying washes in their droves. When Vogue put its first color photograph by Edward Steichen on a 1932 cover, a new norm was launched, and the power of photography eclipsed illustration for decades. There have always been exceptions who managed to burst through––Kenneth Paul Block in the 60s, Antonio Lopez in the 70s––but in contrast to the standard glossy spreads of Photoshopped models, it is suddenly refreshing to be confronted with so much illustration. Brands are commissioning hand-drawn artwork for the immediacy of its impact but also for its more intimate, personal quality, much sought-after by the modern-day authenticity-seeking consumer. It suggests a return to innate skill over technological wizardry, and young illustrators can even contemplate careers in the field, something long-discouraged as a viable plan for the future.

Illustration’s ally, Instagram

The establishment can’t compete with the power of Instagram to offer artists the opportunity of a community and a global communication tool. Swedish artist Stina Persson, whose extensive portfolio of graphic watercolor and collages boasts collaborations with Louis Vuitton, Vogue, and Bloomingdales, resisted the social media site for a long time, but now admits it’s an integral part of her work. “I love the direct feel of it,” she told LVBX Magazine, “the contact with people from around the world and the way I can show my process not only finished pieces.” Great work has never been more accessible; students don’t have to buy glossy magazines or attend galleries to view Julie Verhoeven’s slinky doe-eyed urchins who skulk in psychedelic dreamscapes filled with butterflies and clouds. Lord of the illustration establishment, David Downton, whose style evokes the glamour of yesteryear, and the revered René Gruau and Etienne Drian, remembers when “You used to have to leave your portfolio with an art director, a fashion editor, and hope for a phone call.” As artist-in-resident at Claridges hotel in London, Downton has drawn some of the world’s great beauties, but his twenty-year career began when he was commissioned by a magazine to attend the Paris couture shows and capture the looks. He still attends every January and June, and in February launches a limited edition book, DD21, which gathers those years of runway illustrations in one perusable tome.

Unskilled but in demand

Central to the contemporary conversation around fashion illustration has to be Helen Downie, the artist behind the name Unskilled Worker, whose work was discovered on Instagram by Nick Knight of SHOWstudio who in turn showed it to Gucci’s Alessandro Michele. Downie has said, “I had no expectation at all when I began to post my work—I didn’t really consider what might happen. I just wanted to paint, and Instagram was a way for me to see my work outside of my studio.” Her opulent ecclesiastical renderings of adults, infants, and animals have since been pasted on the sides of Paris buildings, graced museum walls from Shanghai to Milan, and undulated across Gucci’s satin bomber jackets and silk dresses. The Gucci art wall in Manhattan’s Soho has also hosted new artists including Brit, Angelika Hicks, and Spanish artist Ignasi Monreal. Illustrator Donald Robertson describes himself as an art school dropout who failed Life Drawing class, but according to Vanity Fair, prints of his busy and colorful illustrations start at 375 dollars climbing to more than 12,500 dollars for a painting.

Meagan Morrison enjoys a legion of Instagram followers to her page TravelWriteDraw, which showcases her playful, commercially appealing drawings which have found their way onto the cover of WWD as well as decorating the interior of luxury Dubai hotels. Dallas Shaw has released a book of work compiling her years of backstage-runway illustration. Fashion designer Justin Teodoro has made a name for himself in NYC for his sketchy marker style with which he dashes out the latest runway looks, leading to collaborations with Barneys. Megan Hess has gathered an impressive client list from Chanel to Prada to Vanity Fair with her evocations of dreamy pastel Breakfast at Tiffany’s femininity. Followers of Jessica Durrant’s moodily romantic, dark-eyed and windswept heroines also receive tips for brushwork techniques and motivational mantras.

Where frocks gathers, illustration follows

Fashion illustration can arguably be traced back to any period when humans wore clothes. The general consensus is 500 years ago. During the twentieth century with the emergence of fashion houses, magazines, and Hollywood glamour, it grew in prominence. But there is little contest that the swashbuckling theatrical drama in the portraiture of late-1800s Giovanni Boldini or the wan-faced golden-haired domestic goddesses of Johannes Vermeer’s seventeenth century paintings rendered with expensive lapis lazuli pigment next to earthy umbers and ochres are sublime examples of fashion illustration.

Photography has never been more democratic than it is today, yet thanks to the platform that gave rise to the narcissistic business of selfies and OOTDs, the craft of fashion illustration soars. It can be a more poetic form of storytelling than what’s captured through a lens, extending the dream beyond the runway, emphasizing the craft and skill behind the garments, linking the artisan with the artist. Sewing stitches and brush strokes have united in a contemporary romance that recalls the mystery of the past rather than the innovations of the future. As Downton told the LA Times, “The best thing I never did was to learn technology. I thought 10 years ago that I should because the whole world was passing me by. But it would have meant that I’d be tethered to a screen. I deliberately never learnt a thing. Except for Instagram.”

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Header Image donaldrobertson.com; other imagery: stinaperrsoneditions.squarespace.com; unskilled worker.co.uk; Wikiart, Woman in Black who Watches the Pastel of Signora Emiliana Concha de Ossa by Giovanni Boldini, 1888; Illustration Wikicommons The World of fashion and continental feuilletons 1836 (1830s) Source: Flickr

Donald Robertson
Fashion illustration
giovanni boldini
stina persson