Meet the NYC illustrator who sketches at Paris Haute Couture shows
There’s no denying Elly Azizian, who illustrates under the moniker Fashion Strokes, has an impressive client list: Van Cleef & Arpels, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino and Sotheby’s to name a few. Nevertheless it is quite a rarity in modern times to be flown to Paris to sketch inside the elite environment of haute couture where the one-off handmade gowns on display are bespoke creations purchased by the world’s royalty rather than loaned for photo ops to Hollywood celebrities as is common in ready-to-wear. Azizian tells FashionUnited how she carved out such a niche spot in the field of fashion illustration.
How did you get invited to sketch at the haute couture shows?
I went to FIT to study couture and was really lucky to have great professors, but although I did draping, pattern cutting, sewing, all my professors unanimously said my drawing was much better. And they were right. I don’t know if I have the temperament for sewing as I get too restless but I have that background of construction and craft and have kept a toe in the couture world. When I fully dove into illustration I met up with a Chilean fashion magazine, a super small and niche publication and, as it was around couture season, I floated the idea that I could go to fashion week and cover it for them. I don’t think they had thought it was really a plausible thing to do but I applied for a press pass and got accredited, much to everyone’s surprise. We got a few invitations, small shows at first, the second and third tier, not the legacy brands, but some really great couture companies. Then it grew because when you’re on that list of contacts, people have their eye on you. I met some great PR companies that were really kind and I showed them some work and it snowballed into a bi-annual occurrence.
Where are you situated when sketching the runway looks?
I think Paris is very specific because a lot of the shows happen at historic landmarks and so the set ups can be a bit cumbersome. But depending on how much space we have, very occasionally I will have the luxury of an actual table which is usually in the little gap between the photographers and the seated audience. Occasionally if it’s a brand that doesn’t want immediate sketches but want a more detailed sketch afterwards, I have the luxury of sitting in the audience which is fun.
What do the photographers make of having you there beside them?
At first I think it was a novelty for them and they were surprised to see someone next to them not with a camera but a sketch pad. Now I’ve come to know some of them and it’s a bit more social, especially at the shows I attend yearly. They’re very kind and make space for me.
What are your go-to materials for sketching runway shows?
It’s definitely pared-down but I tend to do a lot of line work regardless of the occasion. At home I’ll work with collage, pastel and I like to experiment. At the shows it’s more about pencil, graphite, couple of marker highlights, and if I use pastels it’s always the nice manicured pencils that you can smudge a little and not have dust go everywhere. I do try to make sure it’s a contained situation. They have those great pens with water in them which I tried once. But you see the fear in the eyes of the photographers when they see water next to these massive banks of outlets.
Are there any requests to create digital sketches?
Digital options have actually, surprisingly, never came up. I suspect that most companies that have had me in know my work is primarily using analog methods. I also think there’s a certain romanticism and luxury to holding a fine sturdy stock paper with ink and sketch marks. It’s very in line with the essence of couture, especially as they often gift the sketches to clients.
How do you prepare for sketching at the couture shows?
I do live drawing sessions beforehand such as with Drawing Cabaret Couture or Ami Benton, London-based productions via Zoom. I get into a rhythm of really quick live drawing or slow meticulous work and it’s hard to balance. One always feels more comfortable than the other. Also just looking through magazines and doing quick sketches from them. Sometimes if I know it’s going to be a slammed event with lots of guests, not necessarily couture shows, I might have a backup of pre-planned poses, like croquis, that I know I can pull from quickly.
How do you capture the looks which pass before you in such a flash?
The gowns are so intricate that the actual speed of the couture runway is a little slower than ready-to-wear so that really does act in my favor. Of course, you can never capture all the looks. And the models will stop at points along the runway, and at the Juana Martin show she had some of the models do little abstract performances which helped.
How many sketches do you produce per show?
It depends. I’ve heard stories of companies demanding a certain amount but I haven’t come across that. Everyone’s been wonderful flexible with me. I find that I can do, say conservatively, 7-8 sketches a show which isn’t a lot when you think of how many looks go down. The big legacy brands might have 80 looks, but smaller couture brands have 20-30, so if I can get a third of that everyone seems happy. At that pace I don’t feel the strain and can still catch whatever jumps out at me.
How was sketching at Zuhair Murad?
I think he’s the highest ranked brand that I’ve worked with and his gowns are so beautifully intricate I do feel bad that I don’t capture as many looks as I would like. I think that’s one of the shows that comes with more of a time crunch. But at the same time, because they’ve been so kind and they’re so appreciative of the intricacy of my work, the same way they appreciate their own craft, there’s never been an issue of quantity.
How would you describe the feeling of sketching in that stressful yet exciting environment?
As a fan of any performance I think that moment when the lights dim and you hear the music swell up and you know something’s about to happen, is amazing wherever you are, whether concert, theater, or fashion show. It’s a great adrenaline kick. Then you see that first gown and it kicks in oh right, I’m working. Those first few minutes of awe, then a brief blip of panic, the realization that I’m not here to just marinate in beauty, and then I’m in the rhythm. Towards the end it’s very pragmatic; you look through your sketches, they get collected, it becomes very business.
What happens to the sketches you create?
It depends. Some press and PR agencies take them and keep them for the brand, some brands gift them to the clients who purchase the gowns because they are also one-of-a-kind. Some will use them for social media purposes. It depends on the company.
Why have you been embraced at couture shows over ready-to-wear?
I think so many couture companies are trying to do things out of the box whereas in ready-to-wear everyone follows similar trends. In the couture world you get big artistic ideas and concepts that change from season to season. But I’d love to work with any company that really embraces costuming elements, something really out of the ordinary, that’s where my heart is.
As couture shows tend to attract celebrities, do you sketch them also?
I see them in the periphery. I’m more with the photographers so I get a front row view of some of the mayhem that ensues but I’m not in the middle of it. I had the pleasure this time of sketching Rossy de Palma who has always been a massive fashion icon to me and she was so kind afterwards, sharing my work and being complementary. That was a real treat.