Colin’s Column | Could Illustration Offer an Antidote to Fashion Banality?

In a photography-saturated age, perhaps it’s time to recapture the power of great fashion illustration, says Colin McDowell.

LONDON, United Kingdom — I have, for many years, collected drawings of fashionable clothes from many periods, whenever opportunity and funds have made it possible. They hang in my home and always attract attention and admiration. I also have a collection of fashion magazines going back to the 1920s and when friends are looking at them, it’s always the early ones, with pages of fashion drawings, that grab their attention. In fact, collectors of fashion magazines pay serious money for issues of Vogueand Harper’s Bazaar up to the 1950s — that is, before fashion illustrations began to disappear from editorial pages.

Indeed, as improved colour reproduction and cheap flights to exotic locations for fashion shoots subsidised by tourist boards made photographs of fashion seem more exciting and, more importantly, very much more modern, fashion drawing was deemed unable to compete. As proprietor and editor in chief of Women’s Wear Daily, John Fairchild, in many respects a visionary but in others the Genghis Khan of the fashion world, oversaw a stable of amazing fashion illustrators that included Steven Stipelman, Kenneth Paul Block (referred to by Galanos, Mrs Reagan’s favourite designer, as “the Balenciaga of drawing”) and Steven Meisel, who was to change tack and become one of our greatest fashion photographers. But, one day, Fairchild sacked them all, having decided quixotically that photography was the only modern way to show clothes.

In my opinion, the demise of the brush and pencil as the primary tools of fashion documenters was a disaster not only for the artists, but also for fashion reporting in general. It has certainly affected the editorial quality of most fashion magazines. I can think of only two mainstream titles that have bucked the trend toward total editorial banality that seems to be an unfortunate bi-product of having editorial pages full of photographs: Carine Roitfeld’s French Vogue and Franca Sozzani’s Italian Vogue. And even those have used fewer and fewer illustrations, except for special editions. But there was one brave, inspired attempt to keep fashion illustration alive 20-odd years after it virtual collapse in the 1950s. Published in Italy by Condé Nast in the early 1980s and edited by Anna Piaggi, the magazine Vanity gave considerable prominence to fashion illustration and especially the work of Antonio Lopez. But it was a short-lived publication, because advertisers considered it too specialist to be a vehicle for them. Photography had won.

I want to make it clear that I am absolutely not denigrating fashion photography. All of the truly great fashion images of the last 100 years have been photographic and many have crossed over into general culture, typifying a particular time and social attitude. But so have certain iconic drawings from the 1940s and 1950s by artists like Rene Gruau and Christian Berard (the man claimed by some to have given Christian Dior the template drawing for the New Look). I have to admit, however, that a modern fashion drawing of a top model or star, no matter how flashily handled or flattering it may be, will never sum up a current period or attitude in the way a Herb Ritts photograph of a male model on Muscle Beach or a Mario Testino photograph of Kate Moss does. Their value to us and future generations arises from the fact that their creative DNA is contemporary, whereas too many of today’s fashion illustrations copy the techniques and poses of 60 years ago.

We expect a lot from the very top world class photographers — and they deliver. They constantly question and advance the medium; they challenge us. If we take the example of Nick Knight, breaking the barriers of imagemaking, and look for a broad equivalent amongst fashion illustrators we find only one: Francois Berthoud who, like Knight, is constantly experimenting with exciting new ways to represent clothes — and indeed modern femininity.

For the rest, their work is too often a trip down memory lane, copying the techniques but not quite reaching the skill levels of the great illustrators of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, like the perennially popular Eric, Bouche and Bouet-Willaumez — men who knew that a line, no matter how perfectly executed in pen or brush, is just a line if it fails to suggest that it is not only encompassing shape and volume, but also representing a flesh and blood body. In most cases these artists were, like their predecessors for centuries, working with a live model, a luxury few magazines would afford today, and yet undoubtedly the secret to the vibrancy of the image. Like their successors, Antonio Lopez and Tony Viramontes, they were fashion people. They loved the fashion world, they enjoyed its wildness: they were part of ‘the scene.’ And they were confident because they knew how much they were valued and paid, confident enough to appreciate and value their predecessors and their work, without copying their techniques or emulating their viewpoints.

This confidence is what we must recapture and offer to young illustrators today. And I don’t mean by that a little line drawing in the up-front pages of a Vogue or Elle, but full spreads in the main body of the magazine, even a cover. But not a cover — and there have been some — that makes the magazine look like one from the 1950s. Although there are worrying examples of drawing being removed from fashion courses at art colleges, it cannot be denied that there is still a valuable place in fashion for good modern fashion drawings.

The proof, refreshingly, is the work of young artists from places as far afield as Slovenia, Australia and Japan. And perhaps the most exciting ones are those that use illustration alongside mixed-media, digital tricks and even, like Miquel Villalobos, photography. The faux naïve sketches of Leo Greenfield, the semi abstract lines of Helen Bullock, Laura Laine, Gary Fernandez, Masaki Mizumo — the list of quality young illustrators is growing, yet it is strange how few have been given prime space in mainstream magazines. They need work and we need their vision. Where’s the problem?

Mainstream fashion magazines have, over time, become more and more formulaic. Indeed, we are virtually drowning in look-alike fashion imagery. Perhaps it’s time for some bold measures using illustration. Just imagine an inspired editor-in-chief commissioning the infamous Chapman Brothers to cover menswear, or sending Grayson Perry to the Paris couture shows.

Whilst we wait, there is currently an exhibition of drawings by Howard Tangye — who teaches illustration at Central Saint Martins and is the man of whom John Galliano said, “He made me understand line, on the page and on the human body” — which shows us what contemporary fashion illustration can still achieve.

Howard Tangye’s Casting the Line is at the Huss Gallery, 10 Hanover Street, London, until February 27th.

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  1. Great article! You should also check out the work of Jo Ratcliffe. She is a great modern fashion illustrator who also works with animation and fashion.

    Max Crockett from Leigh, Wigan, United Kingdom
  2. thank you so much!!! Dani Wilde

    Dani Wilde from Madrid, Autonomous Region of Madrid, Spain
  3. I say yes to bringing back fashion illustration. It would make for eyecatching covers on magazines. I certainly think fashion illustration has its place in the media. Danielle Meder from Final Fashion has been live sketching at shows for the past few seasons and though Garance Doré doesn’t illustrate as much anymore, I love her pen style as well.

    Dahlia Pham from Los Angeles, CA, United States
  4. Yes, great article Mr. McDowell. Hopefully we will see more Fashion Illustration inspired magazines, products and designs. However I do believe Fashion Illustration must take on a ‘grand entrance’ of presence to be accepted again. As well as take on a ‘gorgeousness’ to the eyes of fashion lovers and addicts to really take hold. Not all Fashion Illustration can grace the pages of any Vogue in the world. The artist must convey what is enviable for people to want it ‘now’. We do have artists today that are making their mark like Garance Dore and Megan Hess. Their work embodies the spirit of chic that can actually take over pages of a magazine. Now on the flip-sideThe Grandness of David Downton is what we need in our editorial edits. And if it arrives like the status of David’s art is so famous for, only then will photos become obsolete. Women will stop in their tracks wanting more and editors will be scrambling to commission artworks that speak truth into today’s fashion…. But then again this is just my humble opinion :)

    Lawrence Lawrence from New Paltz, NY, United States
  5. it would be an interesting move back to ability over celebrity, for not only have we backed off the handiwork (illustration) depicting another’s handiwork (the design/garment), esp as cover art is concerned, we have embraced as consumer and industry the celebrity over the look: covers no longer feature models who are there for their looks alone; covers feature celebrities, whose looks are at best a close second to the persona they will have built through acting achievement + off-screen antics/lives. and who nabs the choicest endorsement contracts? celebs. so i welcome illustration not only because i am trained in this but also because it embraces artistry as a vehicle for artistry and challenges the designers’/wearables’ abilities to entice via design and aesthetics, rather than with the 24/7 lure of celebrity as a means to one’s style. and i will avoid getting into celeb “designed” lines here….

    kimann schultz from Indianapolis, IN, United States
  6. Whenever I run into Colin McDowell he’s always very articulate, as he appears here. I think highly of him for defending and sounding praise for the use of fashion illustration in contemporary print magazines, so I do of BOF for publishing this article.

    What I found disappointing, however, is that only big titles using fashion illustration, yet mostly not even to a great extent, are mentioned in his piece, when there are several independent magazines doing just that – celebrating fashionable illustration on their pages.

    My own position at DASH Magazine, a London-based, international, biannual fashion print with a strong focus on fashion illustration, naturally urges me to mention the title at this occasion. DASH has been running for 5 issues now, all of which featured an illustrated cover and in-depth illustrated content, and has become the biggest product in its field.

    There is also Herself Magazine, which even illustrates its advertisements, or Sketchbook and The Hub magazine, just to name a few. In my opinion, those magazines would have fitted well here, as they really do something, with great courage and passion, to offer fashion illustration the platform it deserves.

    NoéMie Schwaller, Editor in Chief of DASH Magazine

    NoéMie Schwaller from London, London, United Kingdom
  7. I love it all. Vanity was my favorite. Thank you for this, I believe the time is ripe for a more diverse portrayal of style.

    Jade Dressler from East Syracuse, NY, United States
  8. BRAVO! As an illustrator myself, I applaud this. The fashion publishing industry has indeed become a ‘me-too’ business…and most are pulling their horns in when they really should be taking the opposite tack. Standing out among the crowd of sameness is more important than ever, because that crowd is only getting bigger.

    Eddi Frantz from Australia
  9. Street style has become a sterile exercise as a lot of (though not all) editorials on magazines, and I think a lot of creatives are exploring illustration as a reaction to this. I used to do a lot of street style photography at the catwalk shows and I now only sketch. The beauty of Illustration is that it gives me the opportunity to interpret the looks I see on the street. I never seem to have my sketchbook at hand when I see someone interesting on the street, so by the time I have time to put what I see to paper (or IPad) I would have further assimilated that image, made it my own, this is when it becomes unique as opposed to just a mere record of what people wear on the street.

    Sandra Battistel
    Editor of

    Eyespectacle .com from United Kingdom
  10. An illuminating piece as always by Colin on a subject given far from enough coverage. I applaud Mr. McDowell and the BoF for raising the profile of a sector of fashion reportage in rude health yet undervalued importance.

    I am a contributor to DASH Magazine and have registered in support of NoéMie’s comment above. As an independent business focusing on fashion illustration, DASH recognises and promotes the unique position and potency of an art-form vital to the industry. As other comments make clear, there are many current illustrators whose work helps push this particular aspect of fashion coverage forwards.

    Illustration is central to DASH, as its belief in the medium is absolute, despite its relegation in the mainstream fashion media. An independent business like that and the others NoéMie kindly mentions deserve applauding for their commitment. By breaking new talent DASH and others ensure this historical medium has a viable future, ensured through the eyes of a few dedicated individuals who appreciate illustration’s ability to move and convince. Its role should be assured by this debate being taken up further in all relevant outlets. As a pioneer in its field, naturally DASH would be very keen to participate in any such dialogue.

    I have already written an article on the BoF for DASH, following Mr. Amed’s presentation at Antwerp’s Fashion Talks Conference –

    We would welcome the opportunity to present the case for illustration and build upon Colin’s thoughts, should you wish to feature us and help argue for the wider recognition of one of fashion’s most overlooked but distinct aspects, while supporting independent businesses already so engaged.


    Paul Stewart.

    Paul Stewart from London, London, United Kingdom
  11. bit late on this wave Colin…

    Colin Gale from Shanghai, Shanghai, China
  12. It seems to work for Wiley’s ‘FASHION MEDIA PROMOTION the new black magic,’ where Anton Storey creates luminous images of everyone. From Audrey Hepburn to Kate Moss, from Christian Dior to Vivienne Westwood he picks up on their glamour.

    Jayne Sheridan from Brighouse, Calderdale, United Kingdom
  13. This is a fantastic article! As a fashion student myself, I loved illustrating and felt that it brought me closer to seeing design as a linear art capturing shape form and color. I was obsessed with it so much that my illustration teacher put my work on every wall in the school and submitted it to fashion competitions and it even paid half of my college tuition. Unfortunately after that, I seldom connected with fashion illustration having worked as an assistant designer I was more involved with ordering fabrics, assisting with patterns etc. Designers i worked for said to me ” illustrating alone will not put food on the table, you have to broaden your skills as a designer.” But in the back of my mind I always wondered if ever fashion illustrating will one day completely cease to exist and now with CAD it has taken a whole new dimension which is fine but nothing beats ink and paper! I have a pile of illustrations sitting in a box which I had spent countless hours doing and whenever I show someone there is that excitement and I too fee a strong connection with design all over again. Fashion illustration has stayed in the back and thats because today fashion is more commerce than art. I can imagine in the days of Balenciaga, Pucci and Courruges the first vision of a garment was on paper and then the technical aspects came after. I applaud this article because I too believe that designers should have a prolific illustrator in their midst. A good designer is not always a good illustrator but see that vision on a wall with colors and fabrics and surely enough magic is bound to happen. 5 percent of fashion’s DNA is still deeply connected to art. May it live on!

    Emil Alvarez from Belize