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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.
Howard Tangye
  • 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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Enjoy 25% BoF Professional membership until December 20