Master of Fashion Illustration

Sat 08 Jan 2011 by Jo_Moore

Masters of Fashion Illustration

jm: David the last time you gave a talk for BiG you were working on issue one of your magazine Pourquoi Pas? A Journal of Fashion illustration. How did you get from there to your first published book?

dd: I was considering doing a third issue of Pourquoi Pas? and evaluating the commitment (financial and otherwise) that would entail, when I was offered the chance to do a book of my own work. That didn’t appeal to me overly, but once we’d established that I could include my favourite fashion illustrators, and that I could bring the designer Karen Morgan (who worked on PQP) on board, it all fell into place.

jm: Did you make the selection of artists to be included in the book? And how did you define a ‘Master’?

dd: Yes, it was entirely my choice. The publishers were brilliant; they left me completely alone as far as the decision-making went. I don’t think I could really define a ‘Master’ other than these are the artists whose work I love; who have had the most influence on me, directly and indirectly.

jm: Were there any artists you feel you had to include (perhaps because of their reputation), even if you weren’t a fan? And were there any unsung artists you wished to share with the world?

dd: No, not really. Having said that, I was never particularly fond of Erte - too many staircases and feathers - but when I looked at his covers for Harper’s Bazaar in the 20s and 30s, they seemed to pretty much define the Art Deco aesthetic. As far as unsung artists go, I would say, Drian, Keogh, Marshall, Blossac and Tony Viramontes.

jm: Did you have to leave anyone out?

dd: Rene Gruau, the ultimate master. The chapter was designed and written, but the estate didn’t like it (I never found out why). There was also the question of money; quite simply, we couldn’t afford him. That said, there are a number of beautiful monographs on Gruau and some of his very best work can currently be seen at the Design Museum in London, and, if you are feeling flush, there’s a selling exhibition at the Fashion Illustration Gallery. Everyone should go.

jm: How much input or guidance did you get from the publishers?

dd: They were great. They didn’t get too involved day to day, but they were very supportive when they were needed, the perfect combination really.

jm: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a dozen times, but was there really such a thing as a Golden Age of fashion illustration. And if so, when was it?

dd: I’d say there were two. Fashion illustration as an art form came of age in Paris, in the years leading up to World War 1. It was a period of extraordinary creativity, spearheaded by the couturier Paul Poiret who, in conjunction with Dhiagilev and the Ballets Russes,
Created a very modern exoticism. Artists like Barbier, Marty, Drian and Lepape helped define this fantasy world. Later, in the 1930s, Car Erickson, a brilliant line artist, redefined the genre and recorded the world of high fashion as a reporter might. The second ‘golden age’ lasted through until the early 60s when fashion illustration gradually fell out of favour with the magazines that had once sustained it.

jm: Do you think the best age of illustration was directly in response to the best period of fashion?

dd: It sounds simplistic, but yes, I do.

jm: Reading your book there does seem to have been an extraordinary breadth of jobs illustrators were invited to work on; magazine covers, advertising campaigns, designs for ballet and opera. Do you think there are as many opportunities for illustrators today?

dd: I think the thing was that these were artists first and foremost; artists whose subject was fashion. I am not sure they accepted limitations. Most, as you say, designed for the ballet and theatre. They also ventured into portraiture, travel, advertising, ceramics, even. Marcel Vertes won two Oscars (for John Huston’s film about Toulouse Lautrec, Moulin Rouge). I’d love to say it was like that today, but I would be deluding myself.

jm: Do you feel nostalgic for a former era of fashion illustration?

dd: Constantly. I’m a golden-ager, un-reconstructed.

jm: Do you think illustrators enjoyed a higher reputation in previous times than they do now?

dd: In certain spheres (such as fashion), yes. But there are artist/ illustrators like Sara Fanelli, Rob Ryan and David Hughes who defy catagorisation and blur boundaries.

jm: How do you think working practices have changed for illustrators?

dd: Today the whole world comes to you on screen. It’s brilliant and addictive, but still just a screen.

jm: Has photography all but killed off fashion illustration?

dd: It has certainly tried. Fashion Illustration has been pronounced clinically dead a number of times…it just won’t lie down.

jm: Is it possible to work solely in fashion as an illustrator these days? Are there enough outlets?

dd: Today there are a number of outlets from gallery walls to club flyers. Increasingly, illustrators are collaborating with designers and even setting up there own labels. It’s an interesting (if confusing) time to be a fashion illustrator

jm: The different eras in your book seem defined by a particular style or approach to image making. What do you think defines our own age, is there a style?

dd: No and I think that’s telling. The journalist, Colin MacDowell, recently stated that there was no one of any interest working (in Britain) today. I think he’s completely wrong. There are a number of really talented artists out there who are, yet again, re defining the genre. What we don’t have is an over arching style. Today it is much more about the individual.

jm: You book is called Masters of Fashion Illustration – were there no mistresses?

dd: I’m really embarrassed about this. Yes, there were and there definitely are. Today there are rather more mistresses than masters. In the period I was looking at, from the turn of the 20th century until the late 80s, it tended to be the men who were the stars.
That may well be true in a lot of professions but, as I say, the balance has shifted now.

jm: Your book ends in the 1980s, does that mean you don’t think there are any contemporary masters at work?

dd: I think there are quite a few: Mats, Berthoud, Michael Roberts, Gladys Perint Palmer, Stina Persson and Tina Berring spring to mind. But their careers are still developing and it seemed more sensible somehow to look at the artists I most loved from the past.

jm: Many people would class you as a contemporary master, would you accept that accolade?

dd: Well, I would be extremely flattered. It would rather depend on who was saying it. My ear is always tuned to suspicion. When I was in Australia in September, I did a radio interview and was introduced as ‘The World’s Greatest Fashion Illustrator’. I was so stunned I missed the first question, cementing my reputation as the world’s dimmest.

jm: You have worked for and with some of the most influential people of our time haven’t you? Do you have any favourite jobs you would like to tell us about?

dd: Drawing Cate Blanchett for the cover of Vogue Australia was undoubtedly a highlight. For one thing, an illustrated cover is a great rarity now, especially for Vogue. We actually did four separate covers for their 50th anniversary issue. It was set up like a photographic shoot; we had a hair and make up team, brilliant stylists, suites at the Dorchester. It really was like being a Master of Fashion Illustration for a whole day. Better still, one of the covers went on to win a Maggie (a magazine cover of the year award) and became the fastest selling issue in the magazine’s history. Proving that drawing can sell magazines!

jm: Do you have any unfulfilled illustration ambitions? 

dd: I never really had a plan. We plan and God laughs,

jm: You clearly enjoyed writing the book have you any future publishing projects?

dd: You couldn’t be more wrong! It was agony. I felt completely out of my depth and was obsessively re-writing right up until the courier arrived to pick up the final manuscript. I read somewhere that good writing is just a matter of getting the right words in the right order. That may be true, but it doesn’t come easily to me. Having said that, I am now proud to have done it and yes, of course, I’ve signed up to do another book….

Thank you David, we wish you every success with the book.

Find out more at
www.daviddowntom.com
www.mastersoffashionillustration.com

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