Fashion’s Line Drive: The Rebirth of Fashion Illustration

Bil Donovan illustration of Jean Paul Gaultier

The “Golden Age” of fashion illustration was from the 1920s through the 1940s. Then photography completely took over. Social media is now giving a voice to fashion illustration that didn’t exist before, and a contemporary comeback is in the making. Fashion illustration is an amazing tool that can be more effective than photography. There are so much breadth and variety within the genre. And, because it can be done independently, without a crowd, fashion illustration is perfect for today.

Vogue Italia used only illustrations for the January 2020 Issue

Italian Vogue proved that stunning fashion imagery can be created without using photographic images. In a bold move by Italia Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Emanuele Farneti, the entire January 2020 issue – and its 7 unique covers – was entirely illustrated by fine artists. The first time Vogue has done this since the introduction of photography in its pages starting in the early 20th century. The models, wearing head to toe Gucci, were styled by Tonne Goodman, Francesca Ragazzi, and Roberta Pinna.

“I strongly believe that fashion Illustration will be increasingly relevant as a medium to portray fashion in both a digital and print format. Its artistic value is unique and provides an alternative perspective, whether for fashion lifestyle brands, couture collections, young streetwear looks, or celebrity reportage. It is entirely versatile, ‘fresh’ and inclusive”- Gray M.C.A Gallery’s Connie Gray

Connie Gray and her art dealer husband, Ashley, founded Gray M.C.A Gallery in London. It is recognized as the international leader in the specialist art field of original fashion illustration from the post-war 1940s to the present day. I connected with Ms. Gray through a Zoom call earlier this week.

The Grays curate the very finest who are rooted in the original traditional style of fashion illustration. Their unapologetic-ally small stable includes Carl “Eric” Erickson, René Gruau, René Bouché in the ’20s ’30s ’40s, the revolutionary style of Antonio Lopez, Joe Eula, and Kenneth Paul Block in the ’60s and 70’s, through to Bil Donovan, Jason Brooks, David Downton, Gladys Perint Palmer, Ali Mahdavi, and Andrea Ferolla in 2020.

Carl Erickson Illustration of Schiaparelli 1950

“All of these artists put a message across in the most beautiful elegant way” opines Ms. Gray. The gallerist observes that when fashion illustration is done well, it is raised to a fine art. When I asked Ms. Gray to name her all-time favorite, she quickly responded: “Carl Erickson”. He is the original master who broke the mold. His work is really sublime.”

Kenneth Paul Block Study for Fashion Savages John Fairchild 1965

Ms. Gray believes that fashion illustration can tell a story and capture the essence and the look more effectively than a photograph. Also, a fashion illustrator is just working solely on one. It doesn’t completely finish the story, so it allows you, the viewer, to complete the story in your own mind. With photography, you have lighting, Photoshop, stylists, different filters, and makeup artists. Whereas with fashion illustration, it’s more personal. It’s just the model, the clothing, and the artist, and that’s it. It takes it back to the elemental, bare bones of it.

Illustration by Gladys Perint Palmer

Each September Gray M.C.A curates the internationally acclaimed ‘Drawing on Style’ exhibition. This is a significant art event held during London and New York Fashion Weeks, highlighting the most influential and contemporary fashion illustrators. They are working in this highly evocative and increasingly important art genre. It was to take place on September 10th in London but was canceled. Instead, the gallery will host its first virtual master class installation featuring Gladys Perint Palmer.

The esteemed British fashion illustrator and author – who is known as GPP – will work on several original couture fashion illustrations which reference the creations of Alexander McQueen, while describing the process and providing insights into her methods and technical skills as well as offering personal anecdotes inspired by her colorful career. Following the event, GPP’s works of art, created for the virtual masterclass, will be for sale.

Illustration by Jason Brooks

Gladys Perint Palmer has a full-time career as a fashion illustrator working for Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times Italian Vogue, and Grazia, to name just a few. The award-winning fashion and lifestyle illustrator Jason Brooks, who likes to experiments with technology in his work, reports that he’s busier than ever doing editorials and ads.

David Downton illustration of Stella Tennant wearing Dior Couture Fall Winter 1997 1998

David Downton is keeping busy as well. Downton has attended Paris Haute Couture shows for more than a decade. His illustrations chart both the backstage and front of the house of the couture world. His portfolio includes portraits of models Erin O’Connor, Lily Cole, Linda Evangelista, and Carmen. His reports have appeared in The New York Times, The Sunday Times, The Saturday Telegraph, Harpers Bazaar (Australia), and The Independent.

Rebecca Moses Illustration for Vogue Japan

About 10 years ago, Franca Sozzani, the late legendary editor of Italian Vogue, jump-started Rebecca Moses’s fashion illustration career. Rebecca’s work is continually used for advertising campaigns and fashion editorials. Each month, Japan Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief letter is accompanied by Rebecca’s illustrations. Kazuhiro Saito could just as easily chose photography but obviously feels the illustrations capture her message perfectly.

Bil Donovan Illustration of Chado Ralph Rucci NYFW September 2010

Bil Donovan works mostly in ink and is known for quickly painted sophisticated, luxurious and glamorous fashion illustrations. Bil has created memorable fashion illustrations for Ralph Rucci, Thom Browne, Carolina Herrera, and Christian Dior. His work has appeared in The Cut, As If, and Luxure Magazines. Since 2009, Bil serves as Artist-in-Residence for Dior Beauty (he is the second ever to hold this position). Beginning this September, it will be done virtually for the first time.

“Fashion illustration is a very resilient genre. As much as it disappears, it’s still here, and it’s still prominent. It’s just evolved to become something of its own”- Bil Donovan.

Bil also teaches fashion illustration. He is an Associate Adjunct Professor at FIT and an instructor at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. In a phone call, Bil explained that the most important element in this genre is understanding how to elongate the figure to best show off the clothing. He pointed out that the pioneers of the past were astute draftsmen- they can draw anything- and that is the ideal he holds on to as a fashion illustrator.

Has that changed and evolved? Yes, says Bil. Fashion illustration is becoming more graphic. And there is a continuing blurring of the line between fine art and fashion illustration. This is exemplified by members of fashion illustration’s ‘new guard’ which includes names like Cecilia Carlstedt, Gill Button, and Blair Breitenstein.

Illustration by Cecilia Carlstedt

Cecilia Carlstedt uses experimentation as an integral part of her working process. The Swedish illustrator uses various techniques in her work, such as ink, screen printing, and collage. She feels that luxury and creativity are the most essential parts of fashion. Clients include Vogue Nippon, W Magazine, Elle, Jimmy Choo, LVMH, Victoria Beckham. “Through illustration, you can pick up details that the camera doesn’t capture. There’s almost something poetic about it that is difficult to describe in words” says Carlstedt.

Gill Button illustration of Marc Jacobs

Gill Button is an English artist who studied at Kingston University. After graduating in 1995, she began work as a jobbing illustrator and gained numerous clients, including British Airways, Vanity Fair, and The Times newspaper. Much of her work during this period of her career was created digitally.

In 2014 Gill created a blog called Sketchy Men for which she made a new handcrafted painting or drawing every day. This was quickly followed by the creation of an Instagram feed, @buttonfruit, which helped her gain a new audience and following for her portrait paintings, made in oil on canvas. Featuring fresh faces starting out in modeling these works has helped her gain new clients, including Gucci and Dries Van Noten, Glamour, and Numero.

Blair Breitenstein fashion illustration

Blair Breitenstein is an Instagram sensation. Blair’s 121K followers click on to see the New York City illustrator’s daily drawings, which feature big glasses, big pouty lips, big hair, and big lashes. Blair’s illustrations are considered an expressionist take on contemporary high fashion, and she uses top fashion labels and iconic accessories throughout her work. Blair’s clients include Saks Fifth Avenue, Prada, MAC Cosmetics, Harper’s Bazaar, and Gucci.

Illustration for Bal Harbour Magazine by Ruben Toledo

Famed artist and illustrator Ruben Toledo understands the importance of abetting the careers of young artists. In an effort to help the Miami fashion art and design community jump-start their recovery efforts and discover their next chapter of retailing, Bal Harbour Magazine has teamed up with Ruben to launch a global competition designed especially for fashion illustrators,

As longtime supporters of fashion illustration, Bal Harbour Magazine wants to give back to the artistic community and foster the next generation of talent through this unique opportunity to have their work reviewed by Ruben—and published in the Fall issue of Bal Harbour!

“Fashion loves a crowd, and during this pandemic, there won’t be much of that, but illustration allows for that dream fulfillment to occur in our heads. It can make life be how we dream it to be” – Ruben Toledo.

Ruben believes that fashion illustration is “alive with feeling” and allows for so much self-expression. There is no question that fashion illustration – like photography- has the power to be uplifting. It’s not either-or. They work together. Employing photography, fashion illustration, and words create a complete form of fashion storytelling.

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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