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Strokes of Genius

The Society of Illustrators in New York pays tribute to fashion illustration’s finest.

A dress begins with a dream, one that manifests itself as a mark down the center of a blank page. That one stroke will determine the height of the garment as other lines give it shape and movement. What was once bare now evokes a look and an attitude that fashion illustrator and exhibition curator Robert Richards says can define an era reflective of its time. That is the power of fashion illustration and the purpose for “The Line of Fashion,” now on display at the Society of Illustrators in New York.

At its peak during the roaring Twenties and Thirties, fashion illustration helped designers communicate their vision to the masses. In fashion magazines, they seemed to inspire rather than just sell a product. And although her illustrations are not included in the exhibition, which focuses mainly on illustrations from the Sixties and Seventies, Muriel King, who began her career during the Great Depression, was known for sketching her designs – not for cutting or sewing them. The American designer left that task to her staff, which would later interpret her watercolor work into proper garments. Paul Poiret’s Art Deco sketches also had a life entirely of their own.

The advent of photography quickly replaced the pen and brush with a lens, but Richards, whose clients have included Yves Saint Laurent and Valentino, and other illustrators, including Kenneth Paul Block, Antonio Lopez and Michael Vollbracht, whose illustrations are all on display at the SOI, have all have managed to maintain the mystique of the art which leaves more to the imagination than the airbrushed images newer  generations have grown accustomed and apathetic to. During times when designers are asking women to dream again, is it not time for fashion illustrators to return and help lead the way?

Dazed Digital: What is the difference between fashion illustration and photography? What is it that the camera can’t capture that the illustration does?
Robert Richards: Illustration tells more while showing less. Only what matters is shown in a good fashion drawing while a photograph always has extra baggage – the model, the setting, the photographer’s personality – while in one perfect line an illustration can define an entire era.

DD: When was the peak of fashion illustration?
Robert Richards: Until the Sixties, when photography became king, a huge percentage of fashion information was communicated through illustration. Early fashion magazines and all newspaper advertising used illustration exclusively and pattern books used drawings to sell their patterns to millions of women the world over.

DD: Do you see a comeback?
Robert Richards: I do. I think all the technology is eroding photography’s credibility. All fashion coverage and advertising looks alike. It’s all interchangeable. Dolce and Gabbana looks like Prada, which looks like Gucci, which looks like Dior, which looks like Armani and Vogue looks like Elle, which looks like Bazaar. The same photographers, the same cloned girls, the same suntans, the same tawny lighting. Now is the time for illustrators with their strong, individual styles to come in and shake up the cocktail. Also, we’re less costly than Steven Meisel or Gisele.

DD: Whom do you see leading the charge?
Robert Richards: Among the current crop, I think Bil Donovan is the go-to guy. Dior thinks so too. They just signed him as their new illustrator. Glenn Hilario shows great promise. Steven Broadway. Alvaro. Chuck Nitzberg. It’s a long list and they’re out there with their brushes and pencils ready.

DD: What do you hope people will take away from this exhibition?
Robert Richards: That in this cold, digitized, electronic world, things that are created by human hands can never be replaced.

“The Line of Fashion” will be on display at The Society of Illustrators at 128 E. 63rd Street beginning April 1st through May 2nd.