John Booth is the illustrator crossing the worlds of art and fashion – here we talk to him about his inspirations and what it’s like working for the famous Italian house
British artist John Booth is driven by an unbridled curiosity and an indiscriminate approach to creativity. “Just because you’re not formally trained in a certain field, who says you can’t try it?” he says over the phone from his east London studio. “What’s there to lose? If I want to design a sofa, I can sit down now and draw one!” And we don’t doubt it. Over the past few years the Cumbria-raised creative, who studied fashion print design at Central Saint Martins, has turned heads in the art, fashion and design worlds alike with his bold, graphic style which he applies variously to paper, fabrics, ceramic vases and ornaments, and most recently bags as part of his ongoing collaboration with Fendi for their menswear collections. This began three seasons ago, with a T-shirt he designed depicting a typically linear man’s face with a protruding speech bubble bearing the word “Fendi”. “It’s naïve and playful,” Booth notes of the piece, which proved an instant best-seller.
It is just this sense of spontaneity that Silvia Venturini Fendi was looking to harness, and which has gone on to shape Fendi’s SS17 and AW17 menswear offerings, galvanised as they are by Booth’s free-flowing prints, patterns and illustrations in vibrant colours. “Silvia made a conscious decision to loosen it up,” Booth expands. “They’ve got these amazing resources and they’ve chosen to embrace the unexpected.” From today, Londoners have the unique opportunity to witness this firsthand, courtesy of a live painting performance by Booth, taking place in the windows of Harrods overlooking Basil Street. The two-day long event marks the arrival of Fendi’s new menswear space to the storied department store, while the celebrations will continue with Booth hand-decorating an exclusive selection of T-shirts, keyrings and pochettes in store until April 2nd. Ahead of the opening, we caught up with the artist to discuss his marvellously multifaceted practice, the fun of working with Fendi and his penchant for art departments.
Who’s your drawn line hero?
John Booth: Jean Cocteau. I also love Andy Warhol’s line drawings but it has to be Cocteau.
When do you think you truly found your style?
John Booth: I think it’s a constant evolution, but a turning point for me was when I was studying for my BA. Most of my work there was based around drawing, and one of the things I loved most were the fashion drawing sessions – a bit like life drawing but the model was clothed. I realised then that I loved drawing people in what they were wearing: rendering fabrics and combining clashing prints and textures in an abstract way. I think that formed the basis for everything that I do. We were also always encouraged to draw quite quickly at Saint Martins – not to be too precious with our concepts, to get ideas down and keep moving forward, which really shaped how I work.
So have you ever practised a more formal style of drawing?
John Booth: No, it’s always been quite loose. I never just use a pencil, that’s so alien to me. One really big influence of mine is Howard Tangye: he was the main womenswear tutor at Saint Martins, but he also taught us illustration. He works in a really mixed media way that debunked the myth of what constitutes fashion illustration – those stylised, perfectly rendered, elongated figure drawings. So right from the outset, I’ve embraced lots of different media. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for felt tip pens and inks and crayons.
That seems like something you’ve been free to continue doing in your work with Fendi too…
John Booth: Definitely, there’s something very loose about the way I can work there. Although the Fendi building is enormous and imposing, inside there is a sense of liveliness and fun and intimacy. We know it’s about the energy or the colours or the feel of a collection when we’re designing, and I think that translates to the final product. It’s about creativity and playfulness but equally, everything is executed in the most well-constructed, detailed, high-quality way. I could do a quick drawing and the next time I go to Rome they’ll have turned it into an amazing keyring. The whole process is really satisfying.
“It’s about creativity and playfulness but equally, everything is executed in the most well-constructed, detailed, high-quality way” – John Booth
What was the creative process like behind the SS17 collection?
John Booth: The collection is quite stylised and alludes to the Hockney poolside works; the catwalk show happened with a swimming pool runway, which was really good fun. We had our research – the poolside, loungey feel; the summery, bright colours; the faces that are quite Picasso-esque in a way – but the narrative of the collection seemed to evolve as we went along. Fendi value an artistic approach, so all the artworks were done by hand in conjunction with the clothes being designed. I would do an artwork on paper during a fitting and they’d pin it directly onto a jacket, for example, to see what it would look like. I hadn’t worked in such a quick and spontaneous way on that level before, being so reactive to the team environment.
So are the live drawing sessions an extension of that process to an extent?
John Booth: Exactly. We’d do these sessions in the studio where there were eight or nine people sitting around the table while I drew. It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable working like this, but it’s now the thing I love the most – I get lost and almost forget that there are people around me watching. When we were designing the main bags for the collection, it was a similar process in that they gave me a test dummy and allowed me to sketch it out and collage print ideas directly onto the bag. We’ve been quite keen to expose the process because it’s not some mythical thing – I’m using inks and paper to collage these designs with – there’s nothing top secret about it. It feels like quite an instant message: one that’s pop and positive.
Did you always envisage having such a multifaceted practice?
John Booth: I think I’m at my happiest when I have a mixture of surfaces to work on, or a mixture of processes to learn. As a kid in Cumbria, I was always lucky to have really good art departments and encouraging teachers. I’ve got this romanticised idea about the term ‘art department’. When I imagine my school one, it had brown tiles on the floors and walls, metal stools and crappy tables, but it was a space where you could make whatever you wanted. At Saint Martins our pattern cutting room was just a blank canvas too, where you could work how you liked. Now I’ve made my own miniature art department in my studio. It embodies that feeling of potential – it’s got a big desk space and shelving units that I can make anything on.
Fendi’s menswear boutique opens in Harrods from March 30, where Booth will be hand customising items live in store until April 2.