Taken from the debate at the Design Museum, London, on 05/11/2010, where the Drawing Fashion exhibition is currently running.
Those taking the floor:
Colin McDowell (CM) – guest curator of the Drawing Fashion exhibition
Joelle Chariau (JC) – custodian of the collection on show
François Berthaud (FB) – artist (see www.francoisberthaud.com)
Howard Tangye (HT) – artist (see www.howardtangye.com)
William Ling (WL) – director of the Fashion Illustration Gallery (see www.fashionillustrationgallery.com).
How did your career involve fashion illustration?
CM: Fashion illustration has obsessed me for years.
JC: I started with cartoonists in my gallery – popular, commercial art. Then I saw Rene Gruau’s work in a magazine and loved it, but I didn’t know if he was even alive or not. I found out he was and I contacted him, but he didn’t think his commissions would interest anyone. Fashion illustration was an unknown field in art. I didn’t think about the market; I held an exhibition and it was successful.
CM: They are artists first and foremost, but they just happen to draw fashion.
WL: Fashion illustration hasn’t always been fashionable. I collaborated with my wife on an exhibition at Gavin Turk’s studio in 1997, which featured in Vogue, and we were surprised they wanted to cover it.
CM: There has been a renaissance of interest in fashion illustration recently, for example at the new exhibition of Rene Gruau’s work for Dior, in Somerset House. However, commercial work [such as Dior commissioning Gruau] is always coarser, in my opinion.
HT: Drawing has taken me through everything I’ve done, and I began studying fashion at St. Martin’s, then at Parsons in New York in the 70s. There was an atmosphere of illustration at this time within fashion.
FB: I trained as a graphic designer, which covered drawing, typography, advertising and photography, though now you would study those separately. I worked for Condé Nast but also published comic strips, and I was then called in to work on a magazine called ‘Vanity’, which was created by Anna Piaggi.
CM: ‘Vanity’ was a marvellous magazine and Anna Piaggi is visionary.
FB: They called in talented illustrators to work on ‘Vanity’, but most knew nothing about fashion, whereas I did. The magazine had a niche success, but suddenly became worldwide after its use of illustration.
FB is then asked by the audience about the evolving nature of his work and how he has moved away from a linocut style.
FB: In the mid 80s I was looking to have a bold, black line drawing - something reduced to maximum simplicity. I then evolved and wanted to tell things differently, with more transparency. It’s now closer to painting than to drawing and it doesn’t really recall linocut.
The panel are then asked about a fashion designer’s influence over the illustration process and design.
FB: It’s not specific to illustration – whoever interprets the work of the fashion designers is creating a dialogue with them.
CM: When you’re doing something, you don’t normally feel you have to please the designer, as they aren’t normally your client.
JC: Even Gruau’s clients were mostly magazines.
On the subjectivity of fashion.
WL: It’s very difficult to second guess what we’ll think of Francois’ work in twenty years’ time.
JC: It’s subjective, and our subjectivity has a value.
CM: I’ve been in the fashion world for 35 years and I’ve yet to meet an intellectual because it’s so subjective.
On the idealised body in fashion illustration – the young and thin woman.
FB: I don’t see fashion illustration as a special occasion to discuss this in my work. The weight of the model is just not an issue.
CM: As a journalist I hear this all the time. Women in fashion are portrayed as young and thin because that is what we want as consumers; you want the dream. I would personally have a law banning anyone who was fat or over 40 from wearing jeans. I can’t wear them.
My thoughts on the debate: It was fascinating to hear all of these very high-profile industry specialists speak for such a long time, and with such freedom. I was really interested in the Fashion Illustration Gallery but, having conducted some research, it is essentially for buyers rather than general viewers or tourists, which is a shame. This is why it is so important to see exhibitions such as 'Drawing Fashion', because it is so rare to be given the opportunity to be in the same room as these images. Normally they will greet you from a magazine article or a retro fashion advert in a textbook, and you just don't have the same level of interaction. When you see them up close, they almost come to life; details are stronger, colours are richer, and technical accuracy is a lot clearer.
It was also amazing to meet fashion illustrators, and I may not get the chance again, especially considering the growing influence of graphic design and computer technology. It's been incredibly important to meet these more traditional illustrators, though they are not averse to using modern media in their work, and I do not criticise them for this.
The Drawing Fashion Debate proved to be a highly insightful experience for me, and one that I shall remember for years to come (not only because I lost the sole of my shoe on Tower Bridge, but that's another story, and one that cannot be illustrated in an elegant way!).