The striking, original images produced by artists illustrating the changing face of fashion over the decades for leading magazines are becoming collectible works of art. Expert Connie Gray, a specialist at Gray MCA reveals the unsung heroes of fashion illustration and why collectors should take note of their largely overlooked work.
What is fashion illustration?
From the late 18th century until the onset of WWII, fashion illustration was one of the key means of circulating and identifying new styles of dress.
The “masters” were commissioned to illustrate the couture and ready-to-wear collections each season in Paris and later New York and their work graced, among others, the front covers and pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, L’Officiel, Jardin Des Modes, Elle, W Magazine and Women’s Wear Daily.
As well as being commissioned by magazine editors, Saks 5th Avenue in the US was a huge advocate of using illustrators and understood the power of a great illustrative piece.
In 1936, the publishing titan Condé Nast, which had brought Vogue to Britain in 1916, claimed photographic covers were outselling illustration, ending the reign of illustration as the dominant force in fashion magazines.
Collecting fashion illustration
Original fashion illustration has found its place in the art world as a beautiful, historically-important genre of art that brings emotion and pleasure to anyone who is lucky enough to own an original piece.
Demand for fashion illustration
At last the names of these 20th-century maestros of fashion illustration are being recognised for their work, sparking one of the most dynamic areas in collecting.
At Sotheby’s New York an archive of Kenneth Paul Block fashion illustrations, estimated to fetch $3,000-$5,000 (£2,200-£3,700), sold for $16,250 (£12,000). In 2011 some René Gruau works sold at Christie’s for three times their estimate, achieving £10,000 each. Average prices for original sketches run from about £2,000-£10,000 depending on the artist.
Such is the uptake in interest that The Times recently declared fashion illustration as leading the trend in affordable 20th-century art. But the market is evolving fast and, for those with an eye for this most underrated artform, should get in quick. Prices will only increase as collectors catch on.
Fashion illustrators you need to know
Their names have all but been forgotten in the annals of art history. The American Carl ‘Eric’ Erickson (1891-1958); the Czech René Bouché (1905-1963); the Italian René Gruau (1909-2004) and the French aristocrat René Bouet Willaumez (1900-1979)
and – more recently – the Puerto-Rican born American Antonio Lopez (1943-1987) and Kenneth Paul Block (1924-2009).
All were once synonymous with the documentation of elegance, poise and beauty in the world of fashion reportage in the 20th century.
Each one of these names was a highly successful fashion illustrator whose work graced the front covers and pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in The New York Times, The Times, the French fashion bible L’Officiel, America’s Town & Country, The New Yorker and Flair magazine. These publications were all great advocates of fashion illustration and understood the power of an illustrative piece to accompany a fashion editor’s column or in an advertising campaign for the leading beauty and department stores of the time.
Golden age of fashion illustration
From the early 1930s, until the launch of Christian Dior’s New Look in 1947, elegance and poise were the stock-in trade of these masters of fashion illustration.
The illustrators’ work was admired by millions on a daily and monthly basis and played a crucially important role in the profits of the couture houses and the publications who commissioned them. Alongside their natural decorative beauty, these original artworks are now seen as a vital historical record of the cultural evolution of the periods. While photography may
capture the mirror image of a model and her gown, the fashion illustrator would interpret the look, allowing the viewer to be drawn into the designer’s creation.
Yet throughout their careers, no matter how successful they were, the fashion illustrator was rarely taken seriously as a fine
artist in his or her own right. Their work was seen as purely commercial and therefore of no value. As a result, a vast majority of the illustrators’ work was discarded once it had gone to press, making surviving illustrations even more collectable.
Just as today, when the fashion photographer’s name may be a footnote, the illustrators’ names were equally underplayed. The reader may well have recognised the style of the artist, but been almost unaware of the his or her name.
What was paramount to the fashion editor was the illustrators’ ability to translate a gown or suit into an image that would entice the reader. Even the great Diana Vreeland (fashion colomnist at Harper’s Bazaar from 1936-1962 and editor of US Vogue between 1963-1971) would call imperiously for “the sketcher” rather than by his or her own name. In truth, the fashion illustrator was the unsung hero of the fashion world.
Masters of fashion illustration
So, what made a 20th-century fashion illustrator a “master”? Alongside their thorough training at one of the leading art schools of the time, learning to draw both technically and with elegance, each artist naturally developed an individual style that allowed them to interpret a fashion look with ease and grace.
Some used a gentle wit coupled with an exquisitely elegant line such as René Bouché, the French illustrator who was also a much-respected portrait painter. (The Kennedy family adored him and called him “Paintbrush”) Others, such as as René
Gruau and Tod Draz (1917-2002) developed a distinctive bold interpretation.
Gruau sealed his name in fashion illustration history following his commission by Dior to illustrate the first Miss Dior advertisement in 1947; choosing the now iconic image of the white swan, black bow and pearls. René Bouet Willaumez’s success lay in his whimsical, charming and gentle style; while the American, Carl ‘Eric’ Erickson, introduced the use of a backdrop to set the scene bringing a realism to fashion illustration that had not been seen prior to the 1930s.
Each dominated the fashion pages and, even with the advent of fashion photography as early on as the 1930s, their work was commissioned and published with dazzling regularity.
Decline in fashion illustration
As the 1960s took hold and the youth culture democratised style, fashion illustration saw a decline. New methods in photography challenged almost every aspect of the fashion illustrators’ work, particularly magazine covers. The media demanded an ease of reproduction that included the possibility of scaling images up or down, requiring clearer details of the garments. This could only be achieved by photography. Yet two names bucked the trend. Antonio Lopez and Kenneth Paul Block.
Lopez’s exuberant style was both political and radical. He illustrated perfectly the vital form of expression, electricity and colour that New York pulsed to at the time, leading to continual work with The New York Times, Elle and his great champion Woman’s Wear Daily.
Kenneth Paul Block
Kenneth Paul Block blended fashion illustration and portraiture with exquisitely fluent high energy sketches that captured the sophistication of the era’s socialites and celebrities. As chief features artist for W magazine he helped transform the once-dowdy WWD into the bible of the jet set during the 1960s and ‘70s. And it was to Block that Diana Vreeland turned to when she launched her first exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York by commissioning him to draw the exhibition poster for Cristobal Balenciaga.
Today’s fashion illustrators
With the advent of social media, contemporary fashion illustration is making a comeback, seen as a fresh approach to fashion journalism.
Two names stand out: Jason Brooks (b. 1969) in the UK and, in the US, Bill Donovan (b. 1953). Both have a natural raw talent for depicting beauty and elegance within the world of fashion. Each has an acute understanding of the tradition of draftsmanship, but employ contemporary techniques to interpret today’s fashion.
Donovan’s remarkable brush strokes saw him appointed as the first artist in residence for Christian Dior alongside his regular commissions for Vogue and Luxure Magazine. Brooks’ dramatic and graphic look has brought him international acclaim for brands such as Lancôme, Verve Cliquot and Lucas Films.
These contemporary illustrators are leading the way and their artworks are as collectable as the original artworks by the masters of the 20th century.
Connie Gray is a specialist at Gray M.C.A, a dealership that celebrates the beauty, innovation and style of fashion illustration, artist’s textiles and design from the mid 20th century to the present day.