Drawing attention

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The art of illustration has long been kindred to fashion. And if you take a closer look at the development of fashion illustration in the 20th century reveals its intimate links with the evolution of fashion marketing. Indeed, it is no accident that fashion illustration is currently undergoing a quiet renaissance as the fashion world grapples with how best to market itself in light of new technologies.

Well into the 1930s, illustrations formed the primary method through which people experienced fashion. Yet, the notion of fashion illustration as an art is actually a relatively new concept.

Until the late 19th century, fashion illustrations were hand-coloured “plates” or engravings in ladies’ magazines and catalogues that were functional rather than aesthetic. However, inspired by movements within modern art, early fashion impresarios saw the potential within the art world to elevate fashion to new levels of sophistication and thus revenue.

Paul Poiret is generally credited with the development of fashion illustration as an art and a powerful marketing device. In 1908, Poiret, who already had Raoul Dufy designing prints for him, commissioned Paul Iribe and Georges Lepape to illustrate books devoted to his work. These illustrations established a new tone for fashion marketing and raised both the illustrations and Poiret’s designs to the status of high art.

Strangely, the movement towards realism within art and fashion, which caused magazines like Vogue to switch over to photographic covers in 1932, nurtured the evolution of fashion illustration as it encouraged people to think of the field as a more elevated form of expression. Unsurprisingly, illustration retained an important role in marketing and encouraged collaborations between prominent designers and artists. Elsa Schiaparelli, for example, hired former Harper’s Bazaar house artist Marcel Vertes to illustrate her perfume ads over a number of years.

The 20th century saw many great fashion illustrators, such as René Gruau, Kenneth Paul Block – and even Andy Warhol – transform the fashion and art worlds with their creative perspectives towards design. It is no surprise that haute couture became the natural home for fashion illustration because its marketing requires a more refined approach than prêt-à-porter.

Nowadays, fashion illustration may seem somewhat antiquated outside the world of haute couture, particularly in light of today’s technologies. Yet, a quick survey of the fashion and digital arenas reveals the currency of illustration in marketing and also how the field is acquiring new dimension.

For one, fashion magazines, brands and retailers continue to make liberal use of fashion illustrations for focused campaigns. Artists such as David Downton, Mats Gustafson, François Berthoud, and Jean-Philippe Delhomme have gained prominence for their unique styles, which range from flat illustrations to animation, depicting the works of designers in print and digital campaigns. Of course, many designers themselves are well known for their graphic work, such as Manolo Blahnik’s fanciful drawings of shoes.

Most universities across the world also now offer courses in illustration and graphic design as a regular part of fashion programmes. Young designers are increasingly skilled in the art of hand drawing as well as computerised illustration, which not only makes the initial design sketch phase faster but potentially offers new opportunities for creativity and artistry, particularly with tools that can translate drawings into fabric with the click of a button.

Finally, the world of social media has increasingly provided fashion illustrators with an expanded space and a global audience through which to display their work. Popular social media figures such as OscarPRGirl and DKNY’s Aliza Licht have illustrated avatars that change regularly; and online magazines such as Amelia’s Magazine provide a forum for young illustrators.

In the age of the iPad and Twitter, the “return” of fashion illustration has particular potency for fashion brand marketers and other industry professionals. It represents a call from consumers and from within the industry for a renewed focus on quality, presentation and provenance. The saturation of the digital space has produced a desire for something new but better and more reliable. Despite advances in technology, illustrations are inherently imaginative and have the ability to create an ambiance and sophistication that photography can never quite replace.

Fashion illustration has come a long way since the days of fashion “plates”. It is arguably becoming a force once again within marketing. However, young fashion illustrators, like their design counterparts, need the support and resources of the industry to keep the art of illustration alive and growing, particularly as the world deals with the reinvention of the print in the wake of the digital publishing revolution.

by Jessica Quillin

illustrations by Jennifer Roberts