While fashion illustration has taken a backseat to photography for
decades, there have been rumblings in recent years that artful drawings are making a comeback. Judging by the recent excitement surrounding the work of David Downton, it looks like there is indeed a renewed interest in illustration. Ironically, British-born Downton attributes some of fashion illustration’s new-found popularity to Instagram, which helps promote hand-drawn imagery by simply putting it out there and stimulating dialogue about how the subject of style is best captured.
A one-time graphic illustrator who began his commercial career in 1984, Downton’s specialty has been covering the Paris couture shows for almost 20 years. His recently published book, Portraits ofthe World’s Most Stylish Women, pays homage to both the art of illustration and the essence of glamour, with over 150 of the artist’s drawings of iconic women from the worlds of fashion and film. Among those featured are Catherine Deneuve, Joan Collins, Carmen Dell’Orefice, Linda Evangelista, Cate Blanchett and Dita Von Teese, to name a few. I spoke with Downton about how he first discovered fashion, how social media has helped revive interest in illustration, and what he’s learned the world’s most stylish women.
You say that “fashion found you.” How did that happen?
Well I had no grounding in fashion at all. But on a whim of a newspaper art director with whom I’d been working, I was asked if I wanted to go and cover the couture shows. I said sure, “Wow…Paris on your money? Sure!” I hadn’t ever seen a fashion show and I went straight from the Eurostar to the Ritz and drew Valentino fittings. It was the beginning of like, “Oh my God! This other world exists!”
It’s impressive that you had such an inherent sensitivity to the tone of style.
And I can’t explain it. I mean, when I was beginning in the 1980s, there were very few fashion artists who were high profile or even working regularly. There was still Antonio Lopez and Tony Viramontes, but they seemed incredibly exotic to me, very romantic and swashbuckling and I never felt that I fit into that. I’d done graphics at college but I hadn’t studied fashion. I knew about it and I would buy Italian Vogue from time to time, because it’s very inspiring as an object, but I never saw myself in that world. It really hadn’t occurred to me, partly because I would have thought, “How would you make a living in that world?” And then I got this phone call and I went to couture and I thought, “Well, that’s fun. I could do more of that!” I was too naive to be frightened. I didn’t know that it was an extraordinary experience to walk into the Valentino fittings with the pugs and the chandeliers and the smell of lilies.
Your first real portrait of a profoundly stylish woman was the model Marie Helvin. She came to an exhibition of your work in 1998, and consented to let you draw her…
Yes, I was astonished! I thought, “Did you mean yes?!” Anyway, I did the drawing and she saw it and loved it and I give her full credit. She hatched a plan. She said, “Oh you should draw Iman. You should draw Jerry [Hall]. You should draw Catherine Deneuve.” I said, “Sure!” And she sent them all a postcard with her drawing on it, saying: ‘This is David and I think you should consider…’ and they all said yes! So I went from knowing no one to ringing on famous people’s doorbells and I loved it. I loved the encounter. And I knew from then that it would be a book. I didn’t know it would take 17 years. But of course the longer it takes the better it is because you’ve drawn more people, you have more experience. You hopefully get better at what you do.
In terms of your evolution as an illustrator, how do you feel that you’ve grown?
You know, fashion is an easy target and there are enough people in fashion that you really don’t want to spend time with. But I’d say there are more that you do – the best people, the most creative, the most fun, the most glorious looking, the most talented. Of course, it has its share of egomaniacs and disasters, but it only has its share. It doesn’t have more than the movie business, or the art world. It certainly doesn’t have more than the music business. But I find the fashion world to be sustaining and exhilarating, and I’m very lucky that I don’t live in it. I live in the countryside an hour out of London, so I can get in and get out and have what I regard as the best of it.
David with Joan Collins at book launch
I think that’s part of your success in a way; you manage to instill a kind of romance in the way you see the world. You take the time – it’s not about the quick Instagram shot.
Well, Instagram is wonderful and I love it. But I don’t particularly love it for my work. I don’t feel it’s the forum for it. I know I put work on there but I’m much more likely to put something on that I love or someone else’s that I love. Still, it has revived interest. And the artists that are coming up through Instagram are heralding in a wonderful new era. You used to have to leave your portfolio with an art director, a fashion editor, and hope for a phone call. Now you can kind of beam it into the palm of their hands. Everybody’s looking at Instagram and it’s wonderful. And I genuinely think that certainly for now, there is a genuine interest and feeling for drawing.