At the Fendi spring/summer 2017 show, while iPhone-wielding onlookers squirmed to capture the parade of looks from the Lucite catwalk, Megan Hess was looking down at her notebook. The Australian fashion illustrator was hired by the brand to live-sketch Karl Lagerfeld’s Marie Antoinette-inspired runway show. Sitting across from Anna Wintour, she scribbled furiously with her custom Montblanc pen, pausing only for a quick scan of a striped peplum jacket or floral apron as it went by.
Five years ago, such an invitation would have been as unlikely as seeing celeb kids front row at Fashion Week. But there is a growing number of fashion illustrators – both armchair sketchers and those hired by fashion houses – who are picking up pencils, paints and even tablets (the latter thanks to drawing apps like Paint Joy) and sketching shows. A few examples: NYC-based James Skarbek did sketches of Tommy Hilfiger’s nostalgic-meets-nautical fall/winter 2016 see-now, buy-now collection for Facebook and Twitter; Oscar de la Renta asked artists, including Maria Saporito, for sketches from the brand’s spring/summer 2017 show to share on Instagram; and Toronto native and Tel Aviv-based fashion illustrator Talia Zoref was invited by Missoni to draw her top looks from the spring/summer runways and post them on social media.
Image by: Bil Donovan
Acclaimed illustrator Bil Donovan, whose roster of fashion clients would make up your dream closet, says he sees the medium’s growing popularity as a reaction to a “world saturated by photography and digital technology where one photo seems inseparable from the next.” Indeed, how many times have you seen the same fuzzy smartphone shot of Bella Hadid or overedited image of Kendall Jenner on the runway while scrolling Insta Stories during Fashion Week? Illustration, argues Donovan, offers a reprieve from this visual monotony because “it captures the essence of fashion through the vision of the artist.” (And, thanks to platforms like Instagram, it can be seen by a global audience in seconds.)
Image by: Unskilled Worker
Hess, who has drawn for labels like Chanel, Dior and Prada, as well as several magazines, agrees. “As photography has become so perfect and slick, illustration has become more personal and bespoke,” she says. “It’s a more intimate way of communicating.”
The irony? Social media is responsible for its renaissance. Search #fashionillustration on Instagram and you’ll find close to two million posts – not bad for a medium that originated as a visual record of sorts for European settlers in the New World in the 1500s. By the time of the 17th-century court of Louis XIV (essentially a 24-7 fashion show), it was common practice to create prints of the lavish couture, according to historian Cally Blackman, author of 100 Years of Fashion Illustration. Later, from the 18th to early-20th centuries, fashion magazines used the medium to showcase designer clothes.
Image by: Meagan Morrison
Today’s fashion houses want the same endgame as those magazines: buzz. “We live in a very fast-paced, digital world where you need social content quickly,” says Skarbek. “The essence of fashion illustration is capturing a moment, a feeling, so it’s perfectly suited to capturing the energies of these runway shows that can then be shared across multiple social-media platforms.”
Image by: Blair Breitenstein
A runway sketch typically takes about five minutes, tops, so two or three can be done and posted by the time a show is over. According to Scott Levy, CEO of the NYC-based digital marketing firm Fuel Online, this instant gratification “fuels the fire and passion of art and high design.”
Image by: Donald Robertson
Influential illustrators like Hess, Meagan Morrison and Toronto native Donald Robertson are now Insta celebs, with hundreds of thousands of followers. And, if a brand’s lucky, consumers engage with them – one of Hess’ sketches from the Fendi show got 37,700 likes on the brand’s Instagram. What’s the key to all those double taps? “I always make sure to keep the brand’s DNA in mind, but I must create something completely in my style and project a new and inspiring visual,” says Hess. Not even the all-seeing camera can capture that.
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of ELLE Canada.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's bi-weekly newsletter