Meet the fashion illustrators capturing what runway photographers can’t

Live art illustrators are proving to be the perfect foil for – and perhaps the better alternatives to – street-style and catwalk photographers at fashion weeks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 March, 2018, 7:33pm

In the social media age, any smartphone-equipped individual can become a photographer, as seen on Apple’s building-tall advertisements.

This is never truer than at fashion events, where snap-happy fashion lovers capture every moment from a myriad of angles and share them on digital platforms, while street-style photographers chronicle the sartorial lives of fashion insiders.

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But as technology brings about a form of hyperrealism, some are turning away from taking photographs. Korean illustrator Suwa Im, who captures the street style of the Paris, New York and Seoul fashion weeks live on paper, says there is charm in capturing “the most attractive features of the figure and feel the charm of a brushstroke quickly drawn”.

Im is tapping into the heritage of René Gruau and Antonio Lopez, and following in the contemporary brushstrokes of British artist David Downton. Downton just celebrated two decades in fashion, and through the recently “DD21” tome chronicling memorable runways for Vogue and portraits of fashion’s royalty, illustration has never felt more current or made fashion feel more alive.

“It’s a new era of fashion paparazzo,” wrote Vogue’s international editor-at-large Hamish Bowles on his Instagram account under a sketch of him by Im.

On the streets of Paris or Milan, Im, a graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York, looks to capture every noteworthy outfit, armed with a sheaf of vintage papers and her palette of paints. As a fashion designer, illustration was a tool until she felt the need to connect with people first-hand.

“Rather than another person’s view from a photograph, I wanted to draw people I met in person, with my own feeling, so I decided to walk on the streets,” says the Korean illustrator, who has spent the past year sketching alongside style photographers outside shows in the fashion capitals.

Sourcing vintage magazines or old books to serve for her sketches, she looks at the words as a metaphor for the link between fashion’s past and its contemporary transformations. “I like the power of fashion to reflect diversity and identity,” Im says. “I’ve tried to demonstrate both nostalgia for decades past and the sense of innovation from contemporary trends in my work.”

Capturing a moment in fashion’s fast-paced time with nothing but a sketchpad and a pen is how veteran American illustrator Richard Haines documents fashion. His flourishing career has seen his work featured on the French couture federation’s Instagram and in the pages of The New York Times where he started in 2008 a blog titled: “What I Saw Today”.

The then-designer – he worked for the likes of Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis – captured outfits that caught his eye in his neighbourhood. “As a child I was always fascinated by how an artist can communicate so much information in a few lines,” Haines says.

Krakow-based Moldavian illustrator Elena Ciuprina is now in her second season of attending shows in Milan as a reporter for L’Officiel Italia. She agrees that working live – on street style as well as the runway – has forced her “to be decisive, and sketch the exact thing that translates the spirit” of her subject, be it a runway or a person stepping out of a car. “Just like a scent, [a sketch] saves the memory so much better,” she says of her live notes.

This necessary concision transforms drawings into “a scan of the look – what is the shape, what is the attitude of the model, is there a feature here to draw?” Haines says. “Those questions go through my mind as I draw, and then the model is gone.” In the age of constant, endless streams of information, this feels almost like a militant statement for quality, congruent with the luxury industry’s values.

For artists, immediacy is a constraint that is a springboard for their craft. Much like Haines’ tagline of “New York is an endless runway”, Im sees the style scene as a giant catwalk where “the way style evolves always gives the artist’s eye something fresh, which in turn leads to colourful and new experiments in [one’s] artwork.”

Encouraged to attend shows during her studies at the London College of Fashion, British illustrator Megan St Clair Morgan quickly found herself sketching to capture more than the clothes. “Live drawing has allowed me to embrace a natural response I have as an artist, to take my first response as my only response. Energy created within work created live is very hard to recreate.”

Her work has recently been featured for the JW Anderson’s capsule.

In a world where everything feels instant and dematerialised, live art is an emotional imprint. For brands, this is a key to forging connections with an audience thirsty for values and meaning.

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Says St Clair Morgan: “[Illustration is] capturing an essence, not the full picture, to bring a viewer to want to know more – [to] look further as such.”