Fashion illustration and photography

As the newest collections parade down the catwalks, fashion illustration and photography show how to depict style

Fashion has always used art, photography and illustration to be represented at its best. Lately, the relationship has become more symbiotic. Selfridges Fashion Week windows feature images of models without clothes, which are repositioned on panels in front of the model’s body, so that the model only looks dressed when you are standing directly in front of the window. They are devised by Flora Evans, a graduate of Central St Martins who has worked with designers such as Chloe and Paul Smith.

This cross-fertilisation is evident in the plethora of exhibitions of fashion photography and illustration which coincide with London Fashion Week. At the moment, photography is more widely used in the media to portray fashion than illustration, but as the exhibition and accompanying book Fashion Illustration Now shows, it is far from being a lost art.

This book by Laird Borelli, fashion historian from the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, shows drawing, painting and computer-generated work by leading artists which make a significant contribution to visual culture. The 29 illustrators are grouped under three headings – the Sensualists – including Francois Berthoud and Mats Gustafson; the Gamines and Sophisticates such as Jean-Philippe Delhomme, Anja Kroencke; and Technocrats such as Ed Tsuwaki.

Fashion illustration was widely used until the late 1930s, when photography started to take over. By the 1950s it had become the stronger medium, although the photographic embargo at couture shows which persisted for years after that meant that illustration was still an essential tool. And it was a golden age of artist/ illustrators such as Francis Marshall and Cecil Beaton. The realism of photography suited the times, but fashion illustration has continued to play an indispensable role.

Fashion illustrator Richard Gray has “never had a lull in ten years.” He was responsible for the concept of Vivienne Westwood’s first four worldwide advertising campaigns, and works for Anna Piaggi at Vogue Italia, Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and Antonio Berardi. A recent collaboration with the designers Boudicca resulted in Plans for a Woman, a quirky erotic exhibition of his work shown in London and New York. Artist Christopher Brown says that illustration “has a hand and eye at work that creates a dynamic between the artist and the designer – look at Pierre le Tan’s work – it has his own unique touch. Too many magazine covers of models have a blandness – I would love to see Vogue do an illustrated Christmas cover.”

Fashion photography is the subject of the latest exhibition in the Canon Photographic gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Titled Imperfect Beauty, it is curated by Charlotte Cotton and shows the making of contemporary fashion photographs – a fascinating insight into the interaction between photographer, subject, stylist and art director to create the finished picture.

The role of fashion photography now extends beyond the traditional glamour and selling of a dream, often chronicling everyday life in all its gritty realism.

Imperfect Beauty explores the workings of the last decade of fashion photography, with projects like Glen Luchfords 1997/8 Prada women’s campaigns. Nick Knight is quoted (in the accompanying book) as saying, “I don’t think photography has ever been realist. I think it’s been a very bad tool for presenting real life.” But he says that digital images can now be manipulated, thus liberating photography “from that primary function… to allow it to metamorphose into a different art form”.

Fashion Illustration Now by Laird Borrelli is published on 25 September by Thames and Hudson, priced at £16.95. The exhibition Fashion Illustration is at the Mayor Gallery, 22A Cork Street, London W1, from 26 September to 3 November.

Imperfect Beauty by Charlotte Cotton is published by V&A Publications, priced at £24.95. The exhibition is at the Canon Photography Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, Kensington Gore, London SW7, from 28 September to 18 March 2001.

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