It is that evolution that fuels today’s fashion illustration. Perhaps it is more accurate to say fashion-inspired illustrators, because while fashion illustration is still used to sell clothes, in many cases, it has simply become a working style for many artists. They build upon codes perfected through the last 50 years to create stunning graphics. Furthermore, the public loves it.

“I think people will always be interested in the hand-drawn line,” says Daisy Fletcher (daisyfletcher.co.uk), who has created illustrations for the likes of Esquire and Penguin Books. “In an age so dominated by technology, there is a definite move towards hand-drawn illustration and hand-crafted items. I suppose there is a sense of mystery surrounding it as, unlike a photograph, you can’t always work out how it was created.”

Illustrator Richard Kilroy (richardkilroy.com) agrees. “Fashion illustration at the moment offers such a break from editorial photography, which is just everywhere right now,” he says. “I love fashion photography, but I think a lot of magazine editors and other industry heads need to realise that illustration can convey moods and styles that photography never can. The impressionistic qualities that illustration can offer shouldn’t be underestimated or forgotten about.”

Richard’s clients include Topshop and the art and fashion website ponystep.com. Both he and Daisy – along with Sarah Arnett, Jasper Goodall and Erin Petson – have also created works drawing on the influence of René Gruau for an exhibition of his work at Somerset House in London, under the banner of Dior Illustrated. With an exhibition of fashion illustration running at the same time, until March 6, across the Thames at the Design Museum, it’s clear to see that fashion illustration is growing in popularity (see our last issue for more on these exhibitions).

Oddly enough, though, it is difficult to get a precise handle on what exactly makes a piece of illustration ‘fashion’. There is glamour and aspiration, for instance, but that is difficult to define. Moreover, it is not necessarily about showing off clothes: in fact, much of what is designated fashion these days has very little to do with selling clothes.

“You get illustrations that have no fashion in, that are still described as fashion illustration, because of the context they are used in and what they represent,” explains Richard. “There’s so much imagery within fashion that doesn’t just involve clothing. Fashion and clothing are two different entities.”

This being the digital age, the defining ‘illustration’ itself can be tough to call.

“I like to mix photography with the illustration, as I like the surreal modern look it gives,” says Sarah Arnett (saraharnett.co.uk), who creates both illustrations and textile designs. “I think my style comes from all my influences, including film and photography.

“I have always had an ideal image in my head of what I would like to achieve, and then I have to work in whatever way I can and with whatever medium I need to use to achieve the end image. I am always trying new techniques.”

Aspiration and desire
If fashion illustration is underpinned by the notion of glamour, equally important is its connection with the viewer. Again, it’s not about depicting an event, some content, even a literal representation of a pair of shoes or gloves. It is about tapping into that viewer’s sense of aspiration and desire. It is directly prodding the viewer’s emotional brain.

Richard Kelly’s work for Ponystep’s An Illustrated Look at Modern Men’s Fashions

There are different approaches to that particular task. For some, it’s in the face of an illustrated figure. “I always need to find a good facial expression to work with, or at least alter it to make it more expressive and dynamic via shadows etc,” says Richard. “The actual clothing aspect just comes naturally and my ideal illustration would highlight the shapes and areas of interest in the clothes, rather than translate them directly – that’s what photography is for.”

“I think the figure and pose have a lot to do with it,” says Erin Petson (erinpetson.compoy), whose beautiful sketchy style has created works for clients ranging from Vogue, Lancôme and Aquascutum to George at Asda. “Sometimes the style of drawing, be it loose like David Downton or incredibly detailed like Laura Laine, the negative space, is used to highlight the figure and clothes with movement. It’s a gestural drawing that captures a mood and theme.”

That sense of gesture is also important to Richard, who is keen to keep his work looking hand-drawn. He is irked by overly photorealistic illustration, preferring the simplicity of line and contrast to convey his ideas. While it’s almost impossible to avoid technology in design, Richard keeps his use of computers to a minimum: creating contrast, erasing stray marks and aligning figures for the most part.

Created for Dior Illustrated, All Caught Up looks at René Gruau’s humorous depiction of men

Drawing by hand is also integral to Daisy’s work. “I use graphite pencils and pen and ink to create my drawings,” she says. “For colour, I use soft colour pencils, with which I build up in tonal layers. What looks like just one colour is usually a combination of about 12, which helps to create a sense of depth. I only use the computer as a tool to play with composition and scale.”

For the aspiring illustrator, the advice is simple. Draw, and then draw some more. “Take advantage of any life drawing classes,” is Erin’s emphatic recommendation. “The more drawing experience the better. First you must learn to draw, and then you can break the rules. This is when it becomes interesting.”

“A good fashion illustration conveys a great mood and a voice or identity,” adds Richard. “There’s a lot of bland illustration that does well for big companies, but is completely forgettable and sappy. I’d say, just work on your own style as much as possible. Don’t go seeking out work just to boost your portfolio. If it’s good enough, you’ll reap the rewards and interest will come your way. Never force anything. If you really are passionate enough, it will show in your work. Don’t just go people-pleasing.”

Sarah’s advice is simple: “It is so important to look at everything, but also not look at it too much. Being influenced and referencing is okay. Life drawing is important and sketching every day, just putting in the hours. I keep sketchbooks of everything that inspires me. You never know when you’ll need it.”

Finding a way in

Just how do you get to be a fashion illustrator? Well, your portfolio will need a certain ‘unique essence’, according to Victoria Pearce of agency Illustration Web (illustrationweb.com). “It could be anything from an offbeat use of colour, to a particular ‘gesture’ in the line or a quality of light,” she says.

Before this, master the basics. Understand the human form, and make sure you can draw. Take life-drawing classes and practise, practise, practise.

Understand the trends. Check out fashion magazines, websites and blogs. Take note of line and colour palettes. Work out what’s up and coming and update your portfolio accordingly. Practise drawing silhouette and detail. Remember, it’s all about making potential clients’ clothes look good.

Then, like Lulu, shout! Promote yourself and your work. Blog. Network. Seek advice. Be patient, and let one thing lead to another.