Move Over, Kate Moss — Here Come the Illustrated Models

Move Over, Kate Moss — Here Come the Illustrated Models

By Farah Halime


Because fashion illustration is making a comeback.

By Farah Halime

In a light-filled industrial studio in the East Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, John Jay Cabuay scribbles furiously into his sketchbook. Nudging his square glasses up with one hand, he scrawls circles and squares with the other. “That was my warm-up,” he says before starting on a new piece of paper and sketching a perfectly formed silhouette of a woman.

From Christian Dior to Cartier and Dolce & Gabbana, Cabuay is part of an unlikely tribe of fashion illustrators revered by the industry’s elite. Running the gamut from Pop Art–inspired prints on blouses and designer bags to delicate watercolor sketches on beauty packaging, these artists — who include Katie Rodgers and Meagan Morrison in New York, Lena Kur in Russia and Mekel in Australia — are breathing new life into a lost art form. At the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, applications for illustration majors grew 26 percent between 2011 and 2015. Designers have been so taken by Cabuay, in particular, that he says one of his clients, Louis Vuitton, regularly asks him to sit in at private parties to sketch portraits of esteemed guests. “Sometimes it can cause a riot,” he says, sporting slicked-back black hair. “Everybody wants to be picked first.” 

The industry has been dominated by photography for more than 50 years, so this is an exciting moment.

Though the industry has waxed and waned over the last half century as cameras and digital imagery took precedence, celebrated fashion illustrators like David Downton, who has sketched everyone from Dita Von Teese to Carolina Herrera and Elizabeth Hurley, are again en vogue. “The industry has been dominated by photography for more than 50 years, so this is an exciting moment,” says Downton, 56, who worked for Vogue for most of his career and is the artist-in-residence at London’s Claridge’s hotel, where he stays 52 nights a year in exchange for drawings. “For the first time in a generation, fashion illustration looks like a real proposition.” 

First revolutionized in early 20th-century France by artist Paul Iribe, who created minimalist illustrations to capture the essence of avant-garde couturier Paul Poiret’s designs, the medium of pencil and ink quickly gained prominence across the pond. By the 1950s, Andy Warhol was drawing handbags and shoes for Harper’s Bazaar and designing Christmas cards for Tiffany & Co. with his trademark blotted-ink technique. Then cameras took up the bulk of the picture, pushing illustration to the side. “Photography monopolized the industry; it created instant gratification,” says Bil Donovan, the artist-in-residence at Dior Beauty and an adjunct professor at FIT. With the advent of social media, artists have been able to present their “illustrations to a new audience, people who had never seen illustrations before or were even aware of them.” This opened the floodgates to an emerging generation of wannabe illustrators, drawn to the thrilling backstage sketches at fashion weeks, classical portraits of stars and socialites and the jet-setting lifestyle.

These days, young protegés of Downton and Donovan are making a living from their handiwork. Artists like Rodgers, Morrison, Kur and Mekel have used the same medium that initially destroyed fashion illustration — photography — to revive it, posting photos of their work on social media and amassing hundreds of thousands of followers. And catching the eyes of fashion brands and fashion bloggers along the way.

Their rising popularity inevitably produces copycats. But for 30-year-old Rodgers, who started as a designer at Reebok and is known in the industry as Paper Fashion, efforts by others to emulate her work are of no real concern because she knows it takes years of practice that imitators simply can’t match. “You ask any illustrator in this world, and they know there are a lot of people [who] could copy them,” Rodgers says. “Some people just want to create what’s already been done so they can hop on it too, and some brands will be OK with that and spend less money,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve learned to let that go.” 

But artists like Rodgers are “an exception — not the rule — in fashion,” says Cassidy Zachary, a fashion historian who has just published Fashion and the Art of Pochoir, a history of fashion illustration. “Fashion photography will never go away,” Zachary says, because it remains “the fastest and easiest way to relay fashion news to the masses.” In addition to competing with photographers and breaking into fashion — which is never easy — illustrators face the prospects of a job market that’s expected to grow by just 6.2 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to Sokanu, a digital career guidance platform. Which means there are nowhere near enough jobs for today’s fashion graduates, 1,700 of whom hit the market annually, according to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

But there is one way that illustration always wins: There’s no risk of an unflattering shot. “It’s part fantasy, part reality — you’re capturing the essence of a subject more than creating a likeness,” Cabuay says. “People ask me, ‘Can you make me look good? Can you make me taller?’ And I say yes.”