Fashion illustration: walking the line between art and craft
By Alexandra Whittaker
A recent resurgence of fashion illustrators on New York Fashion Week catwalks like Prabal Gurung and Gucci has brought fashion illustration back to the fore. With illustration jobs at retail stores like Macy’s and more robust programs for fashion illustration at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, the city’s fashion illustration community is optimistic about the to come up.
native of chicago Rosemary Fanti is one of a handful of full-time fashion illustrators. She said fashion illustration had gone from being a staple of fashion in the 1950s to declining in popularity in the 1960s to recently become a niche art.
âIt’s keeping individuality alive, and I think that sometimes gets lost in our world. We are becoming cookie cutters and worrying about what our friends think and say about us on social media, so a personalized illustration or something that is created for you is unusual these days, âFanti said. “I think people, once they see it, they start to cherish it.”
Fanti knew she wanted to design clothes for a living when she made doll clothes with her mother as a child. She illustrated for Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.
“[Fashion illustration] took on a different audience and a different need, âFanti said. “Which was more of a necessity, because everything was illustrated before the 1960s, now it’s kind of a niche.”
The rise of more accessible photographic technology marked the end of much of the fashion illustration industry. Most fashion illustrators before the 1960s were hired to document the catwalks, but photography cut illustrators out of the picture.
Lauren Cheri, founder and president of the Society of Fashion Illustrators of Chicago (SOCFI), said photography has almost entirely killed fashion illustration.
âIt allowed anyone to record anything anywhere, and it really changed the industry a lot,â Cheri said. “But these things can only record what you can see, and they don’t really record the tone, attitude, and personality which is more intrinsic than what you can see.”
Cheri learned fashion illustration at the Illinois Institute of Art and founded the Society of Chicago Fashion Illustrators as a student. Today, SOCFI has over 300 members around the world who attend guest speaker events, participate in skills workshops and discuss design.
âCompanies no longer see fashion illustrators as part of their team. It’s now more of an outsourced talent for freelancers, so fashion illustrators need to create their own opportunities and platforms for their work.
Cheri hopes that creating a community to connect illustrators will help them create platforms and work opportunities, especially since the purpose of fashion illustration has changed so much.
âIt’s gone from something that was originally completely utility-based to something that is completely artistically expressive. It’s still useful now, it’s still a technical concept art form, but it’s taken on a whole new life that’s never had since returning. It’s an expressive thing now, it’s an art form.
As a SOCFI member, Fanti credits emerging technologies and social media for connecting illustrators around the world, but she said too much technology in illustration classes is a problem.
âI see the computer and Photoshop as another tool,â Fanti said, âBut unfortunately I think schools are just dependent on that, so in other words, it becomes the only tool.â
Fanti said the best fashion illustration instruction is done by hand.
âWhen I learned to draw I was taught by old school teachers. I was taught the way they were taught in the Renaissance, in a very specific mathematical way, to teach someone the practical parts of how to draw, âFanti said,â And then from there, the artist comes out.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Professor Steven Miller teaches fashion illustration to Chicago students, and has been a fashion illustrator himself for 33 years.
Miller said that although SAIC has digital and computer illustration teachers, he is a studio teacher and teaches students to draw by hand. Miller’s classes are often a mix of animators, painters, and fashion designers, forcing him to work one-on-one with his illustration students.
âOnce they get the basic facts, I encourage students to go their own way and supervise them more individually,â Miller said. âI don’t teach them a style of work or make them work in a certain way.
Some fashion illustrators like Fanti think of fashion illustration to be more of a creative art, but Miller had a different take.
âThe bottom line with fashion is that it’s a product, and the product has to be sold. It is not an art. Now you can have fine art related to fashion, âMiller said,â But the bottom line is everyone wants to sell. No one wants a closet full of their stuff that they couldn’t sell, so retail is the primary motivation and raison d’Ãªtre of fashion illustration. It always has been and always will be.
Miller said that despite this, students should start drawing before fashion.
âThere will always be a market for fashion illustrators because there are always fashion designers who want something different,â Miller said. âAnyone who wants to be a fashion illustrator just has to start drawing. “
For full-time fashion illustrators like Fanti, her job is more to create a life out of her passion.
âI straddle the meaning between illustration and fine art a bit. It’s a bit like mixing the two, with fashion dotted around. It’s almost like the New Impressionists, âFanti said. “What I’m telling people is if you want something literal, take a selfie.”
Photo above: An illustration of a shoe by fashion illustrator Rosemary Fanti. Fanti said she has “a lot of work” because she can illustrate. (Rosemary Fanti / Rosemary Fanti Illustrations and Fashion Drawings)