Addicted to Beauty

Traced back to 1600, fashion illustration was for centuries the only way of portraying fashion. It became so popular by the 20th century, that many of the top illustrators were the celebrities of their day. Superseded by photography, fashion illustration has gone from being one of the sole means of fashion communication to having a very minor role. In recent years, a few notable illustrators have continued to inspire us with this art’s sheer wonder. The most influential of this rare breed is David Downton.

A graphic design graduate of the early eighties, Downton’s first decade odd-jobbing on anything from children’s books to menu cards and bottle labels gave rise to his lucky break in 1996, before which fashion had been unfamiliar territory. A commission from The Financial Times had him portraying Paris’s highly celebrated haute couture shows. Delighted by the idea of a trip to Paris, he leapt at the chance without imagining that it might turn his world upside down and serve as a catapult to his career. Today, David Downton is the world’s number-one fashion illustrator. His subjects are some of the world’s most glamorous, namely Cate Blanchett, Catherine Deneuve and Paloma Picasso.

A master of his craft with an acutely perceptive eye, he instinctively brings to life both the literal and quintessential through careful selection and hyperbole. His rendering of exquisite fashion and jewellery, and iconic glances and postures of the famous have lead to marketing campaigns, portraiture commissions, numerous exhibitions, and editorial work. Here, exclusively for WestEast, Mohieb Dahabieh brings us extracts from a creative conversation in London.

I’ve been attracted to beauty for as far back as I can remember. Not a gentle, passive beauty, but a dynamic, extraordinary beauty that sweeps you away and transports you to a fantastical world. It is no wonder then that I’ve been a fan of David Downton’s drawings ever since I first laid eyes on one, especially those of fabulous females, in which every characteristic and nuance is glorified and heightened. Be it the serene sensuality of Dita Von Teese or the ultra umph of Jerry Hall … the feisty femininity of Elizabeth Hurley or the arresting allure of Joan Collins. I’d find myself transfixed, longing to soak up the magic behind their spontaneity and crystal-like fragility. I was often bewildered at how he manages to capture such likeness and emotion in so few strokes.

Two years ago, on being seated at an Elie Saab Haute Couture show, I couldn’t help peeking at a stranger’s sketchbook next to me. He was calmly and swiftly depicting the immaculate ladies of the front-row opposite. While rough and rushed, the images echoed the inimitable freedom and spirit of David Downton’s work. Shyly, I struck up chat, thrilled to discover soon after that he was in fact the very man. We kept in touch and our professional paths have collided often since, mostly within the magical realm of the Paris couture shows.

Knowing he is driven by a love of beauty, I recently asked David to join me at The Cult of Beauty, an exhibition on the 19th century Aesthetic Movement at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I was intrigued at what he’d be drawn to. I wanted to see the exhibition through his eyes.

Am I right that you’re all about beauty?

Well, yes. I respond to beauty as I see it. I respond through drawing.

All women love sitting for you. Is it because you hyper-beautify them?

I don’t set out to flatter. I feel that my drawings tell the truth – a varnished truth. When looking at my subjects, I suppose I can see instinctively why they’re special and what features I should emphasise. And yes, I do aim for high spots. The final result is a feeling – an impression or an illusion – of the time we spent together. But I am not revealing some inner psychological truth, I am dealing with the surface, responding to the person sitting in front of me.

Your portraiture is not exclusive to celebrities. You also receive commissions from various non-celebrity individuals. How does the process compare?

The only difference is that celebrities are far more confident of themselves and of their image. They are used to being scrutinized and reinterpreted in photo shoots and on film. ‘Civilians’, if I can put it that way, can be very worried about being looked at and become conscious of their imagined flaws. But to me, the process and results for both are equally exciting.

What are the qualities that inspire you the most?

I am drawn to graphic qualities, angular features, and individuality. Grace and strength of character are a plus.

The lines in your drawings, bold or super-fine, are so immediate, some are even chaotic, making each drawing seem almost as though it was accidental.

I am obsessed with line. It has endless possibilities. It can express emotion, capture a likeness, or give information. I like the lines to evoke an immediacy as though the drawings might have just been done there and then in a minute.

At this moment he poses at the avant-garde artist James McNeil Whistler’s infamous ‘The White Girl’, a painting considered controversial in its day. Almost entirely white, it is dramatic, minimalist and unpolished. It seems contemporary against the highly polished and sophisticated beauty that defined the era. He carries on…

You see the artist in this. The brushstrokes are very expressive and also very visible. It is not about ‘nature perfected.’ I love the fact that it looks unfinished. Completion would appear wrong to me.

Is that why yours (brushstrokes) are so spare?

Well the spareness is in fact controlled. It is a part of the very important elimination process. When drawing, I usually make between ten and twenty drawings of each pose. Gradually, eye and hand begin to work together to eliminate what is unnecessary and highlight what is important.

I feel a contemporary nostalgia when looking at your work. Some, especially the fashion illustrations exude a sort of grand manner that is so reminiscent of the golden age of couture, the 50s.

I used to hate it when people referred to my work as ‘classic’. Now I see it as a compliment, since the fashion illustrators of the 40s, 50s and 60s are the ones I most admire. That said, I am not interested in pastiche.

Is haute couture the lifeblood of your world?

Haute couture is about artistry, fantasy, drama. It always feels to me that the designers are let off the leash and are giving us their undiluted selves.

Tell me what that Versace show – your debut into the world of fashion – was like.

It was totally ‘other-world’. It was like being given the keys to Narnia, really. I just saw it as wonderful and also at times hilarious. The first few seasons were difficult; I didn’t understand the codes or the hierarchies. These days I relish it. It’s like being given a pass into ‘Kingdom of Indulgence’… but never forget that they take the pass away from you when you leave.

The veteran model Carmen Dell’Orefice has compared the sitting to making love. She also said that you capture a part of the sitter’s soul in a way that a camera can’t. These sittings must be so special and intimate. Which one has been most memorable?

Hard to say. Perhaps it was when Catherine Deneuve was interrupted by her phone and I froze for an instant when she said she couldn’t speak as she was posing for a portraitiste adorable. Perhaps I should engrave that on my tombstone!

Masters of Fashion Illustration’ is David Downton’s new book that takes a look at the work of some of the greatest fashion illustrators throughout history; available in Hong Kong at Page One, and distributed throughout Asia via Thames & Hudson China and Thames & Hudson Singapore. For more info, please visit www.daviddownton.com

Text & Interview: Mohieb Dahabieh
Image courtesy: David Downtown

Published in Issue 34 HARMONY, 2011