Olivia Church explores the future of fashion illustration in a digital world.

British Vogue’s editor-in-chief and stylist Edward Enninful recently collaborated with one of the most successful singers and songwriters of our age. For his first September issue, Rihanna graced the cover, draped in dramatic floral headpieces and swathes of luxurious fabric – not to mention probably some of the thinnest eyebrows in editorial history. For Alina Zamanova, co-founder of the Instagram collective The Unique Illustration, one look at photographer Nick Knight’s work was enough to spur on a collaboration of her own. Situated in Ukraine, her collective connects like-minded creatives from all over the world. Together, she and her flash mob of illustrators have made a series of illustrated versions of this historic cover in recognition of #NewVogue.

For aspiring fashion illustrators today, the difficulty in getting your work seen is enormous. Social media undeniably plays a large part in showcasing an illustrator’s work. It provides a prime opportunity to build a contacts book and increase online visibility. Illustrators tend to work autonomously but The Unique Illustration is just one example that proves creative collaborations can result in a variety of positive outcomes. If an illustrator works straight from the catwalk or engages in a live drawing event, however, their line work and application of colour is bound to be different to an illustrator who works at their desk. Sketchbooks are a vital resource for any illustrator and can become fascinating ‘reading’ a few years down the line. It is truly a talent to be able to capture fabrics, weight, embroidery, textures and emotion that cannot otherwise be seen without the help from an illustrator.

It’s refreshing to see that fashion illustration is still recognised for its contribution in the fashion world. Drawing has long preceded much more common means of image making such as photography and digital drawing. It provides almost an element of visual respite in a world that is densely graphic. To document fashion through illustration is to provide information that will act as evidence and proof that will be relied upon as a visual record of clothing’s existence and appearance. Potentially a form of reportage, it suggests that illustrators have a compulsion to pass on what they have experienced to others; to form new levels of engagement with fashion. This type of illustration often acts as a strong reference point for fashion buyers and stylists whose job is to attract and sustain commercial interest with brands through clothing. It provides an opportunity to reinvent and reinterpret – to create a new reality and situate the clothing within different spaces.

We, as an audience, place trust in an illustrator to capture and define fashion. With such a large amount of artistic freedom, illustrators often infuse their personality into their drawings – but the reliability of an image can come into question. An illustrator’s personality can sometimes obscure the vital information that we search for when deducing meaning from an image. It is perhaps understandable why photography is a preferred method of documenting fashion. Photography can capture fashion in real-time and with life-like detail. It’s arguably a more honest and direct way of narrating what an item of clothing looks and feels like when the vast majority of people are not able to see them up close for themselves.

Fashion photography does have its downsides. We are immersed in a culture where audiences have an insatiable desire to inform and be informed. Photo-manipulative techniques have just as much capability of controlling how we view a subject much like the methods adopted by illustrators. What is shown in an image is just as important as what is left out. Both an illustration and a photograph translate as mere impressions of a subject they both result in a static image that hopefully conveys a subject with truthfulness. It doesn’t always stop there though – documenting fashion means that illustrators and other image makers aim to communicate how fashion ‘moves’. Photographs, in fact, contain a kinetic energy when placed in succession with one another, making it in to a piece of film. Illustrators, on the other hand, can animate their work to describe fashion in yet another dimension.

This isn’t the first time this year that illustration has overtaken photography in a high-profile campaign. Working with the likes of FKA twigs and Dior in the past, London-based illustrator Ignasi Monreal turned heads with his ethereal and enchanting illustrations for Gucci in their Spring/Summer campaign. Influenced by classic paintings, he combined them with the latest looks from the catwalk. While his style is clearly digital, his images, in fact, are reminiscent of painterly techniques from the likes of Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ (1852) and ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ (1400-1500) by Bosch. His computer acts as an easel and results in illustrations that are a smooth blend of computer-generated mark making and Monreal’s own imagination. On this occasion, they are a more stylised look rather than a technically accurate impression of the garments. They are nevertheless filled with narrative and decorated with modern-day motifs – also known as accessories.

As for the future of fashion illustration, our knowledge of its history and its place in today’s ever-changing culture mean that while it is still sufficient in expression, it sometimes struggles to maintain its purpose in the face of much more efficient and transferable means of image creation. Reinforcing the technicality behind each garment should be stressed by industry professionals in balance with creating an image with appealing aesthetics. Working via a computer allows for accuracy, speed and a spectrum of creative possibilities where errors can be easily corrected. With a pencil and paper, one wrong move could result in the illustrator having to start from the beginning – wasting time and energy. Some may say that fashion illustration is not being replaced but is instead given the opportunity to be enhanced. Who says that fashion photography and fashion illustration cannot coexist instead of attempting to replace one another? Simply because there are ‘better’ ways of image making does not mean that previous methods stop working.

You can see more of Olivia’s work on Instagram by following @olivia_writesandcreates 

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