Why Fashion Illustration Matters in the Digital Age

Why Fashion Illustration Matters in the Digital Age

David Salle for Vogue Italia January 2020. Lili Sumner in Gucci styled by Tonne Goodman.

Vogue Italia is starting 2020 off with a bang. For the first time in its 55-year history, the magazine has an illustrated cover (there are seven variants by different artists). The features, too, are all photography-free. This decision was motivated by more than aesthetics; sustainability and philanthropy are also part of the equation. As editor in chief Emanuele Farneti wrote in all caps on his Instagram, “No photo shoot production was required in the making of this issue.” The money saved in the process will be donated to the restoration of the flood-damaged Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice.

Vanessa Beecroft for Vogue Italia January 2020. Female figure in Gucci.Delphine Desane for Vogue Italia January 2020. Assa Baradji in Gucci.

“We cannot save the world,” Farneti said in a phone conversation, but this donation ensures that “something specific remains of this issue”—which is sure to become a collectible, especially as the pillar of the magazine will remain photography.

The December 17 1892 and September 2017 issues of Vogue

Vogue’s first, and most recent, illustrated covers.

Illustration by A.B. Wenzell, Vogue, December 17, 1892; Portrait by John Currin, Vogue, September 2017

Fashion illustration is nothing new, of course—“Fashion starts from a drawing; Vogue started as an illustrated magazine,” comments Vogue Italia’s creative director Ferdinando Verderi. But in our digital age of photographic overload, illustration stands as a refreshing oasis in the midst of the continuous scroll. And in most cases it retains the sense of the hand. Its charming analog irregularities stand in contrast to the postmodern, hyperreal world described by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, as being dominated by spectacle and image.

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Edward Steichen’s painterly, and history-making, cover.

Photographed by Edward Steichen, Vogue, July 1, 1932

The history of fashion illustration in Vogue dates to the first issue, published in December 1892, under the creative direction of Harry McVikar, an illustrator whose work appeared regularly in the magazine. Fashion photography was then a nascent art, one that was fostered by the publisher Condé Nast. Edward Steichen’s photographic cover for Vogue’s July 1932 issue can be considered a tipping point in photography’s favor. Illustration would never again be dominant. Illustrated covers continue to be used, however; the penultimate, by René Bouché, was published in 1958. The most recent was created in 2017 by painter John Currin for Vogue’s 125th anniversary.

In choosing to work with (mostly) fine artists, rather than illustrators, Italian Vogue continues a tradition of collaboration that resulted in covers, for U.S. Vogue, by painters like Salvador Dalí, Giorgio de Chirico, and Pavel Tchelitchew, and also nods to a legacy of fashion drawing in Italy. Anna Piaggi, for example, worked with many illustrators when she published Vanity, and continued to do so for her DP (double-page) feature for Italian Vogue. It’s interesting to note that the Italian edition of the magazine was launched in 1965, smack in the middle of the decade that gave birth to the celebrity fashion photographer. Michelangelo Antonioni documented this phenomenon in his 1966 film Blow-Up, in which David Bailey was the model for the skirt-chasing lensman, Thomas, played by David Hemmings.



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Cover art by Giorgio de Chirico, Vogue, November 15, 1935

Looking back to go forward is a popular approach as we enter a new decade, and a period of explosive change in the fashion industry. “Drawing,” says Verderi in a statement, “is not a replacement for photography, but it’s worth a chance back in our visual vocabulary. It can be an old solution to a new problem, or just open the door to more creative ways of challenging our production process.” We’re seeing a similar process in design. Karen Walker returned to drawing for her pre-fall collection, titled Graphite; and the result of upcycling by brands like Koché and Rentrayage is a collaged aesthetic that reveals the hand in the design process, much as illustration does. We’ll be seeing more and more of this as new designs are created from existing materials.

We’ll also continue to see a mix of photography and illustration in Vogue Italia and elsewhere. For Farneti, illustrations offer a “freedom” and “personal interpretation” distinct from that of photography. His point-making January issue is a way, he says, of “making the magazine as surprising as possible.” A more sustainable approach to exciting and impactful imagery is a mixed media one that’s effective visually and foundationally, if we build upon findings recently published in Quartz that suggest that “the visual language of comic books,” which involve text, spacing, imagery, etc., “can improve brain function.” Paging Mensa….

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Cover girl Dovima was crazy for comics.

Photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld, Vogue, March 1, 1953
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