Before photography, fashion illustration was the only way to show clothing in women’s mags. By the Seventies, however, most publications had turned to the camera and illustration went into what must have seemed like a terminal decline. Now it looks set to take back a place in the industry as an art rather than a craft. SHOWstudio, for example, champions new pioneers. Why the interest? Partly, it’s due to the ever-increasing fascination in fashion itself; partly, to the explosion of visual culture in general. Certainly, those painterly, hand-crafted techniques provide a welcome relief to images in an over-digitised age. Recently, one young artist sprang to my attention: 22-year-old Joseph Larkowsky, BA in Fashion Illustration at London College of Fashion …
Bel: How did you get into illustration?
Joseph: When I was 4, a woman came on the news my mother had never seen before and I turned round and said ‘That’s Vivienne Westwood.’ The first collection I saw was Balenciaga Fall 2006. That was the one I thought, that’s it. I want to be in fashion.
Bel: What was it about that collection?
Joseph: The fabric, the volume, the styling. It was before Nicolas Ghesquiere became very laboured over Balenciaga. I’d known about John Galliano and Alexander McQueen but that’s when it started.
Bel: Did you consider design?
Joseph: Yes, I got through to the one-on-one interviews at Central Saint Martins womenswear and they said ‘what type of designer do you want to be?’ And I’ve always wanted to be not just a designer. I wanted to be a brand like Ralph Lauren or Giorgio Armani where you buy into every single part of your life because that’s your aesthetic. St Martins didn’t like that so I was, like, ok, it’s not for me. So I went to London College of Fashion. I didn’t know you could be an illustrator. One thing I’d always liked about Galliano and Oscar de la Renta was that they draw. A lot of fashion designers can’t draw. Which is great for me; being an illustrator means you can go into houses and draw for them.
Bel: When did you start doing it professionally?
Joseph: After my first commission. Drapers were celebrating 125 years and asked me to come in. I thought they were going to ask me to illustrate a section for the magazine. Then they said, well, the coffee table book is going to be 400 pages. That’s about 35 illustrations. That was my first commission.
Bel: Do you feel there’s a growing interest in illustration?
Joseph: Yes – but I think there’s a very generic style. For instance, I make a big deal about not drawing faces and hands. As soon as you put a face on something, people judge it in a different way.
Bel: The moment you get a face, you get the idea of a lifestyle.
Joseph: I call it portraiture with a dress on. I love David Downton’s work. His portraits are beautiful. Beyond being photographed by anyone in the world, I’d love an illustration by him. But he’s more of a portrait artist now.
Bel: Maison Martin Margiela often masks their models …
Joseph: It’s about removing the idea of something you can relate to. A lot of fashion is about otherworldly fantasy but, as soon as you put it on Kate Moss or a supermodel or a girl that’s not typically attractive, it gets judged in a way you shouldn’t judge it. Models are models, beauty is beauty, clothes are clothes. I focus on the clothes.
Bel: What is it about clothes that fascinates you?
Joseph: I love fabric. I was a child who would touch everything. I used to go to my parents’ friends’ houses and I’d play with cushion tassels and pull curtains up against me to see how they draped. Colour comes second. Mary Katrantzou was hauled up once about not dressing like her client. She said she spends her entire day around colour and pattern. When she sits with a dress on her lap, she needs the black background of her skirt to see the beauty of the dress. I wear a lot of black and white because I work in colour. I don’t need the distraction of an enormous print as I’m drawing. Everything is in eye view.
Bel: When you draw, what are you trying to bring out?
Joseph: Seeing a picture of a dress is nowhere like seeing it in movement. A solid picture of a dress is quite dull. I try to evoke movement, the fluidity of fabric or even the stiffness of fabric.
Bel: What are your materials?
Joseph: I primarily work in watercolour and Sharpie pens. Tippex is my best friend. To get sheen and shine and detail, I use it to highlight fabric. I use ProMarker pen for skin tone. I’ve only just ventured into drawing models of different ethnicity because I could never get the skin tone right. There’s such an emphasis now on models of different races.
Bel: Do you copy everything exactly from the catwalk – the styling, etc?
Joseph: Sometimes, I’ll style the girls with other accessories from the collection. Accessories bring a different tactility and structure to an illustration.
Bel: You have an encyclopaedic memory for designers and collections …
Joseph: You could put a magazine in front of me I’d never seen before and I could tell you which season, which designer, what it’s made of, what it feels like. I could tell you the model and who it was shot by. I’ve been collecting British and American Vogue for ten years. I’ve got every single one. I’ve been collecting French Vogue for half a decade. They’re all untouched. I don’t cut anything out. Sometimes, in the shower, I’ll do timelines in my head – I try and remember what collections were based on – but I don’t go to fashion shows. I’ve gone to shows and been asked to illustrate and it’s hard. You don’t see anything. It’s too fast. I was talking to David Downton the other day and we were saying how going to a show, it’s not that fun, unless it’s an amazing John Galliano show. Then you still have to go home and look it up on the internet.
Bel: Do you have favourite designers?
Joseph: No. Everybody makes mistakes.
Bel: Favourite outfits?
Joseph: I have favourite shows and favourite seasons from designers. McQueen SS14 was amazing but when I first saw it, I hated it. When you go into detail, you start to appreciate it.
Bel: On average, how long does each picture take?
Joseph: Forty minutes. I draw every day. I’ll sit in a cafe and whip out a pen. And if it’s thrown away, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a movement of the hand. I don’t draw anything else.
Bel: Will you explore other parts of the industry?
Joseph: Yes, I don’t want to be an illustrator for the rest of my life because I love drawing so much that I don’t want to rely on it. I can talk about fashion till it comes out of my ears. If you know about fashion, you can apply your knowledge to other parts of the industry. I could write about fashion, I could buy fashion. I know clients and companies, who somebody is designing for, what they want. Someone said I should do Youtube videos, talking about collections, but I don’t want to be that person. I’d rather have a removed look on it and work deep in the bowels of a company I respect. There was a fascinating video by Chanel in December 2012 on how they make the Chanel two tone cardigan. I watched it about 60 times. I’m lucky enough to form a pattern which makes it easier to draw. If you know to construct on form, you know how it’s going to fall. But I can’t make clothes and, in the end, I’m more interested in how they make a Dior dress than how it looks.
Joseph’s Five Favourite Images
1. Alexander McQueen Fall 2009 (top of page): ‘One of McQueen’s most raved about collections, this engineered houndstooth dress draped dress is accompanied by a Phillip Treacy “Plastic Bag” hat, which I loved sketching. I still can’t really get my head around houndstooth but I’ll always give it a shot.’
2. Chanel Spring 2014: ‘It takes a while for Chanel shows to sink in. The styling is usually mental and there are always gimmicks which become things you lust. Karl’s idea for this collection was “The Artist”, which enthralled me as the idea illustrating a collection based on art was really fun. And the BAGS! I love drawing bags!’
3. Givenchy Spring 2012: ‘The Mermaid and the Surfer. This was the collection which made me really appreciate Riccardo. The green outfit in the middle is one of my all-time favourite sketches …. mainly because I’ve wanted the jacket and the bag forever. The sequin look is also a favourite.’
4. Tom Ford Fall 2013: ‘This collection was mental. Ford had only just returned to catwalk shows and every look was laden with luxe and extravagance. This sheer dress is covered in hand cut material in a really graphic pattern. Three days after I sketched it, Jodi Kidd wore it to the Harpers Bazaar Women of the Year awards and I showed her the sketch which she loved. It’s amazing that black and white is still the most graphic contrast.’
5. Valentino Fall 2014: ‘Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli are such brilliant designers; their team is phenomenal. I love their youthful and modern take on the Iconic Valentino Woman. This series of sketches were the opening few looks from the collection. I drew the whole thing with felt tips, which is something I don’t usually do (watercolour mostly) so for me it was a different way of approaching a graphic pattern without the hassle.’