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An artful conversation with fashion illustrator, David Downton & his “Portraits of the World’s M

Dated back summer last year when I was preparing my vintage fashion illustration exhibition, I am truly thankful to get a book written by the legendary fashion artist, Mr. David Downton, to fuel me up with some resourceful knowledge about the history and development of fashion illustrations, and, some valuable and sumptuous fashion publications in the past (especially early 20th century), it’s been my lifesaver that I even have that copy to be with me (and the guests) throughout the exhibition as a great reference. The illustration work of David is always about glamour and elegance, and I always wondered when did this reputed and talented fashion artist will publish a book which only features solely his beautiful work? And then the time finally came when I recently spotted the new book titled ‘Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women’ by him in my favorite bookstore. I simply can’t resist the stunning work of David and just bought this new book without a second thought.

Sometimes I didn’t know where should I start to realize how I immensely obsess with David’s illustration, and this new book of his in particular, perhaps it’s because of my previous project that required some fashion illustrations as decorating work, but predominantly, is the incredibly talented technique of this remarkable artist on capturing the most stylish and stunning moment of the characters that appeals me, each stroke looks relatively simple but requires extreme focus on putting them down together in the right place to complete such a beautiful fashion art. Color application are simple, not cluttering, but doesn’t lack of interest nor visual stimuli, instead, it always gives so much glamour and sumptuousness that feels like taking the viewer back to the golden day of Hollywood movie, the sublime posture and gracious movement that captured by the artist.

Secondly, I am always intrigue and resonate a certain bond, either it’s a magic or deja-vu, that connects David to all these gorgeous ladies, it literally tells a beautiful story about the making of these work of art behind the scene. I believe that in certain extent, a piece of beautiful portrait requires the emotional connection in between the artist and the character themselves, and the work isn’t merely a portrait of the figure but also the nuance and character from within, and that’s beauty part of it that evokes certain fantasy and emotions, enable ones to visualize the story during the process of drawing, and eventually enriches the visual experience and pleasure.

This beautiful book literally guides you through the incredible elegant and glamour journey of meeting all these legendary and stylish women under David’s magic hands, including a couple of my beloved and respected figures from the renowned model Carmen Dell’Orefice and Iman, glamourous actresses Joan Collins and Catherine Deneuve, to the elegant designer Carolina Herrera and many more. This book is more than just another fashion illustration book, it also captures some of the stunning shoot of the artist with these incredible women behind-the-scene, echoes to the sumptuousness and splendor of the artworks, to me, it’s a book about art and style.

I am truly honor and thrilled to have a conversation with this reputed fashion artist himself, to share his insight about fashion art, his new book, and more:

My Modern Darcy: Hi David, I am truly honour to have you with us. Firstly I am curious to ask if you foresee yourself destined to be a fashion illustrator when you were young? And what fascinates you to become a fashion illustrator as you are today?

David Downton: Thank you. No, I certainly didn’t see myself becoming a fashion illustrator, although I was always drawing. I spent my free time copying film posters from the newspapers. I loved the glamour of cinema. My favourite poster artists were Bob Peak and Bob McGuinness. While still at college I became aware of Rene Gruau and Erte and, of course, Antonio. But I didn’t see myself following in their footsteps; I wouldn’t have dared. I think part of my reluctance to pursue fashion illustration was fear of not fitting in. So, I started out first as a general illustrator, taking on whatever jobs came along, learning as I went. After a few years I considered myself ‘successful’ but I was also bored and directionless. Then, in 1996, How To Spend It Magazine commissioned me to go to Paris and draw at the Couture shows. Proving that a single phone call can change the course of your professional life.

MMD: Artists expresses their feelings and emotions through their work, and it seems to me that you have a well-balance of interpretation between yourself and the character you draw, can you share with us what are the techniques? And what’s in your mind when you worked on your drawings?

DD: When making a portrait, I am looking for beauty and a reductive line. Trying to say as much as I can with as little fuss. I like the images to float on the surface of the paper, as though they had just ‘happened’ Controlled spontaneity is what I am after and ‘keep working until it looks effortless’ is a mantra I learned at school.

MMD: As I learnt that you have some great muses celebrities / actresses that inspires you, how do you feel when working with them? And how did that influence you in your artwork or even your career journey?

DD: I am the luckiest man. I have sat across the drawing board from the world’s most iconic faces and I have learned what we all learn; that beauty comes in many forms, that it can also be ‘projected’. I seldom direct unless I have a strong pre-conceived idea of what I want. Mainly they are professionals who know more about image making than I will ever learn. They are the drawing, it is my responsibility to capture them in the moment we have together, as best as I am able. My sitters (and not just the ones in this book) have led extraordinary lives, in and out of the public eye. For me, talking and listening are as important as drawing, during a sitting. That’s why working just from photographs is never as satisfying; you miss the sense, the essence of the person.

MMD: Can you share with us one of the most memorable experience / moment you have in your fashion illustrating journey?

DD: The most memorable show was Galliano’s Marchesa Cassati couture show for Dior in 1998. It took place at the Opera Garnier in Paris, there was a tango orchestra, Maharajah’s in diamonds serving champagne, and that was before the show began. What followed was sensory overload and I don’t think that anyone who was there will ever forget it. It was the perfect illustration of the madness and beauty of couture.

MMD: About your beautiful new book - ‘Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women’, which is the only one that featured solely your illustration work, can you tell us a little bit the story or motivation behind? Any special message that you would like to tell?

DD: In 1998, I had my first solo exhibition in London, drawings from the couture shows. I didn’t have any contacts or connections at that time, but a journalist friend suggested I ask the Couturier Bruce Oldfield. He came and he brought Marie Helvin with him. I am not sure how I found the nerve, but I asked her if she would sit for me. “Sure” she said, and that was it. She generously opened up her address book and suggested to Iman and Jerry Hall and Catherine Deneuve and Joan Collins – all of whom were her friends – that they might do the same. I went from knowing no one, to meeting some of the world’s most famous faces across the drawing board. I knew that one day I would gather all the drawings in a book. I had no idea how long it would take or how many extraordinary people I would meet and draw. My message, if that’s the word for it, is that beauty is everywhere, as is inspiration.

MMD: Besides drawing women, I realized that you did draw men too, is there any difference between drawing a woman and a man that some of the fine details should require particular attention to? Can you tell us what are they?

DD: There is no difference. I am working towards the same thing, the illusion of effortlessness. I like to feel comfortable with my subject, and for them to be comfortable with me. The eyes of course (or perhaps I should say the eye, as I tend to emphasise one more than the other - a quirk of mine) are always the emphasis for me.

MMD: As from your previous book about the history of fashion illustration, it seems to me that you have an immense respect towards the history of fashion illustration work from the past, can you share what makes you cherish about the works of art in the past? Also, can you tell us some of your favourite era and fashion illustration artist(s)?

DD: The great fashion artists I revere, Eric, Bouche, Antonio, Gruau and Vertes worked across so many disciplines; they painted murals, designed for the theatre opera and ballet; made portraits, posters and prints; wrote and illustrated books. To put it simply, they were artists first and foremost; artists who’s subject was fashion. And what freedom they had! They had verve, pitch-perfect timing, and they were masters of line.

MMD: What is your point of view about handwork / hand-made creations?

DD: I know that it works for me. I am as reliant on technology as everyone else, but I don’t want to use it creatively. For me it is in service of what I am trying to do. I have nothing against digital imagery – just look at how brilliantly Christian Lacroix uses it – but it is not for me, personally.

MMD: How do you define ‘elegance’ and ‘style’? And for a modern day gentleman in particular, what are the crucial qualities that one should have?

DD: I don’t know and have never read a definition that is satisfactory.

MMD: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be a fashion illustrator / artist one day?

DD: Take it slowly. Be in it for the long haul. Fashion is a notoriously mercurial business and to make a career as a fashion illustrator you have to continually improve and refine your work. Keep drawing, you can’t be too good at it, and when you are not drawing, keep looking! Now Instagram in particular has opened up a previously closed world. Today, a new illustrator can get their work directly in front of the brands and individuals they admire. As I say, the fashion world is famously fickle, and when it moves on you need to be ready to re-invent and re-invigorate yourself and your work. We have to stay relevant! There are few rules now and no accepted way of working, which is very liberating. I would also say, being influenced is fine, essential even. But copying slavishly another person’s style is a no win situation. You embarrass yourself, and the person you are copying. Find your own way… it’s out there. And don’t forget to have fun along the way. Fun is mandatory.

Special thanks to Mr. David Downton, image courtesy of David Downton Studio.

Credit: Portrait of David by Jacobus Snyman; 'From the book David Downton Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women' by David Downton, published by Laurence King.

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