My response to art of any variety is inevitably two-fold: What’s my reaction to this, and what does the inspiration behind this say about the world that spawned it? Where the 90s ushered in a fashion movement either influenced by the body (Calvin Klein) or entirely fixated on it (Gucci), the last couple of years have seen the fashion pendulum swing away from the human form and into the safety of exaggerated lines and layers. My first instinct, watching the Fall 2006 collections, was that we were hiding: that the specter of war and our acute awareness of global suffering had driven us into muted tones and a literal cocoon of fabric. But recently, I had another thought: We’re also escaping our own bodies.
The fashion world’s renewed interest in illustration is a wonderfully geeky example of fashion’s movement away from the body and into the realm of the fantastical. Granted, fashion’s always been about fantasy, but the figures in the illustration have always been highly exaggerated, all tiny waists, mile-long legs and doll eyes. While the industry declined with the advent of photography, it’s found new life in advertising campaigns, designer t-shirts, and portraits. While collectors’ illustrations still focus on the gold standard — original prints in watercolor or ink can run upwards of $7,500 — young illustrators use fashion more as a point of departure than something to be represented precisely. Erin Petson mixes media (from collage to pencil) to create glamorous, detached women who look something of a fabulous mess, while Alyson Fox takes a darker, more ghostly look at fashion, creating faceless women in what look like children’s drawings. The fact that Bella Pilar’s work has been visible in so many “girl” magazines (Sweet 16, YM, CosmoGirl) is no surprise considering her overtly ‘pretty’ and fairy-like watercolors. Websites like Art-Dept.com and DebutArt.com are a great resource: You’ll find legends like David Downton (check his portraits of Linda Evangelista) as well as Sarah Howell and Sophie Toulouse.
Some illustrations, it’s true, have a certain doodling-unicorns-in-class quality, but others have a lyrical, haunting look that says a lot about the lens through which we view fashion and “girl culture” in general. As fashion folds in on itself, unfurling collection after collection of bulbous, layered, exaggerated clothing, a growing legion of dreamy illustrators has come to greet it, pulling faceless women and exaggerated features with it.