Review of ‘Drawing Fashion’ at London’s Design Museum

by Katie on November 9, 2010

Sometimes a critic thinks they know what they’re getting only to have the rug pulled from under them and their expectations defied. ‘Drawing Fashion’, the current exhibition of fashion illustration at London’s Design Museum, was a definitive “WTF?” moment for this reviewer.  The warning signs had been there.  In his opening speech, curator and esteemed fashion journo, Colin McDowell, had voiced his distaste for fashion photography and the fashion photography of the 70’s in particular, and had laughingly referred to two high-profile magazine editors, one of which having declared fashion illustration dead and buried whilst the other admitting to him that she knew very little about the art form.

I was lulled into a false sense of security by the chosen venue and the archive footage played at the start of the show, films of vintage catwalk collections from the likes of Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Yohji Yamamoto, and Viktor & Rolf.  A brief synopsis on the wall of the museum’s stark, futuristic show space explained the nascent beginnings of fashion illustration following Conde Nast’s acquisition of La Gazette du Bon Ton in 1921 and the creation of French Vogue.  Following this were a series of drawings by the genre’s forebears – Erte, Georges Lepape, George Barbier, and Eric.

The impossibly elegant depictions by Bernard Blossac of aristocratic ladies in their couture en repose began to inject some social commentary into the exhibition. It was at this point, as the illustrations became more and more stylised, where I had an inkling that something was not quite right…..

Onto the post-war period with Christian Berard, Rene Gruau, and the late 60’s and Anna Piaggi’s pet artist Antonio Lopez, who often utilised the styles of the fashionable artists of the day, such as Bridget Riley and Roy Lichtenstein, in his work.

Antonio, Joanne Landis, Carnegie Hall Studio 1967.

The modern section concentrated specifically on three main artists.  Francois Berthoud, through his iconic commissions by Myla and Commes des Garcon, Aurore de la Morinerie, and Mats Gustafson.

Here the artists shunned traditional media, and whilst Gustafson’s bright watercolour washes for Tiffany may have appeared prosaic, they were also beautiful pieces of art in their own right.

Herein lies the problem. As the exhibition progresses the artists’ vision becomes so far removed from the designer’s that by the end, when confronted with a dense, enamel rendering of a Viktor & Rolf piece, you realise that this show is not about design at all, and the initial films and early sketches mere red herrings.  The later selection in the show is also curiously flat and devoid of texture, surely essential when depicting tactile forms such as clothes?

McDowell and his co-curator, Joelle Chariau of Galerie Bartsch & Chariau, have created a contradiction – simultaneously celebrating fashion illustration whilst also sentencing it to an old age of specialist publications and Taschen coffee table hardbacks.  A eulogy in every sense.  As you leave, a specially commissioned mural by Berthoud portraying Gareth Pugh’s latest work covers the end wall, and you can’t help but wish that this exhibition had been less about great art and more about good fashion design.

Researched and written by Lee Clatworthy

Have you seen the ‘Drawing Fashion’ exhibition yet and do you agree with Lee?  Please leave a comment in the box below.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel Lewis November 9, 2010 at 1:25 pm

I see what you’re saying, but I think you’re missing the point. Fashion illustration is completely different to fashion design – and this is a celebration of the former, which is an artform, not the latter, which is design.

Fashion design – from concept to CAD, is much more technical and always refers to specifics – print, shape, cut, fabric. Fashion illustration is more of an interpretation of the finished garment or collection. Not always (but sometimes) as a tool to sell the individual pieces, more as a way to capture the essence of the collection or designer, to evoke that original concept, to celebrate the way the clothes accentuate the body and become art in themselves.

I haven’t seen the exhibition yet so can’t comment on the specifics on what’s in there – but illustrators such as Rene Gruau etc, weren’t involved in any way the design of the fashions – more from a magazine viewpoint, as an editorial or advertising piece to create beautiful art that would evoke the emotions/feel of the pieces – if that means forgoing small details as exactly what fabric or texture the garment is, then, yes, in order to create the overall bigger picture.

These days, especially, with the advent of photography, fashion illustration is even less important to evoke the details of the garments – as photos can capture that perfectly. It is therefore more of an extension of the essence of the piece or collections and an aspirational image to derive beauty from.

Nice to hear opinions on exhibitions though, and a good review 🙂 Like your stuff!



Lee November 10, 2010 at 11:15 am


Thank you for kind comments.

I do understand the difference between fashion design and illustration, and I was probably at fault for not reading up on the exhibition before attending the private view.

I do feel, however, that the Design Museum is probably not the correct venue for this exhibit, and that possibly the exhibition name is a misnomer – as the only “fashion” explored is the changing styles of art and use of media whilst the focus, the actual clothing, feels secondary.

However, like I said, these works are beautiful pieces in their own right. Maybe fashion illustration has evolved beyond its subject matter?


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