Behind the Scenes in Fashion Illustration at WWD

Fashion illustration is a combination of literal representation and interpretative commentary, recorded in the moment. The art of the fashion illustrators published in Women’s Wear Daily throughout the 20th century serves as evidence. These artists’ work showcased fashion’s fantastical aspirations and influence on trends surrounding popular culture, often in real time.

WWD introduced fashion illustration to its readership from its inception in 1910, used as both an editorial and marketing tool. The illustrated garment conveyed what was trendy and salable at that time. With perfectly illustrated fashions, combined with columns of newsprint about business and social activity, WWD helped to endorse and establish a burgeoning industry. Its daily editorial sketches were credited to a staff of artists who extensively recorded fashion’s in’s and out’s, locally and internationally.

Leagues of fashion illustrators left their marks on WWD by rolling up their sleeves and getting to work envisioning designers’ creations. Kenneth Paul Block reigned supreme as the leading talent and one who others turned to for inspiration. Block joined WWD in the late Fifties and stayed on until the early Nineties, exiting when the department was disbanded as photography came to dominate. Today’s profile of him and his work is among the features in this week’s tribute series to WWD illustrators. Others such as Steven Stipelman, Robert Melendez, Robert Passantino, Glenn Tunstull, Kichisaburo Ogawa, and Richard Rosenfeld will also be featured.

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Former Halston model Chris Royer, who has a collection of Block’s sketches, said of him: “He was fastidious. He had an ascot, his white shirt, his jacket, and light leather shoes. He was so impeccable. He was like a great English gentleman.”

Designers Diane von Furstenberg and Halston choose what they would like to see First Lady Rosalyn Carter wear. Illustrated by Kenneth Paul Block for the January 12, 1977 issue of WWD. Fairchild Archive

Describing how Block worked while sketching her in Halston’s showroom, Royer said, “He would watch and he would concentrate on your hands. He felt the expression of that was very important. When you would be standing there talking to another model, he got it immediately. He also used a lot of magic markers because he worked for Women’s Wear Daily, and the ink absorbed. He could get a really good line for the sketches. The nature of the paper was cheap and you needed to make it look bold and fabulous. That’s what he did.”

Royer said, “I am always fascinated with illustration. The way they can sketch the line of the body and pick up these little details. The line can reveal the entire story. You can see the dress and you can see the attitude. It’s as though you don’t need so much. In photographs, it’s everything. You have to have all the details in there, especially now because everything is picked up because it’s digital.

“When you’re dealing with fashion illustration, it’s the world. You can do anything you want,” she added.

WWD’s heritage in fashion illustration can be seen in the early Twenties — Ruth Reeves’ drawings were often featured in the paper and on the cover. In addition to being a textile designer, Reeves was one of several female fashion illustrators who were working in the field at that time.

As the years passed, generations of fashion illustrators joined the ranks of WWD and influenced the genre, including Antonio Lopez, Steven Meisel, Pedro Barrios, Jeff Britton, Deborah Marquit, Carmen Varricchio and Charles Boone. A few of the alumni, like Robert Young, who later went on to teach at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Joel Resnicoff died fairly young. Resnicoff was only 38 when he passed away in 1986. His niece continues to pay tribute to his vibrant work via an Instagram account that highlights his drawings.

Fall 1976 California Designer Sportswear Collection Advances. Illustration by Steven Meisel. Fairchild Archive

By the Thirties, WWD had introduced one of its signature features — “They Are Wearing,” a column that used fashion illustration or photography to highlight what women were wearing on the streets and at social events in the world’s fashion capitals. By the early Sixties, artistic renderings of trending fashion dominated page one as WWD began to promote a new ideal, embodied within the modernization symbolic of the youth-driven social and political changes of the moment. Gone were the formulaic stylings of fashion in visual and written form. Enter the individual stylings of the fashion illustrators.

These artist’s renderings in the pages of WWD continually captured the zeitgeist. The social and political commentary of the day came via illustrations that portrayed the new celebrity socialite, epitomized by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Meanwhile, fashion sketches and on-the-scene artistic portraits rendered by staff artists helped create and establish the new cult of the celebrity designer.

Steven Stipelman illustrates Jackie O shopping for sweaters at Halston on May 8, 1972. Fairchild Archive

These stylistic fantasies may not have come to fruition without Block, who is considered one of the most influential fashion illustrators of the 20th century. His signature “figure in gesture” helped provide the catalyst for change in WWD’s visual representation of fashion and society. Block was accompanied by an A-list of talents that included Stipelman, Tunstull, Melendez, Passantino, Dorothy Loverro, Catherine Clayton Purnell, Ogawa, Rosenfeld, and others. Each would document fashion history with an individual style.

When the company was housed on East 12th Street in downtown Manhattan, 10 or more illustrators were seated together in the same room separate from the editorial news department, each working on their daily deadlines. The room crackled with competition and camaraderie, according to some former illustrators. Accustomed to chasing the clock as part of their jobs, the illustrators routinely asked each other what they thought of their drawings, Ogawa said. For freshly minted graduates, as Ogawa was when he first joined, “It was intense,” he said.

Former art director Andrew Flynn, who joined the company in 1978, said the illustrators were seated along the edges of the room, and it made for a very creative atmosphere. “It wasn’t like the newsroom where everyone was typing madly away. Editors had to come back into this other world,” he said.

While 10 a.m. was the official start time, most, save for the ever-early Passantino, rolled in a little later, depending on the previous night’s festivities during the late Seventies and Eighties. But the majority had “staggered in” by 11 a.m., Flynn said.

Best of New York Spring 1978, Calvin Klein, Bill Kaiserman for Raphael and Willie Wear by Willi Smith. Illustration by Charles Boone. Fairchild Archive

Most of the team, save for Block and Stipelman, routinely worked from “croquis” provided by designers and occasionally fabric swatches, as opposed to sketching a live model. Borrowing from the French word for “sketch,” a croquis is a quick sketch of a fashion figure that serves as a blank canvas for drawing clothing.

Once the sketches were completed each day they would be attached to a cardboard board with a numerical stamp so that the printing plant would know where the sketch belonged in the newspaper. Every day at 2:30 p.m., a driver would stop by the art department on the 12th floor to pick up the sketches in manila envelopes. “If they weren’t ready, it was a big deal because another car would have to be ordered later. And it was expensive,” Flynn said.

Merle Thomason, who ran WWD’s fashion library for decades, recalled recently how fashion illustrators were some of her best customers. “They needed my information more than anybody else. If they needed to put something in the background of their drawings that was true to Rome, Paris or London, they would come in to look at the scrapbooks. Animals, colors, trains, butterflies — you name it, we had a scrapbook for it,” she said. “They might say an English lady is often walking a dog, but they might need a particular type of dog [to draw], whether that be a terrier, an Afghan or a bulldog.”

Considering how fashion illustrators elevated art on WWD’s news-printed pages and often designers’ handiwork, too, Thomason said, “They made everything look beautiful, and not gloomy and dreary. A really good fashion illustrator can make a bad design look like a million dollars. But when a photographer takes a photo of it, that is not the case.”

Esteemed fashion illustrator Bil Donovan, who works for Dior Beauty, Saks Fifth Avenue and other fashion operations, singled out Block as WWD’s standout talent. “He was the master and he held the throne as the king of illustration at Women’s Wear Daily,” he said, while also praising Stipelman, Tunstull, Purnell and Loverro.

Several former WWD illustrators have gone on to teach at The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology. Donovan took a class at Parsons taught by Meisel in the early Eighties right before the latter embarked on a thriving fashion photography career. “His class was kick-ass….I went and it was like a revolution. The models weren’t 30, 40. They were beautiful. Steven had 19- and 20-year-old kids. They were hip and punks and New Waves. It was fresh and that’s how he taught with this energy. He was all about energy — throw the energy into the piece,” Donovan said.

“What’s really important is that the training of stylization, selectivity and editing that companions fashion illustration are invaluable tools in creating illustration outside of the fashion figure like doing an environment, a still-life form or a hotel room. Being able to use that information to stylize an illustration is invaluable. And it makes people look twice.”

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