Drawing the Best-Dressed

For the September 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, the British fashion illustrator David Downton (as in the Abbey) painted five portraits from real-life sittings to honor the members of this year’s Best-Dressed Hall of Fame. Sofia Coppola, Carolina Herrera, Daphne Guinness, Iman, and Countess Jacqueline De Ribes posed for his pen and brush. This is a unique way of doing illustration in a digital-imaging age, a time when drawing seems so outre. So I asked Chris Dixon, VF‘s design director, to discuss the genesis of this project. A video report can be seen here, and click the images below to view larger versions.

Who conceived this project and why?

Our editor, Graydon Carter, came across David Downton’s work last year, and we all loved it. Such beautiful illustration. It seemed a perfect fit for our fashion issue, to do a fresh take on a section of the Best-Dressed List. We met with the charming and talented David while he was in New York and began planning.

Illustration has fallen out of favor in many magazines. What was the editorial response to the concept?

People loved the idea, and the final results. The work feels modern and new, and it’s a beautiful complement to the rest of the issue.

Did Downton make many sketches first. Or are these finals exactly what he saw and recorded?

His method of working is to produce dozens of sketches and studies during the sittings with the subject. He then goes away with those, and creates the final illustrations in his studio.

Orchestration must have been incredible. How did you decide who would be Downton’s subjects and how long did the process take?

Editor Aimee Bell conceived of the final list of subjects, together with Graydon. The goal was to have a list of five that complimented each other nicely. Overall the process took about three months.

Getting back to why illustration. Did any of the women involved balk at being drawn rather than photographed?

My understanding is that they were all thrilled and complimented to partake. David explained to us that, in his experience, there is a certain mystery and charm around having your portrait painted. People feel they are a part of something unique and special. The photographic process was so familiar to all of the subjects, but this felt exciting and new. And of course, they all loved his illustration work!

Timing is another factor. It’s one thing to put on a dress and makeup. But how did the models feel about sitting still for so long?

Each sitting was two to three hours, which also includes hair and make-up, etc. Once David was sketching, there was lots of conversation and some moving around, so people enjoyed the process.

Where you on set?

I did not make it, unfortunately!  One of our brilliant producers, Ron Beinner, orchestrated and managed each sitting for the magazine, so he was on set for all.

How, as an art director/designer, was this different than using photography?

The end result feels more timeless, and one-of-a-kind. It feels like we were all a part of a great project, and the texture and beauty on the pages in the end is very rewarding. We are grateful to David for working with us!

Top photo: Alexis Narodetzky. Other photos: Tim Petersen

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For more Steven Heller on illustration, see his books Inside the Business of Illustration and The Education of an Illustrator at MyDesignShop.com.

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