Through the decades, the value and appreciation of fashion illustration has risen and fallen with societal shifts.
While WWD’s roster of fashion illustrators included Kenneth Paul Block, Steven Stipelman, Antonio Lopez, Robert Passantino, Kichisaburo Ogawa, Cathy Clayton Powell, Ruth Reeves and scores more, the monetary value of their work is not as easy to pinpoint. The same might be said about fashion illustration as a whole, a category that is sometimes undervalued in the art world.
Executives at Christie’s and Sotheby’s declined to comment about the current interest in fashion illustration or the lack thereof. A Sotheby’s spokeswoman said she didn’t think the company has the right specialists to discuss the subject.
The is-it-really-art debate is one that fashion illustrators and gallery owners have heard for years. Available in select galleries and to an even lesser degree online via the occasional used poster or book on sites like 1stdibs, eBay and Etsy, the hunt for fashion illustrations from decades past is no easy task.
But Bil Donovan, a fashion illustrator who works for Dior Beauty among other brands, said the genre has only evolved. He said recently, “There are people who say, ‘Fashion illustration is dead,’ like Donald Judd said, ‘Oh, painting is dead.’ People just reiterate this, because they don’t see it in the usual markets where they have seen it in the past.”
A calendar that he designed for South Coast Plaza, for example, was used for signage and “huge walls, but someone in New York is going to see that in Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar,” Donovan said. However, social media is predominantly responsible for the current resurgence in interest in fashion illustration, he said. “People, who in the past would not have entrée into seeing this work, now can go on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook and see tons of illustration,” Donovan said.
David Downton, Tina Berning, Sara Singh, Cecilia Carlstedt, Daniel Egneus, Blair Breitenstein and Gill Button are helping to attract a new generation to fashion illustration, according to Donovan.
Having curated a show earlier this year at the Society of Illustrators that celebrated 100 years of fashion illustration, he said, “It almost blurs the line between fine art and commercial illustration. Fashion illustration, at least [for] high fashion, you’re not only selling a product, you’re selling the essence of the product. Some of the work is so abstract.”
Specializing in fashion illustration and mid-century textiles, Gray M.C.A, a gallery in London, garners a lot more publicity for its fashion illustration, according to fashion curator Connie Gray. “Everyone now seems to be really interested. The word ‘fashion’ is very fashionable right now, if that makes sense. Anything that is associated with the great designers, particularly of the 20th century like Dior, Balenciaga or Chanel in Europe, [is of interest] or in America, anyone from Donna Karan to Bill Blass to Halston,” she said.
Gray continued, “I’m thinking of Women’s Wear Daily particularly. They were such important names in the mid to the latter half of the 20th century. If it’s a draft, drawing or an illustration, people instantly recognize it and see the beauty and the historical interest in the drawings.”
Gray expects American fashion illustrators from the latter half of the 20th century to be the next group to begin to increase their prices. At the moment, the focus continues to be on work from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, she said, adding that work by René Gruau could garner anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000.
Of the American WWD illustrators, Antonio Lopez is probably the most important and is beginning to command $16,100 to nearly $27,000, she said. “As the market begins to open up, collectors are beginning to recognize the worth of these later illustrators and artists, and how brilliant they were as artists. Forget the commercial tag and look at them genuinely as artists, they are the next group to pick up.”
Gray expects prices for work for the mid-range of American artists, which currently is around $2,690 to $4,000, to change over the next 10 years. “They were so prolific and brilliant, turning out the most wonderful drawings day after day,” she said. “They are also a rarity. They’re not easy to come by.”
Noting how Passantino and Melendez kept some of their work, she noted how that was not the norm. “Most of the work for Women’s Wear was tossed as soon as it was printed, or it went into an archive somewhere never to be accessed again. So when they are available, that adds to the value of them,” she said.
One exception was Block, who asked for all of his work back, as much as he could, Gray added. “With the illustrators like [Carl ‘Eric’] Erickson, [René] Bouche, or [René] Gruau, their work was commissioned, printed and literally thrown in the trash can at the end of the printing line,” Gray said. “Their value was in the published piece and not in the original art work.”
She continued, “To a large extent, you can say that about the Women’s Wear artists. What was important was what was in the paper the next day. Forget about the actual original. Some artists would ask for them back, if they could get them back. More often than not they ended up in the trash can, which is a great, great shame.”
Betty Morgan, who runs the Kenneth Paul Block Foundation with her husband Steven Block, the artist’s nephew, said the value of Block’s work varies. Several pieces have been sold in the $12,000 to $15,000 price range, and others have been sold for less than that, she said.
In 2023, Gray M.C.A hopes to showcase the work of WWD illustrators like Lopez, Glen Tunstull, Block, Melendez, Passantino and more in an exhibition. While there is the book “WWD Illustrated: 1960s – 1990s,” no one has done an exhibition of their work.
As a gallery, Gray M.C.A is constantly trying to research and unearth those long-lost drawings that have not been seen in 40 or 50 years. Gray said, “They have either been hidden away in drawers or cupboards and literally haven’t seen the light of day. When we are lucky enough to find them, and if necessary restore them and have them framed as works of art, they are absolutely stunning when you put them on the wall. They’re important not just for their social history but for their beauty.”
Measuring prices against last year’s prices is difficult, Gray said. Gray M.C.A bills itself as the only gallery in the world that specializes in this genre of art. In the 15 years that Gray has been working in the category, there have been year-on-year increases for the value of the work, she said. “It’s really about exposing the work and opening the collectors’ eyes to this genre of art. In some ways, people are only just beginning to recognize the Seventies and Eighties. It was almost too recent even 10 years ago. Going into 2021, there is a little more distance and people become a little more reminiscent so they see the work with an air of history to it,” Gray said.
In New York, Daniel Cooney, who owns a namesake gallery, said fashion illustration is available, including originals, which he specializes in. During a recent interview, he said, “It’s out there. I just think there is this snobbery that it is commercial art and not fine art. That is kind of absurd to me, but it’s true. Illustration is often made on assignments. They’re paying jobs. It is different than the traditional idea of an artist sitting in a studio, thinking. Most of them are working under deadlines. To me, that makes it more interesting. They’re trained artists — Richard Haines, Antonio Lopez. They have very broad audiences, which most artists don’t.”
Having done three shows with fashion illustrator Richard Haines, Cooney said the first one opened his eyes to a whole new audience. The gallery has also done a show for Mel Odom, and it represents the Antonio Lopez estate. Visitors will find on view original paintings or drawings, and they are often more accustomed to seeing the images printed in magazines, on Instagram or on their computers, Cooney said. “People always come in and say they have never seen the original paintings or drawings,” he said, noting how Haines has 70,000 Instagram followers but hardly any have seen his work.
When Cooney staged the Odom show, 50-year-old and 60-year-old men were coming in saying, “‘When I saw his work in a magazine as a kid, I knew there was a bigger world out there for me. But I’d never seen it in person.’ That was really exciting for me. It was not something that I had really thought about.”
Haines’ 14 x 11.5-inch drawings are priced at $3,000 and Lopez’s work that is 20 x 24 inches has sold for up to $18,000, Cooley said. Comparatively speaking, “Nothing is really worth what it was a year ago. Things are selling. It’s just bigger discounts than normal, which is fine. If I’m selling, I’m just happy to be selling.”
Former Halston model Chris Royer, who has a collection of fashion illustrations from Joe Eula and Block, addressed their talents for catching movements instantaneously. “When a girl was moving down the runway, Joe could pick up on that because they were just moving quick. He could do it with his pen. It was just unbelievable — in a couple of lines, you had it. It was so riveting because you understood the dress, you understood the attitude — you understood everything about the whole concept and what that design was about in an instant. Sometimes in photographs it becomes a little too distracting. You don’t quite get in the same way,” she said.
Eula also worked closely with Halston and Elsa Peretti to conceptualize the designer’s first fragrance, Royer said. His myriad skill set included working with photographer Milton Greene, doing some ballet costumes for Jerome Robbins in “Private Lives,” and creating concert posters and other items for Miles Davis. Eula also created posters for Diana Ross and The Supremes for a 1965 appearance at Lincoln Center. As of Monday, one of those prints was retailing for $444 — a 20 percent discount — at 1stdibs.com.
Royer thinks fashion illustration may come back in different ways, because it tells a different story. Citing Donovan’s illustrations for “About Time: Fashion and Duration,” an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, she said that “in one line he gets it.” Royer added, “The world needs a little more fantasy and glamour. With illustration on that level, you can do it.”
While Donovan doesn’t expect fashion illustration to come back in the manner that it once was, he said, “It’s resilient. It’s never gone away. It’s always there. It’s visual poetry and it’s always found a place somewhere in the market. Whether that will be sustained, I don’t know. It just touches something in people…there will always be a place in the marketing realm for fashion illustration.”