After spending 31 years as a fashion illustrator for WWD, Kichisaburo Ogawa is still putting those skills to good use as an assistant professor of fashion drawing at Parsons The New School of Design.
A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology, Ogawa decided to pursue a career in fashion illustration, starting out sketching newspaper ads for Henri Bendel in the retailer’s advertising department on 56th Street. Upon hearing about an opening at WWD in 1978, Ogawa applied.
At a time when employers sometimes encouraged their talent to pursue or accept posts at other companies, Ogawa said he consulted with Henri Bendel’s president Geraldine Stutz about whether he should accept the WWD job and she was all for it. Asked about making the switch to WWD, he said, “I had just graduated from school three months ago. They had very prestigious illustrators. Everybody was very well-known. I was very new and at the bottom [of the rung]. But they treated me as a professional. I had a very hard time in the beginning. That environment was really crazy, but fun [laughs]. All artists are very individualistic and creative.”
At that time there were 10 or 15 illustrators housed together in the same room drawing. The competition was steep and there were lots of things going on simultaneously. As a daily newspaper, the pressure was intense and everything had to be completed on deadline, Ogawa said.
Depending on the assignment, work was either due by the 2 p.m. deadline or the 6 p.m. deadline. After the daily editorial meeting, an editor would provide a designer’s sketch to draw from and the work would be due that same day. On some occasions the illustrator would be given a few extra days contingent on the article or the subject matter. A cosmetics cover, for example, was used for supplements, which allowed for more leeway with a longer deadline. “Most of the time we had to finish within a few hours,” Ogawa said.
His tenure spanned from 1978 until 1991, and all in all, the experience was great. “First of all, working at Women’s Wear Daily, I could see everything about fashion. It was far advanced at that time. We could immediately see the pictures. It was a good experience to gain knowledge. Also, business wise it was a good way to make strong connections. For example, if a new editor came in and later they went to another place, then we had more contacts and relationships,” Ogawa said.
When digital started to take hold in the early Nineties, the art department was reduced and the fashion illustration department was disbanded. Concurrently, fashion photographers were eclipsing fashion illustrators. Ogawa credited WWD’s legendary publisher John B. Fairchild, an ardent admirer and champion of fashion illustration, for keeping the illustrators employed as long as they did. “But times change. The computer age came. Even the art department and the editorial department had to use computers more and switched from typewriters. That’s why they closed the fashion illustration department and switched to photography,” he said.
Steven Meisel, who started out as a fashion illustrator, grasped the changes underfoot. Ogawa recalled working with Meisel, who understood the shift that was happening. “He became a successful photographer,” Ogawa said.
The Seventies, the Eighties and Nineties were more of a time for fashion, and everyone was more culturally involved, he said. “We went to clubs together, and lots of fun things were going on in the working environment also. Job-wise, it was tough. Artists are delicate about their own art. It was a little bit difficult for me because everyone was in one room together. Sometimes it was really intense,” Ogawa said. “It was tough working on daily news. But that became an asset in my future. After that, I can work in any environment easily [laughs].”
Although he continued to work as a freelance illustrator for WWD, he also freelanced for international magazines including the Japanese editions of Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire. While at WWD, Ogawa taught night school classes at Parsons, and later stayed on there, becoming a full-time professor. He also worked as an assistant designer at Mr. John. His drawings have been shown at the Society of Illustrators, the Design Art Gallery in Philadelphia and are part of the permanent collection at the Museum at FIT. Later in his career he connected with another WWD fashion illustrator, Richard Rosenfeld, who was his office mate when they both taught at FIT.
Dealing with temperamental artists at WWD was a singular experience. “You know photographers are a different story because they have to work together, right? The inspiration [with illustrators] is more individual. Everybody was working in one room so they expected a more individual style. You had to create your individual style. Otherwise, they would think, ‘Why are you doing the same type of illustration? You don’t need to work here,’” Ogawa said. “In general, I had a really good relationship with editors. That is a really great asset. Etta [Froio, former executive editor] was working at that time, and Michael Coady was chief editor. Bridget [Foley] was brand new. Everybody was really fun. It was a really fun time. At that same time, as a creator, the daily deadlines were tough for me at the beginning. Once you got used to it, you could handle it.”
Sitting next to Kenneth Paul Block, Ogawa said he was inspired by his professionalism and his style. “I learned a lot. Everybody inspired me in a certain way. They always gave nice criticisms. We were always asking each other, ‘What do you think of my drawing?’” he said.
Starting out right out of college, Ogawa said entering the professional world took some work, as it does in any profession. Developing his own style took some time. Sketching figures that would fit a certain amount of space due to the accompanying article’s length was another factor. “My drawings are very stylized. I am inspired by Art Deco that was originally inspired by the Japanese or Japanese printing. It was a little bit strange for that time,” he said. “I did a lot of research in the archives. If I had the time, I would go to the archives to look at all the illustrators’ drawings.”
As for what Block was like, Ogawa said, “He was eccentric, and very quiet. He was a little bit cynical. He was very elegant, and an old-fashioned fashion type. He always wore scarves. He smoked cigarettes a certain way and talked a certain way. He spoke very slowly. At the time, it was a little bit of a joke, but he was admired. We didn’t always see this type of gentlemanly fashion style. We were young and more punk. It was a different movement fashion wise, but he was very elegant.”
As a full-time professor, Ogawa spends most of his time teaching.