Prestige | Fashion | Illustrator | DAVID DOWNTON | December 2012
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With a portfolio that includes work for luxury brands from Chanel to Valentino, fashion illustrator DAVID DOWNTON, who is now Artist in Residence at London’s Claridge’s hotel, sits down with ALISON CATCHPOLE at the intimate Fumoir Bar, which doubles as his own special studio.
STYLISH IN OPEN-NECKED white shirt, Dior Homme jacket and Dries van Noten scarf, David Downton looks totally at home relaxing with a well-earned glass of champagne. The 1950s Lalique-mirrored Fumoir bar in Claridge’s, with its opulent velvet seats and renowned cocktails, is the perfect place for him to unwind. This week alone he’s done a talk for 200 people at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and been backstage to draw the London Fashion Week catwalk shows of Daks and Philip Treacy; and he’s busy packing to go to Sydney on a book promotion tour, followed by Dubai for Fashion Week there.
“I never studied fashion, I really didn’t; it was the biggest surprise. It found me, in the sense that I was a jobbing, working, happy illustrator. And in those days — this was the ’80s and ’9os — I thought the way to keep working was to be versatile. So one minute I’d be doing a map, the next minute I’d be doing a book cover, then a theatre poster.
“And then one day, it feels like out of the blue, I got a phone call. It was the glossy magazine at the Financial Times, and they said, ‘Do you want to go to a couture show?’ I’d never been anywhere at all for work, and I remember thinking, ‘Paris on someone else’s money, thank you!’ I thought it would be a one-off, that it was a gig; that I would be bound to get some dinner-party stories, going into this other world. So I did it and something happened. I suddenly thought, ‘Wait a minute, OK, this is what I want to do.’ That was 1996.”
The transition from jobbing commercial artist to being the best-known fashion illustrator working today forced him to ﬁnd his feet — well-shod feet at that in his thick- soled Prada brogues. “I was very late into this business. I was 37. Everyone in fashion has grown up on it; you have to promote yourself, you have to be conﬁdent. I don’t know how I came up with it but I remember thinking, ‘You’ve got to do something like that.’ So I developed an alter ego who does this stuff. I remember, I started signing ‘DD’ and I gradually saw I could assume this other role, almost. DD lives in that world and it’s OK. He’s the one who wears Prada shoes, not me. And I was at the V&A on Monday to do this talk and I thought, ‘He can do it, not me.’ It’s a relief and it also means I don’t think about it when I’m not in this environment.”
Downton’s studio is in Brighton and his home is in Rodmell, a village in East Sussex where Virginia Woolf lived, close to the sea and the rolling South Downs hills. “It’s a million miles from this fashion life, which is what I need. I always feel like a visitor in this life and I’m very happy to observe it, enjoy it. I feel incredibly privileged and lucky, but I don’t live in it, exactly. I’m a tourist.”
In 2011 he was approached by one of London’s most iconic hotels. Claridge’s has a rich heritage of clientele including royalty and showbiz luminaries, and the walls are lined with monochrome photographs of previous illustrious guests: Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Onassis and John Huston dominate. “It’s the gig of the century! They’ve never had an artist in residence; we made up the role. I’m commissioned to draw celebrated guests who have a strong relationship with the hotel.
“The main drawings are all black and white, gouache and ink. They’re all the same size and they’re all going to be hung together almost like talking heads. They’re very simple but I really wanted to reference what the hotel has done before, when they recorded their guests in art, which was always with photography. The great thing for me — the brave thing, the interesting thing — is that this time they wanted to do it with drawing.”
The place of drawing in fashion history is something he’s considered in his recent book Masters of Fashion Illustration, in which he explores some of his artist predecessors. “A great René Bouché or a great Antonio Lopez is every bit as evocative of its time of the politics, society and fashion of its time, as its photographers.”
Fulﬁlling his role to the full, DD has stayed in many of Claridge’s historic rooms, from the Royal Suite to the smallest bedroom. For his vogue.com blog, he’s using his favourite space in the hotel, the Fumoir. “It’s a sort of special, secret bar, most people go to the other one. This is my own little table, table four, and when I want to draw somebody, I usually invite them in here, to the most beautiful bar in London. I have to be across the drawing board from them, and I sit and talk and draw. Sometimes they close the bar for us.
“I don’t try and do the ﬁnal piece when I’m with them, I just draw in black and white, and I take photos. The interesting thing is, when I get them back to the studio the photographs give me all the details: the lamp behind, the dress. But it’s the drawings that tell me what was important to me. What I leave out is what I leave out in the ﬁnal piece. I ﬁnd it a very satisfying way to work.”
His work isn’t always so simply executed though. “Sometimes it’s very elaborate - I drew Cate Blanchett for the cover of Australian Vogue, and that was like a shoot. Hair, make-up, styling, rails of clothes, all of that; a whole day. It was 2009 — their 50th anniversary issue. We did four different covers.”
It turned out to be the fastest-selling issue in the history of the magazine, also winning a cover-of-the-year award. “I was so amazed that Vogue Australia wanted an illustrated cover. I was so impressed that they stuck to it, that somebody in marketing didn’t say, ‘Oh, no, drawing doesn’t sell.’ It’s always been put about that drawing isn’t sexy. And that simply disproved it.”
Downton’s work has led him to some strong friendships. Last year, in his capacity as visiting professor at the London College of Fashion, which recently awarded him an honorary doctorate, he curated a small exhibition on veteran model Carmen Dell’Oreﬁce. “I look to her for wit and wisdom and she’s modelled for 67 years. She’s 81. The least interesting thing about Carmen is how she looks. You have to get over that — that’s the elephant in the room. She can dominate any room she’s in with much younger people, much more famous people just by her presence. She always says, ‘Ifit’s not fun, it’s no fun.’ It’s just a great motto.”
Another great favourite is supermodel Erin O’Connor, who he ﬁrst noticed walking in a Gaultier show. “I had an exhibition that year, in London, and there was a drawing of her in it, and someone came and said, ‘I’m her booker,’ so I more or less wrestled him to the ground and said, ‘I have to, have to, have to draw her.’ Everything that the gene pool has bestowed on her makes for a perfect drawing. She’s incapable of an inelegant gesture. In real life she’s the closest thing to a fashion drawing there is.”
Downton is all the more likeable for his modest exuberance. “I so celebrate it all. Who knew? Who knew there was work like this, and a job in Claridge’s? I have a skill, and I’ve worked hard on the skill, but it’s a narrow ﬁeld and my skill set is narrow. I’ve divested myself of every other life skill; I can’t do anything else and as time’s gone on I do less and less.”
The time at Claridge’s has enabled him to think about changing direction a little. “I’m going to be drawing more men. A friend of mine looked at my website and he said, ‘It looks like idrawgirls.com,’ and I thought, ‘Hey, I’m busted, he’s right.’ My defence is that I only draw the great ones!”
It’s time for me to head off, but Downton isn’t going anywhere. “I’m never leaving,” he smiles. “They’ll have to ﬁre me. I genuinely just love it here. The staff are amazing. The atmosphere — when you walk in, it’s magic hour, which is unique even in the grandest of grand hotels. I always come up those three steps and I think, ‘What was I worrying about? Oh, I don’t know,’ and in the magic it just kind of goes.”