Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women

“Everything happens when it should,” illustrator David Downton states with conviction, and he should know - one phone call changed his career beyond recognition…

Fondly referred to as “an elder statesman for fashion illustration” celebrating his 20th year at the forefront of what is considered a niche and exclusive industry David relishes in his story and has the Bath in Fashion audience bewitched.

“Fashion found me late in life, I was 37 when I saw my first show,” he says. After studying art and graphics and going through a process of loosing confidence in his drawing ability to picking it all up again he eventually forged a career in illustration. The work came in and David took what he could to make a comfortable living; textbooks, novels, packaging, cookbooks and sometimes fashion. Then came the phone call, the first that ignited a new and exciting direction for him. “The art director Tomaso Capuano called me up and asked if I would go to Paris to cover the couture shows, and of course Paris on someone else’s money sounded good to me.”

This trip to Paris catapulted David into a world of glamour, opulence and indulgence, he was mesmerised and as a result left thinking; “I want more of that!” Apart from the odd illustration job fashion was relatively low on David’s radar up until that point.  He grew up in rural Kent surrounded by a sporty family and plenty of fresh air.  David was aware of the Linda’s and Kate’s of this world and he did appreciate illustrators such as Antonio Lopez and Erte. 

After his introduction to Paris couture David began to look at more illustrators and was particularly drawn to Tony Viramontes, Tom Keogh and Rene Gruau, flicking through their work on the overhead projector David says of Gruau, “he was a friend of Dior and the master of masters, look at that slinky, sexy, graphic brilliance.”

Moving on to his work and the images featured in the book David becomes less forthcoming, “I find it much easier to talk about somebody else’s work than my own”, he confesses. In fact when he was initially faced with the intoxicating world of couture, a world he wanted to engage with, David adopted an alter ego, ‘DD’ – a persona full of confidence and charm, he adds, “ and DD is here, speaking today.” It was down to DD’s unfaltering nerve that he called and asked Bruce Oldfield and Marie Helvin to come along to his first exhibition.

It’s clear from the way David speaks that he feels very privileged for his extraordinary career. “This is my 20th year in couture and I feel I have become a part of fashion history,” he says. Discussing his own work he adds, “I try to respect the designer in my approach, I like to say as much as I can with seemingly minimal effort.”  While there is a sweeping, effortless feel to David’s illustrations each piece actually requires a lot of work - from initial sittings to reworked sketches to the choice of medium depending on the feel required. What is striking is how much the portraits say with seemingly so little, the stroke of a line the flicker of light in the eye, it’s no wonder David isn’t short of well-known sitters.

While David is a permanent fixture at the couture shows he does in fact create most of his preliminary sketches at the fittings or a scheduled sitting, “the shows are too quick, I remember once capturing Kate Moss’ arm and not much else.”

Thanks to his alter ego DD, David plucked up the courage to ask Marie Helvin, who did attend his first exhibition with Bruce Oldfield, to sit for him. After a second sitting Marie opened up her address book and suggested more stylish women for him to draw, Jerry Hall, Catherine Deneuve, Joan Collins and so the makings of ‘Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women’ began. Some were intimate one-to-one sittings while others became proper fashion productions with hair, make-up and styling. 

David is full of admiration for all his sitters and refers to Erin O’Connor as “a very good friend” and Anna Piaggi as “an amazing dresser, a fashion conjuror.” He was particularly pleased that his Vogue Australia cover of Cate Blanchett was the fastest selling issue in the publications history, “proving that illustration can be sexy and sell.”

On the subject of men, he does draw them, even more so now that he is artist-in-residence at Claridge’s but for the moment this book is dedicated to women, of which he says: “This book has almost killed me. It’s the hardest thing I have ever done and the best thing now it’s finished!”

Is there anyone he would like to draw that he hasn’t yet? “I have an on-going list of people I’d like to draw,” not revealing much; he does mention “Tilda Swinton” being one of them. Perhaps Tilda’s confident gaze will feature in David’s next glossy tome – time will tell, until then we have Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women to indulge the senses.

David Downton Portraits of the World’s Most Stylish Women published by www.laurenceking.com

By JoJo Iles

Images courtesy of David Downton/Laurence King

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