Monday, March 19, 2012

Artist I’m Crazy About: The Brilliant and Divine Fashion Illustrator, David Downton

David Downton recently came to San Francisco from London for a splendid fete.

David, whose super-chic clients include Chanel and Gucci and Vogue—is the world’s top fashion illustrator.

He lives within sound of the English Channel (almost)—and frequents the most insider fashion spots in Paris, Milan, London, New York.

Today on THE STYLE SALONISTE you’ll meet David and learn about his new appointment as Fashion Artist in Residence at Claridge’s in London, the chic-est hotel in the world. 

David is the most delightful man—droll, nice, perceptive, stylish and cool—in his turquoise Alexander McQueen scarf. During his brief California visit we had lunch, dinner, drinks, and I viewed his recent portraits. Exquisite. He’s great company at a dinner party—but most of all he’s a genius illustrator. 

Come with me and meet David, read about his fabulous new appointment at Claridge’s (where he has his own suite), buy his book, and swoon over his newest portraits. 

You’ve seen David Downton’s sexy and sensual and wonderfully soulful sketches that capture famous woman like Paloma Picasso and Catherine Deneuve, as well as Anouk Aimee and Carmen, and Linda Evangelista. They’re on Vogue covers and in every stylish publication. Fashion editors and designers adore him.

Come and learn about his life, his work, and his acute insights.

David lives in the lovely countryside south of London.

He recently received an honorary doctorate for his contributions to the arts from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. 

San Francisco interior designer Ken Fulk recently honored David Downton with a booksigning party at his San Francisco gallery, Peepshow. David’s new book, ‘Masters of Fashion Illustration’ was recently published. See below for more information.

David Downton

Ken Fulk and Denise Hale

David Downton and Tatiana Sorokko

I sat down for a chat with David. He put down his pens and brushes for the moment and we talked about fashion, Claridge’s, fashion figures, famous faces, travel, and clients—and much more.

Please make a cup of tea—or pour a glass of delicious wine—and join us for a chat.

DDS: It is such a pleasure to meet you. I've admired your very distinctive and elegant fashion drawings for many years.

Your portraits of Paloma Picasso and Catherine Deneuve, and the lovely Dita von Teese are powerful. Who are the latest subjects of your portraits?

Thank you! Can I say, first of all, that I have had the best time in San Francisco. I have Denise Hale and Ken Fulk to thank for masterminding it. From now on, I’m not leaving home without them.

Regarding my recent sitters, they have mostly been to do with my appointment as Artist in Residence at Claridge’s. They include Diane Von Furstenberg, Sarah Jessica Parker, Alber Elbaz (of Lanvin) Dita Von Teese, Sir Paul Smith, Joan Collins and Denise Hale, of course.

All have close ties with the hotel and the drawings will eventually go on permanent display there. No doubt we’ll get to that later. 

DDS: More than other fashion illustrator, you are able to define and capture an essential sense of femininity and grace. Your illustrations define beauty, elegance and timeless style. They burst with a vibrant sense of life.
“Keep working until it looks spontaneous”, is my mantra. I love it when people describe my work as effortless. It implies I’m much more talented than I am! Actually each drawing is a mini drama, a fight to the death. Forests have died in the name of this. I’m not proud of it!

DDS: No doubt this perfectionism and frantic editing is why you are so popular with companies like Chanel, Lancome, Tiffany's New York, Harrod's, Neiman Marcus, Tom Ford Beauty, Dior, Van Cleef & Arpels and many others. 

DD: These lists of new clients and projects are always cyclical. I try not to analyze them too much. I certainly never think about my ‘style’, as it all becomes a hindrance and defines and limits expectations. Someone once described my work as ‘contemporary nostalgia’. I like that. It pretty much sums up what I am trying to do.

DDS: You were recently in Paris for the couture collections, and then you flew to San Francisco, to be feted and admired by all your fans here. Then you hopped back to London for Fashion Week, and then it is once more on to Milan and Paris. How do you find time to actually illustrate? 
DD: I live in East Sussex, between the Downs and the sea. It’s an hour from London and less from Gatwick airport. Traveling is part of the job and I love it, but living away from the centre of things means that when I am in my studio I am working, not socializing or being otherwise distracted. It’s quiet. I can focus. I love it. 

DDS: Your first Paris couture trip was in 1996. It must have been a dream for you as an artist. Now you are a regular. How brilliant. 
DD: I had no idea what I was getting into! I had never seen a fashion show before, much less a couture show. I went straight to the black run in ski-ing terms-- there are no nursery slopes in fashion. I got off Eurostar and went to draw the Valentino fittings at the Ritz. Later that evening, my first show was Versace (the year before he was murdered).

Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and Christie Turlington came onto the runway together. I felt as though I’d landed in Narnia.

DDS: You're versatile. You can capture Yves Saint Laurent (the original), and Chanel. But you also draw for Topshop. 
DD: Illustrators draw what they see. We are not designers; we are interpreters. That presents a creative challenge. You have to respect the designer’s vision and bring something of yourself to bear.

Sometimes there is complete harmony between the artist and the designer, as with Christian Dior and René Gruau in the 40s and 50s, or more recently Francois Berthoud with Viktor and Rolf. 

DDS: I love your portrait of Amanda Harlech, and there's Ann Piaggi, and Cate Blanchett. They have such spontaneity and life. 
DD: I am very lucky. I sit across the drawing board from the worlds most beautiful and fascinating women. Who knew that was a job? I always say the sitter IS the drawing; I just have to get it down on paper. 

DDS: You recently published your second book 'Masters of Fashion Illustration' which is a stunningly in-depth and beautiful overview of all the most influential and talented and original fashion illustrators of the twentieth century, up to 1984. Included in the book are, of course, Tom Keogh, Bob Peak, Andy Warhol, Coby Whitmore, Antonio and René Bouché. Each so distinctive. 
DD: It is a book about drawing and my love of these great artists. I have always believed that fashion is as legitimate a subject for art as any – and that includes the Mont Ste-Victoire of Cezanne and Tracey Emin’s emotional temperature. Fashion illustration has often been dismissed as fleeting or ephemeral, but to me it is a great, and largely unsung, figurative art form. The book gave me the chance to celebrate my heroes including Eric, Viramontes and Tom Keogh, all of whom are neglected today. René Bouché was another great hero of mine and I was so happy to finally meet his widow, who lives in San Francisco, on this trip. A big moment for me. 

DDS: How do you personally appraise a fashion illustration? You included in the book such varied approaches—from pop to washy and splashy watercolors to collage ink drawings, oils, to the utter chic of Carl Erickson, to the sexy and slightly satirical style of Vertes. What do you admire in fashion drawings? 
DD: I admire fluidity, mastery of the medium, humor. Fashion drawing tells not just the story of the dress, but also the story around the dress. A great fashion illustration, by Eric, say, or Antonio Lopez, can reveal so much about the way we wanted to look (and how we wanted to live) at any given moment.

DDS: In your book, you speak of the Golden Age of Fashion Illustration, when fashion artists from the thirties to the sixties flew First Class, stayed at the Ritz and the Crillon, and were a regular part of Vogue and WWD and Bazaar fashion reporting. They used to do portraits of presidents (Kennedy) and film stars. You seem to be enjoying your own Golden Age now—with so many projects and such acclaim. 
DD: I am certainly doing my best, one drawing at a time! Apart from anything else, it is great fun. “If it’s not fun, it’s no fun!” to quote my great friend Carmen Dell’ Orefice

DDS: You were recently appointed Fashion Artist in Residence at Claridge's, the most glorious hotel in London. I am so envious! It is one of the great all-time concepts. Tell us who dreamed this up--and what it involves? 
DD: Don’t envy me—I envy myself! The concept was originally dreamed up by the PR director, Paula Fitzherbert and her brilliant team. I met with Paula and Claridges’ general manager, Thomas Kochs, and together we came up with a plan.

The project involves drawing some of the hotel’s most illustrious guests. We are hoping to create a modern icon of Claridge’s and its collection. 

DDS: And when you are in residence at Claridge's you also hold court, drawing, at the Fumoir. It is so original and chic. 
DD: I am obsessed with the Fumoir! It is the most glamorous and grown up bar in London. Not to mention the most beautiful. I regard Table 4 as ‘my’ table, and I don’t like anyone going near it. The night I arrived in San Francisco a friend texted from London to say that George Clooney and Daniel Craig were at my table.

I nearly flew straight home! 

DDS: You also accept special commissions for portraits, like the ones recently of Valentino for a publication, and the notable new private one of Denise Hale. Tell us how you created the first brilliant and vivacious illustration of Denise.
We met a couple of years ago in San Francisco. Denise enjoyed a speech I made (I was given an honorary doctorate by the Academy of Art University) and made a point of telling me so. We talked vaguely about doing a drawing. Then, last summer, when she was briefly in London on her way to Dubrovnik, we had lunch. I pounced, “why not now?” We did a sitting for an hour or so at Claridge’s. It's the black and white one. Denise is a great subject because she has such spirit and because she’s glamorous in a way that people have forgotten how to be. If my apartment building were on fire I would call Denise. She would know the architect and the quickest way out. If I were lost at sea, she’d get hold of her nearest friend with a yacht. It’s not often you meet people like that! 

DDS: Can my readers contact you for privately commissioned portraits through your website? ( 
DD: I’d be delighted to hear from them.

DDS: David, thank you. It has been a great pleasure. I’ll see you at the Fumoir! Soon, I hope.

David Downton Recently Checked In at Claridge’s

Here is the official announcement.

Watch out for David at the Fumoir at Claridge’s next time you stop in for a drink! You know where to find him. Be sure to say hello, and tell him your read about him on THE STYLE SALONISTE.

London: Claridge’s, the Art Deco landmark in Mayfair, recently announced the appointment of David Downton as Fashion Artist in Residence. Downton, known for his classically elegant yet highly contemporary illustrations of style icons such as Carmen Dell’Orefice, Cate Blanchett and Dita von Teese, established his atelier at Claridge’s, drawing some of the hotel’s most illustrious guests. This collection of drawings will be on permanent public display, creating a timeless addition to the Claridge’s historical art collection. 

Claridge’s has long been recognized as a London favorite for the fashion, art and cinema world. Marc Jacobs has used the hotel as the inspiration for his latest Louis Vuitton collection and regular guests such as Christian Louboutin, Diane von Furstenberg, Paul Smith and Carolina Herrera name Claridge’s as their home in London.

David Downton said: “Glamour and an effortless assurance are the hallmarks of Claridge's. I am excited and honored to be the first ever artist in residence at high fashion's home from home.”

Claridge’s General Manager Thomas Kochs said: “Over the years, some of our most celebrated guests have been captured on camera and we feel David’s drawings will add another dimension to the already established archives of Claridge’s. David Downton has been a long-time friend of the hotel and we have admired his work for many years. It is a pleasure to share David’s talent with our guests!” 

All illustrations published here are by David Downton, used with express permission.

Follow David at

David's illustrations are available for purchase at

Party photographs at Ken Fulk’s Peepshow gallery by Drew Altizer,, used with express permission of the photographer. 

For more information:
Photographs of Claridge’s used with permission of Claridge’s, London.
Claridge’s, Brook Street, London, UK


Francine Gardner said...

Enlightening interview, thank you

Karena said...

Dianne an amazing interview with a brilliant illustrator of our day. The images are so wonderful; thank you for sharing them.

Art by Karena

Nicola said...

Dear Diane!
I love this interview firstly because the Most Interesting Mr.Downton is quintessentially, divinely British and secondly because of his marvelous capture of great women of style. Am I not the only one who hoped to see your portrait in this posting's lovely images? You must commission!
XX Nicola

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends--
Dear Francine and Karena and Nicola-

I love your comments, thank you.
David Downton is the most charming man, and is also witty and fun company. I liked him very much--and he made many fans in San Francisco.
Ken's party for David was one of the great events--a wonderful guest list of accomplished friends plus some great new friends from Chile and Argentina, including a chic woman who is a cultural/women's issues cabinet minister in the Chilean government. She and her companions were a delight.
Now David is back at his studio--always working and creating beauty.
I hope he comes back soon. (And pictures of me in my focus is always on the talented and creative people I write about...and am fortunate to know.)
very best you to creative minds! And highly talented women, all of you.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

I received a wonderful message from the brilliant Carol Troy---who was the author, with Caterine Milinaire--of the great fashion book CHEAP CHIC published in 1975. It was such a trend-setter, featuring army surplus clothes and flea market and vintage, that are now so commonplace but at that time was considered chic and creative and trend-setting.
CAROL TROY is now a photographer, living in the Napa Valley. She came to my recent design seminar at Maisonry...and sent me the following today:


Lovely fashion illustrator piece.

Caterine and I were so lucky to get Antonio to do our pix and then draw on them!



Marta Spendowska said...

Oh, how I loooove dD!
I hardly can breathe when I look at his illustrations. How is that even possible—to capture grace and likeness and emotions at the same time.
I'm also fashion illustrator, watercolorist and I would love to be able to attend a workshop with David.
Hello? David—Please come somewhere here, near Chicago and teach us!

All the best!

:: Marta

Marta Spendowska said...

Oh, how I loooove dD!
I hardly can breathe when I look at his illustrations. How is that even possible—to capture grace and likeness and emotions at the same time.
I'm also fashion illustrator, watercolorist and I would love to be able to attend a workshop with David.
Hello? David—Please come somewhere here, near Chicago and teach us!

All the best!

:: Marta

design traveller said...

Amazing illustrations... superb style. I'm inspired! said...

Wow, you always have such great post's!
A dying art, illustration!
In my fantasy I can create art and draw and paint, but alas, I do love and keep such talent dear to my heart and am so happy when others show case such beauty...