Illustrating Fashion With a Flair

By Yulia Rock 

“You don’t have what it takes: your drawings are off, you cannot get the proportions. Maybe you should think about textile design,” Bil Donovan’s art teacher told him two months into his first semester at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“You don’t understand,” Donovan responded, “I saved my money for this. It’s my passion and my life; I want this.”

Donovan, a prominent New York-based fashion illustrator for 30 years, established himself in the days when fashion photography was dominating the fashion world. Commissioned to do fashion illustration, not photography, he received assignments from designers including Dior, Givenchy, Vanity Fair and Yves Saint Laurent, publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, retailers including Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. He also has a scarf collection at

Now, driven by social media, fashion illustration is finding a renewed appreciation, and many artists find it very helpful in building a clientele. London-based artist Abbey Watkins, known for her dark style, said Instagram had enabled her to talk to people who buy her art. “It’s such a blessing,” she said.

Bil Donovan sketches at his studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Another European illustrator, Anna Halarewicz, from Poland, emphasized that social media had “definitely expanded my range of customers.” Natalia Jnete, a Florida native who lives and works in Manhattan, said she had received commissions from ODDA magazine and Nylon magazine through social media, “I don’t think I would be able to get it on my own,” she said.

Fashion illustration started in the 16th century, according to Cally Blackman’s book “100 Years of Fashion Illustration,” and grew as people became fascinated with costumers. In the early 1900s, Paul Poiret, a French haute couture designer, began hiring illustrators to draw his designs. Following the Great Depression and into the ’70s, publications such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar created a platform for pioneers and innovators of abstract fashion illustration – creative work that goes beyond realism.

Eventually, design houses such as Prada collaborated with illustrators to create wearable art pieces, notably Prada 2014 Spring/Summer Prêt-à-Porter collection. This year almost every haute couture house hired illustrators to draw their runway shows.

With the permission of illustrator Bil Donovan

“Photography is too mundane now, and we kind of stretched the limits of it; people want something fresh on the page, what can draw their eye,” said Connie Gray, an art curator and co-founder of the London-based gallery Gray Modern & Contemporary Art.

Decades ago, as an F.I.T. freshman, Donovan began drawing from live figures, never from photographs. He drew his roommate, his cat Porkchop, his toothpaste, even his toilet. Later, Donovan went to the School of Visual Arts, where he enrolled in a class taught by Jack Potter, an innovative 1950s fashion illustrator. Donovan said that completely changed his artistic approach, beginning, like Potter, to “feel” their drawings, instead of copying what they see.

Bil Donovan with his students from the School of Visual Arts at Washington Square Park.

During the first class with Potter, students were required to bring all their best work. Donovan brought two drawings with him, and when Potter approached them, he exclaimed, “Whose are these?”

Proudly, Donovan said, “They are mine.” Potter’s response wasn’t what he hoped for.

“Oh my gosh, what is such a young man doing such an old lady work for?” asked Potter. “You are young and you should not do this. Draw your age.”

“I just wanted to die. But I learned a lot,” Donovan recalled, laughing.

Donovan, now a teacher at F.I.T. and S.V.A., tells his students that an illustrator should be versatile. Besides an understanding of graphic design, digital drawing and composition, an illustrator should be able to draw anything. Throughout his career, Donovan learned that it’s vital to make mistakes on a paper and see what shows up because “it’s more about discovery than about success or failure.”

Bil Donovan (center) with art curator Connie Gray (left) and Ashley Gray, director at Gray Modern  Contemporary Art, discussing “Drawing on Style,” a contemporary fashion illustration exhibition.

Aside from teaching and his commissioned work, Donovan oversees events at the Society of Illustrators in New York, where he encourages illustrators to draw from life, hiring a range of models from professional boxers to high-fashion models as subjects.

“You never stop learning and if you want to be the best, you have to continue taking classes. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone,” he said to his students at Washington Square Park, where he took them for a field drawing session.

“Simplicity of brush strokes, leaving far more out than putting in. This is where he is an absolute genius,” said Connie Gray, as she looked through Donovan’s original pieces and contemplated potential prices for her collectors. “Bil is the contemporary master of fashion illustration today,” she said.

This year, during London’s Fall Fashion Week, Gray curated “Drawing on Style,” a contemporary fashion illustration exhibition. Donovan’s work was shown next to that of the fashion illustration pioneers such as René Gruau, René Bouché, Carl “Eric” Erickson and Antonio Lopez. “Most contemporary illustrators work digitally, but Bil takes the tradition of fashion illustration back and draws from life,” stated Gray. “It is very rare these days.”