The question that dominates most discussions about the recent revival of fashion illustration is 'How much longer can this trend survive?' Fashion, contingent on novelty and change, the argument goes, must eventually tire of its fascination with sinuous line and erotic pastiche, and ditch the various young illustrators who have become (fashion) household names. Certainly the popularity and sheer media exposure of illustrators such as Julie Verhoeven or Shona Heath might lead one to suspect that their stylish scribbling days are numbered, were their careers confined to just that. Yet flicking through the portfolios of these London-based practitioners, the imagery one sees featured is so wildly varied in form and appearance that 'illustration' doesn't even begin to cover it. Shots of cheap polystyrene heads daubed with paint, a forest of tree trunks trussed up with racy black garters, an appliqué handbag sporting Holly Hobby-style toadstools and snails and a 'life-size' paper unicorn all attest to the fact that Verhoeven and Heath join other Londoners, including Simon Costin and Stevie Stewart, as members of a new genre of image-maker: the 'art director/set designer/illustrator'. The flexibility and unconstrained creativity that this clumsy job title implies reflects the fact that the industry has barely started to quantify the potential of these fashion multi-taskers. Herein lies the key to their longevity.
Verhoeven's ascent to fame began barely three years ago, when her saucy studies of the female nude began to adorn the pages of style magazines such as The Face, Dazed & Confused and Self Service, but in 1987, when she started a work placement with John Galliano. The heavily research- and drawing-based methodology there, coupled with her ongoing attendance at evening drawing classes at St Martin's throughout subsequent assisting jobs at Martine Sitbon and Richard Tyler, meant that Verhoeven never had to choose between illustration and fashion design. Taking a break from the latter to concentrate on her drawing in 2000 proved impossible once her ornate decoration of magazine pages and 'architectural illustration' - colourful customization of photographic studios and locations - captured the imagination of fashion editors and designers worldwide. A print design for Cacharel led to a highly prestigious commission to design a series of bags for Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton in 2002, and before Verhoeven knew it she had launched her own fashion range and shop, Gibo.
Vague job titling may have afforded this art director/set designer/illustrator the freedom to keep her options open, but Verhoeven finds it frustrating. 'People are uncomfortable with you, you're either one thing or you're another. I don't like to say I'm an illustrator because more than half of my career has been designing, and I don't want to say I'm a designer because that's not the case either.' There is also the issue of status. Check the credits on any magazine shoot and the pecking order will probably read as follows: photographer, then art director, stylist, model, set designer and so on. So what happens when a practitioner is responsible for two or more of these roles? 'I hate the title of art director', admits Shona Heath, who is regularly responsible for the creative direction, styling, set construction and even photography of shoots for Dazed & Confused, most of the international Vogue magazines and several more fashion advertising clients. 'It sounds like so pushy [...] I prefer to call myself a set builder. I just make stuff.'
Whereas for Verhoeven drawing is the thing, for Heath illustration plays a more functional role in the overall image-making process; from creating fantastical trompe-l'oeil studio backdrops to painting stripes across a playing field to add a contemporary fashion colour palette or running up a satin gimp mask on her sewing machine. As much as painting studio walls, Heath might equally be embellishing a Mini Cooper with buttons and braids for an Accessorize campaign or building a cardboard motor bike for a Nick Knight fashion shoot. The final, published photographic image is her desired outcome.
In this sense Heath's practice is more explicitly born out of the traditional role of fashion stylist - exemplified in the 1980s by iconic figures such as Ray Petri, Judy Blame and Simon Foxton, who were noted for their audacious disregard for the designer garment and pursuit of the image above all else. For what were originally referred to in the industry as 'fashion assistants', the title of 'stylist' became a badge of honour. It signified that their input was far and above that of calling in the clothes and taking care of send-backs. Little understood and primarily associated with the style press in the 1980s, the role was brought into the mainstream by a younger generation of - principally women - creatives in the early 1990s. A decade on, stylists are as famous as the photographers with whom they work, and in some cases more powerful. Melanie Ward (who began her career styling with Nigel Shafran), Venetia Scott (who left Vogue and started out with Juergen Teller) and Fiona Dallanegra (formerly fashion director of i-D) are now the creative directors of global fashion houses Helmut Lang, Marc Jacobs and Chanel respectively.
The debate as to whether illustrators are here to stay is irrelevant. Like stylists before them, the creatives behind the illustrations are now involved in so many aspects of the fashion image-making and design processes that their future is secure. In an industry ostensibly dominated by high-profile male designers and photographers, the multi-tasking girls 'just making stuff' are the ones to watch.