How fashion illustrator Richard Haines returned to his first love...

How fashion illustrator Richard Haines returned to his first love...

Words Nick Sullivan

Photographs Alan Clarke

Richard Haines on the streets of New York where he lives and works

Caught at a crossroads in his career as the economy stalled and fashion jobs began to dry up, design director Richard Haines revived the lost art of catwalk illustration for the blogger generation…

How many fashion illustrators can you name? Despite a career spent surveying the catwalks, I could probably list only a handful, most of them gleaned through Instagram. But as an adoptive New Yorker, and a messer-about in menswear for 25 years, only one name – Richard Haines – jumps out at me.

We are so used to photographs from fashion shows being spewed just-so onto the internet within seconds – together with shaky videos streamed live from smartphones in the front row – that very few fashion consumers can imagine a time when fashion shows were held behind closed doors, accessible only to a handful of professionals. Back then, drawing – whether by professional illustrators or fashion editors sitting front row with their notebooks – was the only way to create a visual record of what had just sashayed down the runway. Audience members at fashion shows were strictly limited to the privileged in-crowd: interlopers (usually lesser designers aiming to knock off a bigger designer’s wares) would be summarily ejected by security if found with an instamatic camera in the bleachers.

There were accredited photographers of course. But if you wanted to see what was on the runway, you had to wait two months for giant printed compendiums of every show from Paris or Milan. Called simply Collezioni, they cost a bomb, precisely because they were the only access point to the collections for people on the outside who needed to know what was going on in the inside.

All that went out of the window in the 2000s with the advent of the smartphone and the social media explosion that followed. It engendered a rabid hunger among a global audience for fashion imagery of any kind and of any quality. Fashion got democratised.

Artist and illustrator Richard Haines has taken several major shifts in his stride since he started out as an assistant illustrator for Vogue Patterns in New York in the mid-1970s. ‘The way you garnered information back then was so different,’ he says. ‘Of course there was no internet, just a few mags and the New York Times to look at. Fashion shows – well they were so closed and exclusive they weren’t even an option; so I taught myself to draw from fashion photos and I would copy department store ads and follow other illustrators.’

Even then, there were seismic shifts in the offing. ‘Until the mid-1970s, every department store had an in-house illustrator, but then photography started to change all that,’ he says. Suddenly, jobbing fashion sketchers began to look like an endangered species.

Richard Haines at work

Haines drifted instead into design, making a successful career as a fashion designer in-house for major New York labels from Calvin Klein to Perry Ellis and Bill Blass, at an exciting time for men’s fashion in Manhattan. ‘I worked with amazing people,’ he says, ‘and I had an amazing run all the way up to 2008; that’s when the economy tanked. There were suddenly no design director jobs going. They
just evaporated’.

And then – in the first of a string of ironies, and at something of a crossroads – Haines went full reverse to his first love, sketching. But this time round it was on his terms.

‘It was a complete eureka moment,’ he says. ‘It was 2008, I was getting a divorce, I was not getting any jobs, but a friend of mine said, “You should start a blog – you can just post whatever you want and it doesn’t cost any money and you create your own destiny”. So I had this idea of starting a kind of street-fashion report that instead of photography was all illustration.’

The blog he launched featured sketches of loose, languid, barely-there figures in jeans and peacoats, bombers and tracksuits. It was a visual medium that could hardly be more analogue, but something about disseminating it on the cutting edge of the digital revolution clicked with followers – and the industry – right away. ‘Almost immediately when I started [his blog] What I Saw Today, people started responding to it – within two weeks someone called me and told me, “Oh you’re written up on style.com as a blog  to watch”. It wasn’t premeditated at all; it was all, “I’m just gonna do this because I’ve really got nothing else to do”.’

Within a couple of years, the fashion industry that Haines had left in 2008 came a-calling. Miuccia Prada picked up Haines for a year-long art project, and he quickly became the new boy in town at the men’s shows in Milan and Paris: the only one sitting front row, charcoal in hand, capturing the movement on the runway. ‘It’s ironic to go back and collaborate with designers now, because I thought I’d left that part of the business completely,’ he says.

Whatever it is that the industry saw in Haines, it was hooked. Perhaps it was a nostalgia for a time when fashion, or design, even the way the media worked within it, had a sense of craft about it. Perhaps, too, there was the notion that something had been left behind as the dissemination of fashion imagery reached its logical apotheosis in high-res photos, delivered instantly and to everyone direct from the runway. Once everyone can get everything, where could anyone go from here, but backwards?

The artist lives and works out of a loft space in Bushwick, a far cry from Fifth Avenue; it’s his primary source and his daily inspiration. Watching New Yorkers in the subway or on the streets, Richard commits them in a few feverish seconds to paper, in charcoal, pastels, watercolour and ink. His subjects are fleeting – caught, in a sense, like a rather blurry reportage photo. The style is unique and distinctive and surprisingly new, even to him.

‘My style has developed I think from just drawing so much,’ he says. ‘A lot of the drawings I look back on from when I first started the blog in 2008 – I’m very self-critical of them – I find that they’re much more literal back then. As I’ve done this more and more, they’ve become more suggestive. A friend of mine just posted something on Instagram; he said, “Richard caresses the paper”. He’s French so, you know, it’s a very French thing to say. But I thought that was lovely.’

Haines works feverishly, the charcoal in his hand never still. It gives an impression of a loping stride in his models, or quivering emotion in a face; you get the merest impression of what the clothes look like. His wobbly sketches of friends, designers, models on the runway or just people on the street in New York are defining a new notion of the intangible in fashion – the romance if you like – that has lately seemed something of a secondary consideration.

Richard Haines’ studio in New York

‘I work really hard to make the image be immediate and very gestural and capture not just the clothes but essentially the mood of a person – and how people walk and carry themselves. That said, I think because I worked with pattern makers for so many years, I do tend to key in on important detail. So there is information in the drawings but there’s also a kind of vital omission of information that draws people into it.’

For Haines, with the endless revisions of his charcoal strokes, functioning almost like animation, a line can and should change and move. ‘I can change my mind about where I want a line, and that’s my prerogative, but that also gives an energy or vitality to my drawing. At the end of the day it’s a very private process, asking – is this a good line or not? I’m not at all a big believer in “That’s the line and that’s it”. I mean, I’ve never used an eraser…’

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