Collecting men’s fashion illustration

They sketched and stretched the bounds of male identity, says Mark C O’Flaherty of fashion’s menswear artists

Cover for Sir #4 by René Gruau, shown at Fashion Illustration Gallery
Cover for Sir #4 by René Gruau, shown at Fashion Illustration Gallery

The 2017 documentary about influential fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez made for compelling viewing. Subtitled 1970: Sex, Fashion & Disco, it captured the era and his supercharged aesthetic with élan. The film is testament to the resurgence of interest in fashion illustration over the past decade, with major exhibitions and books buoying the art form. But while the focus is nearly always on drawings of women, some notable figures in fashion illustration over the past 100 years – Puerto Rico-born Lopez included – have also put pen to paper to chronicle men’s style.

“Relatively little men’s fashion was drawn by the masters of the past century,” says Connie Gray, co-owner of Gray MCA gallery in Bath. “However, there were exceptions, including American illustrator Carl Erickson, a contributor to Vogue from the 1920s until his death in 1958. He drew – almost exclusively – women’s couture, but would incorporate men in the illustrations.” Gray currently has a selection of such works by Erickson, including Fur Facts Bergdorf Goodman for American Vogue (1935), priced at £7,000, and an illustration of Jean Paul Gaultier menswear, drawn by Lopez for Italian Vanity Fair in 1983 – with a £20,000 price ticket that reflects how he inhabits a different realm from most illustrators.

Jean Paul Gaultier for Vanity Fair by Antonio Lopez, £20,000, from Gray MCA
Jean Paul Gaultier for Vanity Fair by Antonio Lopez, £20,000, from Gray MCA

But there is one name that stands above all others when it comes to menswear illustrations: René Gruau, who defined the look of fashion reportage from the late 1930s, working with Dior, Lanvin and Balenciaga. “He revolutionised the image of the modern man, whom he depicted with humour, sex appeal, ease and elegance,” says publisher Martine Assouline in the 2012 homage Gruau: Portraits of Men by Réjane Bargiel and Sylvie Nissen. The same year, London’s Fashion Illustration Gallery exhibited key menswear works by the artist at the Paul Smith store in Mayfair, which blazed a Klieg light on the lesser-known corners of Gruau’s repertoire, with pieces such as Cover for Sir #4 (1967), depicting a dapper – panama-hatted, bow-tied and be-caned – figure against a vibrant red background. “It’s worth around £12,000,” says gallery founder William Ling. 

When Christie’s ran a Gruau auction in 2013, the works, which predominantly depicted females, included a 1971 watercolour for Club magazine of a man’s sartorial details, in a striking yellow and violet combination, which sold for $10,000 – a price affected by the financial crash five years earlier. “Before 2008, one of his paintings would have traded for €60,000-€80,000,” says Yann de Saint Sulpice, owner of the Sylvie Nissen Gallery in Cannes, which represents the bulk of Gruau’s estate. “Now it is more like €30,000-€40,000, while ink drawings of men command €6,000-€15,000. There are opportunities, but prices are rising.” 

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Original Gruaus are scarce, but signed lithograph prints are easier to come by. New York dealer Dennis Holzman offers later examples, including an image ($450) used for advertising Dior Men’s Cologne, which hits a comic note with its depiction of a man from the waist down, in a robe and slippers, and another from 1988 entitled Le Balcon au Nice ($550). 

The defining name of fashion illustration in the 1980s, however, is that of Tony Viramontes. The exhibition of the late artist’s work that opened this month at 10 Corso Como in New York includes strong examples such as Greg Thompson, Versace Menswear ($7,500) and Jessie Harris ($15,000) – both from 1984 and showcasing his colourful, angular style. “Tony enjoyed stretching the bounds of masculine identity at a time when Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein were promoting Ivy League sobriety,” says Dean Rhys Morgan, a dealer specialising in works on paper who handles the Viramontes estate.  

Jessie Harris by Tony Viramontes, $15,000, from 10 Corso Como
Jessie Harris by Tony Viramontes, $15,000, from 10 Corso Como

Ling adds that “fashion illustration of men is the niche within our niche”, but this is precisely the appeal for some, including Düsseldorf-based Stephan von Petersdorff, an intellectual property lawyer who has been collecting men’s fashion illustrations since the 1980s. “Fashion – and thus fashion illustration – is an art form that celebrates beauty,” he says. His collection ranges from early-20th-century examples by Parisian Etienne Drian to “elegant, radically reduced cut-outs from the 1980s” by Swedish illustrator Mats Gustafson, whose work for the likes of Dior and Nike, from the ’70s up to the present day, sells for £8,000-£10,000 and is featured by the Fashion Illustration Gallery, Gray MCA and creative agency Art + Commerce. 

The Fashion Illustration Gallery also represents newer names – which, says Ling, are currently the most active part of the market – including Richard Gray, Richard Haines and Richard Kilroy, who mixes photorealism with loose, unfinished lines (as in Comme des Garçons Homme Plus A/W 16; £600 at Showstudio). 

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Chilean art collector Juan Yarur, who is on the board of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA, pairs his acquisitions by Andy Warhol, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst with fashion illustrations by Manuel Santelices (whose work from the past three years sells for £600-£7,000 via The Art Design Project). “His work is unique and captivating, mixing elegance with sarcasm,” says Yarur, whose collection includes a portrait of Alexander McQueen. 

These contemporary drawings, like the images by Gruau, Lopez and Viramontes, are defining an era of men’s style – and they all wear well on the wall.

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