Illustrator. Editor. Fashion-world darling. Gladys Perint Palmer on her creative spark, A-list friendships and leaving the Bay Area for Canada’s Denman Island (population 1,022).
“Queen Victoria, 1819–1901, loved Scotland. Not to mention John Brown. And tartan,” Gladys Perint Palmer writes in Adam & Yves.
The text accompanies one of Palmer’s illustrations. In it, she imagines what Queen Victoria might have looked like had she made it to 1990, festooned in plaid-patterned Vivienne Westwood and lace-up platform heels.
Adam & Yves is a gay pornographic film from 1974. It’s also a coffee table book of Palmer’s irreverent fashion illustrations that showcase her skill with a paintbrush, interspersed with her trademark humor and clever turns of phrase.
Whether drawing the creations of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano or Christian Lacroix,Palmer loves to illustrate “over-the-top clothes.” But runway shows in New York, Paris or Milan were always a conduit for what came after—namely, the stoking of her creative fire. “The drawing part is what I really love, not sitting in the shows,” Palmer says. “Besides, I never had terribly good seats.”
Over the years, Palmer’s technique has evolved. Though she first started drawing in pencil and charcoal, she now draws mostly with an ink bottle. Specifically, Palmer uses the ink bottle’s dropper as a makeshift paintbrush, sometimes embellishing her sketches with pastels and glitter.
A few years back, when the San Francisco Chronicle asked Palmer to cover Paris Fashion Week, she first experimented with sketching on her iPad. Using Paper by FiftyThree, a sketching app, she can instantly transmit her iPad drawings to her editor’s inbox. Instagram is a more recent conquest. Palmer routinely crops each of her illustrations and sends them (along with a detailed caption) to her assistant, who shares it (#GPP is a favorite hashtag) with @gladysperintpalmer’s followers.
Most of Palmer’s earliest memories involve art. Palmer grew up in London, the daughter of an oral surgeon and a dress designer. Every morning, she would climb into her mother’s lap at the breakfast table and sit, enthralled, as she made simple pencil drawings come to life.
“Gladys Perint, stop scribbling!” her elementary school teacher would command. As a young girl, Palmer (Perint is her maiden name) doodled in the margins of her notebooks.
She first studied dress design at what was formerly Saint Martin’s School of Art in London and later enrolled at the Parsons School of Design in New York, where she studied fashion illustration.
Slowly, her professional portfolio grew to include illustrations in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and this very magazine, including an editing stint at the South China Morning Post. From Hong Kong, Palmer moved to California to become the fashion editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Her eccentricity proved a perfect match for the West Coast: Mayor Gavin Newsom declared May 24, 2006, Gladys Perint Palmer Day.
Robin Givhan, the Washington Post’s fashion critic, is a longtime admirer. Early on in her career, she looked to Palmer for guidance, quickly learning that she had everyone in the fashion industry on speed dial. “Her work has an energy and a sense of whimsy, which I think allows her to offer a droll or wry take on a subject without causing them too much pain,” Givhan says.
“I was so happy, amazed, seduced by such a strong sketch.” Christian Lacroix
A joint trip to the Hermès boutique in the 1990s brought back fond memories. At the time, Givhan had a longstanding obsession with the iconic Kelly handbag that she couldn’t shake. In between fashion shows, Palmer agreed to accompany Givhan to the Paris boutique. Together, the two women approached a sales clerk, who opened a book as large as the Gutenberg Bible and announced the price in francs. (It now retails for around $10,000).
Crestfallen, Givhan skulked out of the store, realizing that she could buy a compact car for the same price as the coveted handbag. Palmer, always quick on her feet, offered an encouraging alternative: “You know, you can always buy a vintage one.”
Christian Lacroix, the French fashion designer, is another fan. Over the years, Palmer has attended dozens of Lacroix’s ready-to-wear and couture shows.
Lacroix first encountered Palmer’s illustrations in 1987, when he came to San Francisco to share his couture collection with well-heeled Bay Area women unafraid of making a statement. Over breakfast, Lacroix opened up the Examiner, where Palmer was working as an editor at the time.
“I was so happy, amazed, seduced by such a strong sketch,” Lacroix writes in ALL CAPS. “Gladys Perint Palmer captured the quintessence of this dress better than any photograph.”
Her technique (“so elegant and so fast!”) was one that Lacroix and fellow designers grew to admire. Spirited, “with this unique witty touch of her expressing not only beauty or sophistication and allure but also the sometimes ridiculous, mundane, infatuated side of fashion characters.”
Palmer describes herself as “not a fashionista,” preferring the comfort of old sweaters and pants. She refuses to reveal her exact age, another trait she inherited from her artistic mother (who apparently scratched the birth year off her British passport). The mother of two sons (one is a filmmaker; the other is a composer), Palmer also has three grandchildren.
While working in San Francisco and living in San Rafael, Palmer and her husband, Simon, bought a holiday house on Denman Island in British Columbia. The couple scooped up the property, situated right on the water, within 10 minutes of setting foot inside.
Over the years, the Palmers gradually spent more and more time there. While she was running the School of Fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, from 1995 to 2014, enrollment increased from 200 to 2,500. Though she split her time between Marin and British Columbia, Palmer found that she missed the companionship of her newly retired husband, who was eager to make a home among Denman Island’s 1,000 year-round residents.
Island life suits them well. Now living a two-days’ drive from San Francisco, the couple has settled into new routines and rhythms.
After taking a walk together most mornings, Palmer returns to her studio—an appealing mishmash of art supplies, paintbrushes, books, a light box and dog beds—where she paints and writes.
Despite relocating to a tiny, remote island, keeping busy hasn’t been a problem. Palmer was close friends with Azzedine Alaïa, the late couturier, and his partner, Carla Sozzani. Last month, Sozzani requested that Palmer’s Alaïa illustrations (she sketched dozens of his designs over the years) be used as postcards for a forthcoming exhibit at the Design Museum in London.
Sozzani, explains Palmer, is very thin and elegant. Once, when Palmer was admiring her tiny waist, talk turned to “slimming diets.” Sozzani’s advice: “If you want to lose weight, stop eating!”
A separate gallery containing dozens of framed illustrations lives just beneath the house. Meanwhile, her husband, who formerly worked in shipping, volunteers his time to two causes: affordable housing and clean water. Simon is president of the Denman Housing Association, a local nonprofit dedicated to providing affordable housing for the island’s working families. In addition, he also manages the Graham Lake Improvement District, one of Denman Island’s water sources.
A new book is taking shape, though words come far slower to Palmer than her pictures do. When Palmer is in the flow, her drawings churn out at a dizzying clip, with illustrations covering her floor, her light box, even her sleeping dog.
“Sometimes you need more art and fewer words, and sometimes you need less art and more words,” Palmer explains. Her desk looks out at a family of sea lions, emitting a chorus of burps and farts, that bask in the winter sun. “I draw fast and I write slowly.”