The Interview: David Downton in Portrait

By Janet Reilly

“The god’s honest truth: No one has ever been difficult for me. Ever.” — Downton, on his career illustrating the fashionable and the famous. (Jacobus Snyman)

Ask fashion illustrator David Downton where he draws the line between work and pleasure and that’s one line he just can’t draw. And who could blame him? Over the last two decades, Downton has established himself as one of the world’s most revered fashion artists, which means jetting around the world, attending the Paris haute couture fashion shows and drawing some of the most celebrated — and beautiful — women on the planet: Cate Blanchett, Catherine Deneuve, Iman … the list goes on.

Downton’s illustrations from the Paris runways have appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times, to name a few, and he counts Chanel, Dior and Tiffany among his blue-chip clients. His drawings are elegant and modern, graceful and captivating.

I caught up with Downton, who hails from the U.K., at the Fairmont lobby bar on his recent visit to San Francisco. He is charming and handsome, with a wicked sense of humor. Our conversation ran the gamut from falling into fashion to falling in love with the life he has built.

Meet David Downton.

Where did you grow up, and did art and drawing always play an important role in your childhood? I grew up in rural Kent, which is an hour and something from London, surrounded by orchards — pear, cherry and apple. And drawing was always part of my childhood. I was good at it — according to my parents.

It’s nice to have that reinforcement … Yes, I was good, but not as good as I was led to believe. And I think it was compounded [by the fact] that my brother was brilliant at sports. … He was two years older than me and ended up playing cricket for England, which means he was one of 11 people in the entire country. He was the youngest ever wicket keeper. It never bothered me … that we had the press outside, my brother’s photographs, and this and that. But I think [my parents] must have felt, “Oh, this is awful,” so they really praised what I was. With the consequence that I thought I was brilliant. Brilliant, until I got to art school, and then I saw everyone was as good as me. And that was a bit of a shock.

Were you a good student? No, I was a very, very poor student. When I got to art school, I saw there was a lot of work to do. I [became] sulky and uncommunicative. … I look back and I’m embarrassed. I’m really embarrassed for myself, that I didn’t see that I had this wonderful opportunity. We didn’t pay for education then, like they do now.

But it didn’t kill your love of art. It did. It put it on hold because I felt, “Oh, I don’t feel I have anything to offer.” Again, you look back and you edit your life, but I was very unhappy. I moved to London. In those days you could leave home. Now you can’t leave home because no one can afford it. I got a job that had nothing todo with art.

What did you do? I used to ring people up. It wasn’t sales, it wasn’t marketing. But it was … doing surveys on the phone. So, someone just bought a new car and filled in some form, which enabled us to ring them, and they had to give us some [information]. It was the most tedious job. I really liked it. It was so strange. I really liked that job.

That’s kind of surprising … I was quite happy for a short while. … It was this peculiar job where you could phone in the morning and say, “I’m not coming in,” and they had enough people to cover you because everyone there was something else. They were actors, voiceover artists, they were musicians. They were a very interesting group. I remember them saying, “What do you do, really?” I said, “Well, I did graphics and illustration.” They sort of pushed me to bring in my portfolio, and I did so a bit reluctantly. I was astonished by their reactions. They said, “Why aren’t you doing this?” I said, “I don’t know.” I was really pushed by that creative group of people into doing something about it.

That’s fantastic. But my confidence was so low that the best I could do was to go to the office next door, which was a teen magazine. I thought, “Well, they’ll be rubbish, so it doesn’t matter if I’m rubbish.” I wasn’t aiming for the stars. I wasn’t thinking I deserved anything. But I went in, and they immediately gave me a job. That really began it. And I thought, “Oh, I could do this for a living.” Then I started doing more, gradually, gradually.

You also worked in advertising and illustrated books. Cookbooks, sex manuals. That’s going to be my Paris Hilton phase eventually, when they find it. I was really a gun for hire. I was just thrilled when someone rang me. It’s like being asked to a party.

How did you transition into fashion illustration? I had done some [fashion] because I had done some of everything. I had a kind of fluid style, a loose style. And I was good with the human figure. I’d been working for a Sunday supplement on various little things … and every couple of months, there’d be something [fashion-related] they’d ask me to do.

Downton’s drawing of the actress Rachel Weisz.

Was this at the Financial Times? Yes. I’d done a fashion thing about Hardy Amies, who was a British couturier. You see, when I say “fashion thing,” they gave me a photograph and said, “Can you draw this?” I did a four-page spread and didn’t think much more of it. Not long after that, the art director said, “How do you feel about doing haute couture?”

And, so off you went, to the Paris couture shows! I did the Paris couture. … It’s the upper tier, which is very well respected, with the relationships everyone would like to cultivate. Because I was naive, I didn’t know the access I had — I thought it was normal. I got off the Eurostar and I went to the Valentino fittings at the Ritz. Mr. Valentino, [his partner] Mr. Giammetti and the dogs. Naomi Campbell. The whole thing. It was like going on the black run in skiing, without ever having been on skis.

So, what was the reaction to those first drawings? The reaction was good, but the drawings were not.

Really, they weren’t good? No, I can truly say that, with hindsight. I froze when it came to it.

But that began your professional trajectory. It began my personal trajectory, in the sense that I’d never had any direction. A friend of mine always says, as a freelancer, you wag your tail when the phone rings. … This was the first timeI began to think maybe I should start to impose myself. … I never really felt I had a career. So, it focused my mind. I began to see the inspiration that couture is with these artists at work.

You have been called one of the finest fashion illustrators in the world. What do you think makes you so good? Well, the danger in that is just like Prince … you’re the artist “formerly known as.” [Laughs.] Truthfully,I don’t know. I know that I’m not galvanized by the fashion itself. It’s the clothes on the body. A portrait of the person … it’s always the person. Early on, I remember one design house gave me a Polaroid of the dress on the hanger and that was supposed to be my reference. And that never interested me. Clothes on a hanger look like curtains to me.

You have drawn some of the most beautiful women in the world. Favorites? Favorites? Well. I’m afraid if anyone knows me, they know it’s Carmen Dell’Orefice — a great model who’s 88 this year. Still the most beautiful woman in every room she’s in. … Dita Von Teese. Cate Blanchett is incredible. Charlotte Rampling, Anjelica Huston.

David Downton’s Vogue Australia cover of Cate Blanchett is among his favorite illustrations.

A lot of your drawings look rather simple, but clearly they’re not. The art of being simple is complicated. I love them to look simple. I’m always thrilled when people think I just “did it.” Because they haven’t seen what’s gone into it. And I’d love to accept that illusion.

What do you think about women in San Francisco, and their style? I think the women in San Francisco are not afraid of style. They’re not afraid to dress up. They kind of put on a show. And in some places people … are reluctant to do that. … Everyone has problems, everyone has pain. No one gets through without that. But I have found in the women I’ve met here, there’s a spirit of generosity and a spirit of “what the hell”!

Is there someone who you would really like to draw that you haven’t had the chance to? Tilda Swinton. And there are more.

Is it because of their look, or is there something about them? It’s their look, it’s their character. Individuality is the thing in a drawing. Pretty can look great in a photograph. But I want noses and eyebrows and character. I want a Charlotte Rampling. Because they give you everything. I have worked with what one might describe to be straight forwardly pretty women, and they’re the toughest.

Because? Because they were usually the prettiest girl in school and because there’s less work to be done. I’m generalizing. And I’m not denigrating anyone — if you’re the prettiest girl in school, god love you. But it doesn’t make for that image you need, because what I’ve found is they tend to think by showing up, that’s the job done.

Do you think fashion illustration is coming back into vogue? Well, more or less, ever since I’ve been doing it, people have been saying, “It’s dying.” Just as they say about couture: “Oh my god, it’s dying.” Well, it does die but it never goes away somehow. It finds a different level. There is a lot more interest in it now and there’s certainly a lot more people who want to do it. And are doing it. Now, because of social media, mainly Instagram, you can say you’re a fashion illustrator. That can be your bio. Whereas the revival in the mainstream, glossy magazines? No. It really has not taken hold there.

What inspires you? The person in front of me. They are the draw. Fashion is less inspiring to me today. … Maybe I’ve seen too much. But it’s definitely the people.

Do you love what you do? Unequivocally. Who wouldn’t? We’ve got this sort of thing that anyone in a cab or an Uber will say, “Are you here for business or pleasure?” And I say, “They’re the same.”

Do you have a favorite drawing? The next one. It’s the next one. I mean, I don’t have any drawings of mine in my house. I don’t even have any on the walls in my studio. I have other people’s work. I don’t want to see it after I’ve done it. I look at [other] people’s studios and they’re surrounded by their thought process and they work things out and everything. I don’t want to see that. I want to… move all that into the next drawing. Drawing is a great thing, but you can’t be too good at it.

Janet Reilly is the Gazette’s co-owner and monthly columnist. She is also the former executive producer and on-air television host of The Mix With Janet Reilly.

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