Howard Tangye on illustration


18 June 2013

Howard Tangye is a seminal figure at Central Saint Martins. The head of womenswear design at the London school, he has spent decades helping to oversee the development of designers such as John Galliano, Hussein Chalayan, Zac Posen and Christopher Kane. Now, his own work as an illustrator is the subject of a book.

Trained as a designer at both Saint Martins and Parsons in New York, Tangye's work within fashion has been balanced against a separate career as an artist. The portraits and life drawings that he has created through his life form the content of the book, titled Within.

The book has been designed by Stinsensqueeze, a design studio founded by Stina Gromark and Louise Naunton Morgan, and is currently seeking backing on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Gromark and Morgan, who first met Tangye while studying at CSM, have collaborated with Tangye to curate 52 of his portraits, created over the course of his career. Although clothing features heavily in the work, they are not fashion illustrations. Tangye's art is characterful and portrait-like - occasionally reminiscent of the work of Egon Schiele - and is focused on the sitter, rather than the garments they wear.

Below, Tangye speaks to Disegno about the book, his illustration, and the state and development of fashion illustration.

What’s the appeal of doing a book like this?
It puts together over forty years of work in a really good format. The book they’ve done is absolutely beautiful - the paper, colour reproduction - and I see it as a folio of my drawings. It helps me see the drawings afresh and the way drawings from different times have been juxtaposed is interesting for me.

How do you categorise the drawings? They’ve been called portraits, life sketches, fashion illustrations; what are they to you?
People have their own taste, but it’s quite amusing to hear them called fashion drawings. When I graduated from college and trudged around New York in 1977 with my portfolio to get some work, I was told at almost every agency, “These are not fashion illustrations, they’re life drawings.” But that wasn’t a negative thing, because as I took my book around people wanted to buy from me, straight from the portfolio. I’m not trying to do fashion illustrations; they’re portraits although sometimes they’re used in a fashion context. John Galliano for instance has used them when I’ve drawn his things. A fashion illustrator works to a brief and focuses on the clothes. My focus has always been on the body.

A lot of fashion illustrations are quite sterile. The bodies look like mannequins.
That’s true. But there are exceptions and there are some wonderful illustrators who can really draw, although they seem to be from a different time. Julie Verhoeven is fantastic, but nowadays she’s more an artist. Gladys Perint Palmer - GPP - is absolutely dedicated to fashion drawing and is also an excellent illustrator. She tells you she’s an illustrator and loves that; loves clothes; loves fashion. She’s the real thing.

Is studying under Gladys where your interest in drawing came from?
I went to Saint Martins to study fashion and textiles because I wanted to be a designer, which was my main ambition. But I had two fantastic teachers. One was Gladys Perint Palmer and the other, who was my main mentor, was Elizabeth Suter. She’s the person who changed my life. She was a great teacher, could draw fantastically well and was taught in the traditional way, which is to focus on the body. She said that when drawing the body you focus on the bones and work from the inside outwards. That’s what I’ve always done.

And then you moved to study at Parsons in New York.
In New York I was taught by some fantastic illustrators. One was Barbara Perlman and she was a wonderful teacher and beautiful drawer: the New York equivalent of Elizabeth Suter. She always used to say that my people looked like they’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, because I put a lot of emphasis on the real person. I wasn’t trying to make them look pretty, because I was interested in character. But Barbara had a lot of character in her figures too. Although they were very glamorous and beautiful, they had an individuality about them. I also met Antonio Lopez, Steven Stipelman; every day you’d meet these people! It was a nice finishing school.

What’s the value of character to a fashion illustrator? Is it an advantage?
When I was in New York, I was told to make illustrations less individual so a wider population could connect with it. It’s trying to sell something, so the bigger your audience, the more people you need to connect with. So I think that’s why a lot of fashion illustration is about pretty faces and trying to make things look perfect.

What’s the relationship between fashion design and illustration?
One of the reasons I love to draw John Galliano’s work is that when I see it on the catwalk I see it as drawings. Illustration for a designer is the way of communicating an initial idea, and then final illustrations for publication or presentation are about seeing the pieces in the best possible way. While working as an illustrator in New York - not figurative work, always objects - people would ask for drawings because they were shooting really horrible things that would still look horrible if you photographed them. As an illustrator you’re an alchemist.

So fashion illustration has a purpose to serve?
I love drawings to be used in publications, but it’s much less common than it was. In the 1970s when you opened the New York Times there would be fashion illustrations on nearly every page. Unbelivable! I bet they don’t have that now. You see it in some editorial and some people make an attempt to feature it which is great, but it won’t ever be the thing it once was.

Why is that?
Because of photography. People love the photographic image and I love it too. But I quite like the mix of photography and illustration. They’re totally different ways of observing. If you’re observing something for drawing, your focus is on a line or a silhouette, so it helps your eye to observe properly. If you’re taking a photograph, you’re taking in the whole scene and can just snap away until you get one that’s right. You can’t snap away with a drawing.