The Hauteur of Fashion Illustration
According to the ascot-wearing and cane-carrying celebrated fashion illustrator, Kenneth Paul Block:
“It was never fashion I was interested in;
what I wanted was to draw beautiful women
in beautiful clothes.”
I have been remiss as errant aesthetes are wont to do. In the last days of April of this year, the fashion world lost one of the foremost illustrators of the 20th century — Kenneth Paul Block. A small, but belated tribute:
So influential was Kenneth Paul Block (July 26, 1924-April 23, 2009) that Isaac Mizrahi said of him In the introduction to Drawing Fashion: The Art of Kenneth Paul Block, published just last year, “More than any single designer, he gave New York fashion its sophistication. Because he drew Babe Paley and Jackie Kennedy a certain way, they became what he had envisioned.”
For nearly forty years, Block was an in-house artist for Fairchild Publications, owner of Women’s Wear Daily, the garment industry trade paper, and its offshoot, W magazine. As chief features artist, he helped transform the once-dowdy WWD into the bible of the jet set during the 1960s and 1970s.
Men wore fedoras and women still wore gloves when Block first joined Fairchild Publications in the Fifties. And none of that dash was lost on him, whose fondness for ascots, cigarette holders and impeccable jackets never waned, nor did what one friend described as his Dorian Gray-like youthfulness
Growing up, Block was the kind of kid who appreciated the chicness of his fashion editor aunt Elsie Dick’s zip-front fur jacket. He combed through Harper’s Bazaar magazines in the attic of his family’s home in Larchmont, N.Y. looking for inspiration. At Parsons School of Design, he was drawn to what he described as the “world of immense style,” introduced by interior designer Van Day Truex.
His studied drawings were never strictly surface, as he was always managing to capture the gesture at hand, whether it be the swing of a skirt or the tilt of the head. “I was never only interested in the clothes. I was more interested in the women in the clothes,” he once said.
During his reign at Fairchild, which lasted until the fashion illustration department was disbanded in 1992, he swiftly, yet fastidiously, captured an array of subjects with a cool and detached manner, jetting to Europe for the couture shows or sauntering just up the street to sketch unsuspecting notables at lunch (martini in hand to mask his intentions). All the while, he fulfilled what he once described as a childhood quest “to draw glamorous women in beautiful clothes.”
And his portfolio was packed with the best. Block focused on that rare and exquisite breed of women who set the standard for elegance and chic for most of the 20th century. Society beauties like Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, CZ Guest, Gloria Vanderbilt and Jacqueline Kennedy speak of a time when grace, poise and mystery mixed with a certain sense of knowing defined a chic, stylish lady. These ladies took pride in their dress and manners, forever refining their personal presentation.
Block’s incisive yet graceful brushstrokes captured the most important styles of the post-war era, including collections by Norman Norell, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Coco Chanel, James Galanos, Pauline Trigere, Bill Blass, Halston, and Geoffrey Beene.
Yves Saint Laurent’s 1976 Ballet Russes collection
It was well known and long recognized that the women in Block’s drawings were famous for exuding a languid sort of chic. Block not only identified that, but drafted it into his work.
“Gesture to me is everything in fashion. It is the way we stand, sit, walk and lie. It is the bone,” he once said.
Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper and Kenneth Paul Block
Throughout history, there have been many talented individuals, like Block, who inspire and influence. But what I find endlessly fascinating are those small personal anecdotes that tell much about who and what these people were and are.
The back story on Block comes from another talent who began his career as a fashion artist, photographer Steven Meisel, talking on the intense deadline pressures associated with illustration in the May 2009 issue of Vogue. Recalling Block’s unusual composure, Meisel said:
“He would sit there
with this long cigarette holder
and a polka-dot bow tie,
always a sports jacket,
He never lost his temper.
He had so much style,
so much class,
so much chic.”