Admiring the work of leading fashion illustrators is easy enough, but learning how they went about finessing their art on deadline takes greater inspection.
Former WWD art director Andrew Flynn had a bird’s-eye view of their daily dealings, challenges and the overall ambiance that they created. Joining the company in 1978, under the-then art director Rudy Millendorf, he initially was hired as a temporary employee taking over the responsibilities for Jean Griffin, who was on maternity leave. Subsequently in need of more permanent full-time employees, Flynn was hired in that capacity. “It was kind of a dream. I had just come to New York. I was trying to embark on a career in graphic design. It was a thrill to be there,” he said.
At that time, WWD was housed on East 12th Street, and the art department was located in the rear offices separate from the editorial department. Distinctly different from the newsroom, “where everyone was typing madly away,” the atmosphere in the art department was much more creative, Flynn said. Editors would come back into what was an entirely different world.
With all of the illustrators seated around the edges of the room, they framed the surroundings. Steven Meisel, Kenneth Paul Block, Robert Young, Carmen Varricchio, Jeff Britton, Robert Passantino, Deborah Marquit, Charles Boone, Cathy Clayton Purenell, Kichi Ogawa and Steven Stipelman were among the illustrators who worked at WWD at different points during Flynn’s tenure. The volume of work merited a robust roster, due to special sections, regional issues and the daily newspaper. “They had to turn on a dime. It was a wonderful environment,” he said. “I don’t want to give this false impression but in retrospect, it was like a party. People would come back to the art department because it was just more fun back there.”
Lean, white-haired, distinguished and very conservative, Millendorf was “like the parent surrounded by all these kids,” Flynn said. Loose and creative, the environment somehow worked for each illustrator’s style. While most of the team worked from “croquis,” a quick sketch of a fashion figure that served as blank canvases for drawing clothing, Block liked to draw from live models, which were not used by WWD at that time. Actual garments were not routinely sent over. When they were, Young would put the designer outfit on and pose for Block, Flynn said. “That kind of stuff was kind of funny. Generally speaking they were working from croquis and swatches would be attached to those croquis,” he said.
For WWD, color print was generally saved for special sections. The art department doubled up its responsibilities, handling both WWD and W magazine, which at that time was a broadsheet that was published every two weeks. The daily newspaper was primarily black and white and the illustrators’ work was, too.
At times, fashion illustration isn’t taken seriously as an art form, although the Society of Illustrators on the Upper East Side is dedicated to debunking that. Flynn said, “People might think it’s not a big deal. But when you look at the amount of work they put out [at WWD] on a daily basis, they were constantly drawing. They were constantly creating art. That art is sort of missing now. It was just such a creative environment and it was extraordinary for that.”
Flynn singled out Block’s beauty drawings for the color-coded supplements and some of Stipelman’s covers, which were “breathtaking.”
“In a way, I think we took it for granted back then. It was just this beehive of activity that was going on everyday. Seated at their drawing tables, they were just drawing all the time. When it wasn’t for publication, they were always just sketching,” he said, adding the speed at which they worked, especially Stipelman, made it all the more impressive. “I wish there was a video of Steven sketching. It was almost like when they speed things up in real time. It was extraordinary.”
Representing a wide range of styles, the illustrators worked with different editors contingent on their expertise. The process involved having the fashion editors come back to the art department to work with one of the art directors, and they would determine what would be best for the subject matter. Purnell, for example, almost always did children’s wear. “You know how fantastical her work was. It was just this very elaborate fantasy. She liked doing children’s things,” Flynn said.
Larger regional issues required spreading the assignments out and using multiple illustrators instead of one. When there were special sections for one specific market, like lingerie, one illustrator would be assigned. Former innerwear editor Barbara Queen, for example, like working with Passantino since his style was very graphic. “He did very strong lines and patterns. Since she was the lingerie and swimwear editor, that worked very well for Robert’s style,” Flynn said. “Whereas if the assignment was about fur, someone like Steven [Stipleman] would be much better equipped to get that kind of volume and feeling of a fur coat. Steven worked with a brush and that just lent itself to a feeling of being voluminous.”
Looking back, Flynn was floored by the amount of drawing that was being put out all the time. Paging through the archives, researchers will find all kinds of special sections, which were not “flimsy little things,” Flynn said, “There was so much going on. And each artist worked differently.”
Purnell was recognized for a more elaborate style. Her backgrounds would be detailed with ferns, fauna and an enchanted forest, Flynn recalled. “It just took her a long time to do it. It was always a race to the deadline, whereas someone like Steven [Stipelman] or Robert [Passantino] were just quicker and wiser with their time,” he said.
Block was generally reserved for WWD page one stories, special assignments or ones for W. Block also worked a shorter week, which affected his availability. All of the WWD illustrators had to meet a deadline of 2:30 p.m., which was when the truck departed from the 12th Street offices with all of the artwork for the following day’s newspaper en route to the plant. “There was always something that had to be done, and yeah, it was being done on deadline,” Flynn said.
Combining so many artists in one room also occasionally led to emotions boiling over. Artists, being temperamental people, there “were a lot of egos to be juggled around,” Flynn said.
While 10 a.m. was the official start time, the members of the art department generally staggered in by 11 a.m., depending on what had gone on the night before. Although the artists drifted in at different times, they took the deadlines seriously. Meisel once did a double page spread inspired by P.T. Barnum, a former nightclub that was popular with drag queens and had a circus-like theme where a trapeze artist performed above the dance floor with a net. “It was fashion but he was working in that nightclub. He was good for projects like that because he understood what was going on in the nightlife of New York of the time. It was in beat with what was happening in the city,” Flynn said.
When the puffy-sleeved pirate shirt was in vogue, Meisel did a spread about that fashion trend, Flynn said with admiration.
After WWD relocated to an open newsroom on West 34th Street, the set-up changed with a floor plan that was designed to be like a wheel, with the art departments in the center and the illustrators corralled in an area off of that. Without their own space any more, the atmosphere changed. From the start, it was clear that the new arrangement was not working, Flynn said.
As photography gained steam in the early Nineties, fashion illustration seemed more dated, Flynn said. It was then decided one day that all of the illustrators were let go en masse. Recalling that fateful day sadly, Flynn, who continued to work at WWD until 2014, said each illustrator was informed individually that the department was being disbanded. “Women’s Wear always had that quality of being like a family almost. It has retained that over the years. But when the illustrators were all let go, that was a turning point. Believe me, I’m as big a fan of photography as almost anyone in the world. But it wasn’t quite the same. Sometimes there’s not that warmth that there is in illustration,” he said.