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Is this modern fashion's most influential illustrator?

By Jackie Mallon

20 Nov 2020


Howard Tangye’s decisive line and rich layers of chalk, watercolor and pastel form the foundation upon which contemporary fashion illustration rests, yet he insists he is not a fashion illustrator. His former students, which have included designers John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Hussein Chalayan, Zac Posen, Christopher Kane, speak reverently of his influence on them. His portraits have been shown at Harvard University and London’s National Portrait Gallery and fifty-six of his works form part of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s permanent collection. An anachronistic figure, he found himself at the heart of youth and creativity, teaching fashion at London’t Central Saint Martin’s for 35 years, before committing himself entirely to his art practice in 2014.

“My whole life could have gone a completely different way if I hadn’t met Howard,” says illustrator and designer Julie Verhoeven in a Zoom conversation organized by independent publisher Stinsensqueeze to celebrate the launch of the second printing of Within, a book offering an intimate glimpse into Tangye’s art. Verhoeven, who at 16 describes feeling “exhilarated” when he came to teach at her college, has exhibited widely and collaborated with Louis Vuitton, Mulberry and Versace. “We all try and copy Howard’s methods because they are fabulous and need to be passed on,” she says.

Artist inspired a generation of fashion illustrators

Tangye never fails to acknowledge his debt to those who taught him, in particular, his drawing tutor at Central Saint Martins during the 70s, Elizabeth Suter, and Barbara Pearlman at Parsons School of Design in NYC where he completed a post-grad, after which he promptly received an agent’s offer. He believes that teachers should be completely generous with their knowledge and experience, saying.“It’s not what you impose, it’s what you draw out of a student’s work.” No doubt it is this which prompts a generation of fashion designers, toiling away in studios all over the world, to recall their classes with Tangye with immense fondness. The span of his influence is immeasurable, and a few alum-sitters are featured in the book. They describe how it felt to pose for Tangye as well as how his methods informed their style. Verhoeven who also sat for him says, “I thought it was rather a spiritual thing, like I really connected to your mind.”

While Covid has now forced him to draw sitters via Zoom, he admits that, although not ideal, it has refreshed his work in unexpected ways. Proportions can change on screen forcing on-the-spot decision-making and he uses less line and more brush and tone to capture blurring details. He talks of the principle of pentimenti, “when it’s visible that you’ve changed your mind within the painting.” Delving further into digital, however, creating iPad art like David Hockney, for example, is not on the cards as he enjoys too much the smell of the paints and materials, the feel of the textures.

Henri Matisse and the art of fashion illustration

It was as a student at CSM that Tangye became inspired by the power of Matisse’s work and developed confidence in his exploration of continuous line drawing. “It’s important for an artist to have conviction,” he says, and, while Tangye’s art might appear effortless, he describes it as “jolly hard work.” He admits to experiencing nervousness before beginning a portrait, and executes a series of calming rituals in the layout of his materials. He works standing up, often for 3 hours at a stretch, summoning total concentration. He often feels the need to lie down afterwards. Uninterested in self-consciously fashionable figures or beautiful physiognomies, Tangye looks for the bones beneath the clothes and the essence of the sitter, or, as he puts it, “how they are within themselves.” Three workers from his local delicatessen are the subject of a drawing on the easel behind him. He selects sitters with extreme care, “characters,” observing and gaining a sense of them before making his request. “I’m working with feeling, rather than just seeing.”

For his sitters the experience can range from sensual to meditative, whereas what Tangye describes sounds musical, almost like he’s conducting an orchestra. “To hear thirty to fifty people drawing in a room is sensational,” he says. “It’s so intense the energy could move this building, the sound of them all scratching on paper.” This prompts Verhoeven to add, “Then he picks up the pace, it glides, then scratches––” “Yes. I do love to score the paper,” agrees Tangye.

Stinsensqueeze is a London and Paris-based design studio specializing in publications, exhibitions, art direction and digital platforms for individuals, commercial brands and cultural institutions. Howard Tangye’s book, Within, is available now from their website.

Images provided by Stinsensqueeze

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry