Joe Eula: Master of Twenthieth Century Fashion Illustration
Credit: Courtesy Photo

Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one easy read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now. Enjoy!

The lost art of fashion illustration is not entirely lost. One need look no further than the pages of InStyle to find the magnificently evocative illustrations of Donald Robertson, for example, an artist who captures the mood of clothing and celebrities through elegant gestures bathed in swatches of bold colors. His work can be seen lately in chic stores like Colette in Paris, or even in illustrations of lips and flamingos that have become prints in the collections of London designer Giles Deacon.

But half a century ago, long before the digital age of photography and communication, illustrations were the norm in fashion, not the exception. Collections were brought to life by artists like René Bouché, Paul Iribe, David Downton, René Gruau, and Antonio Lopez, whose individual styles were as identifiable as signatures, each evocative of their respective decades of prominence. One of the least recognized of them, yet most prolific and arguably as important, was Joe Eula, who sketched collections for more than 50 years, of Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, of Halston, Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene, of virtually everyone in 20th century fashion.

A new book out next week, Joe Eula: Master of Twenthieth Century Fashion Illustration, features 200 examples of his work, from album covers for Liza Minnelli and the Supremes to his sketches for Halston, where he was creative director during the 1970s.

Now You Know
Credit: Courtesy

Providing text for the book, Cathy Horyn, the former New York Times fashion critic, highlights just how important Eula, who died in 2004, was to fashion in a striking anecdote. Working with the journalist Eugenia Sheppard in the 1950s, illustrating her fashion columns in the New York Herald Tribune, Eula was the rare artist who defied the French designers’ demands that their collections not be sketched (for fear of being copied), facing down none other than Coco Chanel (below). When the temperamental couturier spotted Eula sketching one of her collections in 1962, and came after him, he presented an on-the-spot drawing—of her.

Eula’s work was indeed remarkable, and his sketches unbelievably fast, some executed in a matter of seconds. And flipping through these pages, you may be astonished at his range of subjects and assignments. There was the fashion, of course, but also a sitting with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedy inauguration. One of my favorite stories from the book happened in 1973 at the Battle of Versailles, a fashion show that pitted American designers against the French, where, owing to a mistranslated measurement that resulted in a too-short drapery for the set, he spontaneously created an illustration of the Eiffel Tower on a white seamless photography backdrop. Like the show itself was for the triumphant American designers, the simply elegant set became a sensation.

For real-time insider insights, make sure to follow Eric Wilson on Twitter (@EricWilsonSays).