Illustrator Katy Smail Talks Artful Inspiration in a World Overrun with Photoshop

LOOKBOOKS editor-in-chief Cator Sparks explores the lost art of fashion illustration with artist Katy Smail. See the interview and fantastic gallery of her whimsical work below.

With the amount of air brushing going on these days, models in magazines look nearly good enough to hang in the Louvre. Their skin so dewy, their teeth so white and their eyes so clear, so it only make sense that the fashion world is rediscovering the lost art of illustration.

Back in the good ole days, names like Joe Eula, Antonio Lopez and Kenneth Paul Block would cross the pond to sketch the latest looks coming out of Paris to be featured in WWD and Vogue amongst others. Illustrators also worked closely with department stores such as Bonwit Teller and Lord & Taylor as well as other high end boutiques who wanted that certain pizzazz in their ads and catalogues.

Many of the great illustrators of those days have since gone to the great sketchbook in the sky, but luckily a new brigade of sketchers is cropping up. We recently met Katy Smail and were lured in by her dark and mysterious fashion damsels. Her playful animal sketches are equally mysterious and amusing. Read on to hear how this Scot ended up in Manhattan, her dream clients and who the hell this woman is she keeps drawing.

How did you discover the dreamy woman you illustrate? Does she resemble anyone you know? I find her in tragic novels, old paintings and faded photographs. I am always drawn to dreamy, melancholy souls and tend to find them hiding in many different places. There are certainly hints of her in the old souls I am lucky to call my friends.

What brought you to the States? Raw, stubborn ambition! I fell in love with New York City when I spent a semester studying abroad at RISD, and the deal was done; I spent the following four years dreaming of little else. Scotland was a lovely place to grow up, but the creative industry there felt so small and limiting to me. I had a brief stint living in London, but it wasnt a good fit and gave me nothing of the magic which had enchanted me in NYC. I find Brooklyn a very inspiring place to live, filled with incredibly talented and lovely people.

Have you noticed a rise in fashion illustration in this era of over-Photoshopping? Yes, I think that slowly but surely, fashion illustration is creeping back into the limelight again. I think people have grown weary of the over-computerized aesthetic which has been dominant for so long and are starting to crave something that feels a little more handmade. I think the shift stretches over many industries; there is a wider newfound (or re-found?!) appreciation for craft and skill. Work clearly made, and loved, by a human hand feels special in a sea of computer-generated imagery. I think there is so much potential for fashion illustration to bridge the best of both worlds, to draw on the capacity of Photoshop and make innovative images that feel both handmade and fresh. I think fashion and illustration have always been a natural match; both dwell in the realm of dreams and provide romance, fantasy and escapism.

With more video content on the web, is this something you have been asked to do more of? I did my first animation for a lookbook last year and I think that, yes, it will probably be a trend that continues. It opens up a whole new chapter of possibility; so exciting, and so magical, to see my drawings come to life!

Any dream clients? Ah so many! I would love to collaborate with the designers I admire such as Erdem, Rodarte, Christopher Kane and Miu Miu (to name but a few). It would be amazing to work on a campaign with a department store like Barneys, Bergdorfs or Harvey Nichols. And I have always dreamed of doing an illustrated editorial for a big magazine; completely hand drawn but styled and cast like a regular shoot, perhaps, or a collaboration with a magical photographer like Tim Walker.

Where do you like to draw? My favorite place to draw is at my desk, a paper den surrounded by scraps of torn out inspiration, old drawings, books, magazines and my cat Rosey, who is likely trying very hard to distract me. I also love to go on drawing trips to botanical gardens, museums, libraries and zoos.

What are you working on now? I am finishing up a very exciting collaboration with Berlin-based photographer Marie Zucker. She shot a beautifully styled set of photographs in the Berlin Botanical Gardens into which I collaged my drawings. We created a faded forest of sherbet-dusted poppies, for another dreamy girl to wander through.


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