As a new fashion season starts – and with it an inevitable deluge of a thousand blurry Instagrams attempting to document it as it happens – a visit to the Millesgarden Museum in Stockholm to see Fashion, Figures, Faces: Mats Gustafson, a 30-year retrospective of the renowned fashion illustrator, is a rare chance to savour an altogether more elegant means of capturing fashion. With a few deft brushstrokes, Gustafson can capture the subtly undulating curves of a Yohji Yamamoto silhouette or reduce a Romeo Gigli ruffled coat to an almost abstract form with a great deal more eloquence than a digital image ever could. Far from being an anomaly in the post-modern age, Gustafson’s dedication to his craft marks him out as an artisan in the deepest sense. Gustafson protests, “I don’t want to be considered a throwback or a conservative person but I am very content to work with my hands and paper and I’m more inspired by that – I like to see the presence of the hand. It sounds so reactionary really because I try to keep an open eye and mind. But sometimes the shock of the old is more interesting than the contemporary.”
"I am very content to work with my hands and paper and I’m more inspired by that – sometimes the shock of the old is more interesting than the contemporary”
The genre of fashion illustration may have all but disappeared now (with a few notable exceptions) but it was once a crucial element of luxury advertising – rising to prominence in the 1920s with the seminal Gazette Du Bon Ton and again in the 80s with the late Anna Piaggi’s revolutionary Vanity magazine. Antonio Lopez’s ultra-glamorous drawings leapt off the page and caught the eye of a young Gustafson growing up in Sweden, who says “that triggered something in me that made me think I could do this.” After completing a degree in stage design in Stockholm, Gustafson started illustrating for H&M before landing his first international commission for Grace Coddington in 1978, then fashion editor at British Vogue. Relocating to New York in the 80s, Gustafson’s spare, sensual aesthetic has since graced the pages of Vogue, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Visionaire and advertising campaigns for the likes of Chanel, Gigli, Comme des Garçons and Yamamoto.
More recently, following in the footsteps of the revered 40s illustrator Rene Gruau, he has collaborated with the house of Christian Dior, now under the stewardship of Raf Simons. In Simons, Gustafson has found a kindred sensibility that chimes with his own – “I do like Raf’s sense of clean, modern. He has a lot of references to Dior but he can do that without a trace of nostalgia – it’s a very pure and intellectual conversation he has with the house of Dior and I’m intrigued by his vision.” In attempting to get to “the essence of design”, Gustafson’s ethereal watercolour, pastels and cut out paperworks eschew trends, achieving something far more meaningful instead, in order to fulfill his aim to “make my fashion drawings not just something to consume but something you could look at the next day and have a longer life.”
It’s this search for a timelessness that has seen a shift in his personal work to working with different subject matter, displayed in the limited edition monograph, Mats Gustafson: Watercolors, a selection of his work from 1989-2001, reissued to coincide with his exhibition – from majestic landscapes to lyrical depictions of deer and swan and a series of nudes that evoke lust and fragility at the same time. Working in this way has allowed Gustafson to continually challenge himself, “I needed to do my own work to counteract the fashion work but each has influenced the other and it was a way for me to grow as an artist.” His exquisite oeuvre betrays an unashamedly romantic spirit, albeit one tinged with a sense of melancholy. He shrugs, “Well that’s the Scandinavian aspect of me I guess. Romantic, I have no problem with that – I’m a sucker for beauty. Fashion is not always about beauty but to me it is – when it works, it really is about beauty.”
Text by Kin Woo