The Illustrator Series: François Berthoud

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Balmain Dress featured in Stern, 2013
Balmain Dress featured in Stern, 2013Courtesy of François Berthoud

Veteran fashion illustrator and protégé of Anna Piaggi, Francois Berthoud explains the story behind his craft

For more than 25 years, the celebrated Swiss-born illustrator, Francois Berthoud has been capturing the volatile fashion world in a variety of materials, the images linked only by their creator’s willingness to experiment. “Fashion is a testimony of its time,” says Berthoud. “My pictures for fashion have evolved through the decades, as the moods changed.”

Anna Piaggi & Vanity
Born in Le Locle, Switzerland, Berthoud completed a degree in graphic design at the School of Applied Art in Lausanne before moving to Milan in the 80s to join a group of dynamic comic book artists. After a stint as art director at Condé Nast sparked an interest in fashion, he soon merged his twin interests when the legendary late editrix Anna Piaggi gave him his first fashion commission for her groundbreaking magazine, Vanity. “The Vanity experience has been crucial for me,” recalls Berthoud. “It was the first issue after Antonio Lopez and I was very young and unknown then. Many other assignments followed and it launched my career. Anna Piaggi was a very generous person. She had a creative mind and she was very curious about anything new. She believed in new talents.”

Since then he has gone on to have an illustrious career, his distinctive style very much in demand by the likes of Vogue, System, Visionaire and The New York Times while his expressive, painstakingly produced linocuts, drip paintings and elegant computer graphics accompany countless advertising campaigns from Yves Saint Laurent, Bulgari, Sonia Rykiel, to Viktor & Rolf and Jean Paul Gaultier. As someone who’s been witness to the changing moods of fashion over the years, he says, “There will be fashion drawings as long as there will be artists willing to be active in this field. But now is no golden age for fashion illustration!”

Betony Vernon & Eroticism
As an illustrator, Berthoud’s aim is to “interpret fashion in a more conceptual way – it is the opposite of photography to show fashion's bigger picture." Far from coolly abstract though, a latent eroticism pervades his work, none more apparent when he provided delicate illustrations for Betony Vernon’s The Boudoir Bible, an experience he enjoyed very much, “I had to find a specific visual language because of the content of the images. I opted for simple pencil drawings, sharp enough for killer details but also soft and delicate, capable of rendering the flesh.” After all he says with a wink, “Fashion is seduction and seduction is sexual. Arts, Eros and death are the universal topics!”

Léa Seydoux & Candy
After numerous books and exhibitions in his honour, Berthoud’s recently come back full circle to his comic art roots with his recent collaboration with Prada, creating a sci-fi comic strip for Prada’s Candy fragrance starring Léa Seydoux. He enthuses, “It’s been such a fun project to do. Back to comics, with ultra-cute Candy in a sci-fi story! This can happen only with Prada and their creative team.” Flicking through the bubblegum pink pages of the comic, fizzing with sensuality, inventiveness and a wicked sense of humour, confirms what his beloved mentor Piaggi once said about him, “He experiences fashion with a sharp sense of irony and a visual culture rooted in conceptual art. But his style is totally now!”

Words by Kin Woo