Illustrator Megan Hess on designing for fashion houses and first ladies
The wardrobe of Australian fashion illustrator Megan Hess is neatly colour-coded and impeccably organised. With minimalist garments in black and white hanging below shelves that display hardcover fashion books and a classic Chanel handbag, it’s the sort of scene that you’d expect to find on interior inspiration boards on Pinterest. Hess shows me a picture on her iPhone as she explains: “My personal style has three different personalities, and when you see my wardrobe you can see they’re segregated.” For event appearances, Hess always wears white, often with gold touches. “It feels positive, fresh and feminine – a ladylike kind of a look,” she says. If she’s working in the studio or travelling, on the other hand, Hess is usually dressed in all black – in comfortable layers and separates that are both chic and practical. “I need to be really comfortable while I’m drawing, but sometimes clients drop into the studio,” she explains. “When Louis Vuitton drops by, you can’t be in your sweatpants.”
The third section of Hess’s wardrobe is bright and animated, with maxi dresses and bright accessories saved for tropical travels. “It’s like colour city. In Dubai, if I wasn’t working, I’d be in one of those – a coloured jumpsuit,” she says.
When we meet at The Fairmont hotel on the Palm Jumeirah, Hess wears a long-sleeved ankle-length dress in white lace, lined from the bust to the knee.
Dubai is one of the stops on the worldwide tour for her fourth book, New York: Through a Fashion Eye. In it, Hess reveals her tips and tricks for enjoying the Big Apple’s many fashion-related experiences.
“I wanted it to be a book that anyone can relate to – everything from elitist things like the Met Gala, which you may not get an invitation to, but you can follow on social media, to things that cost nothing that everyone can do – you can go and have coffee at Bergdorf Goodman on level 7, with truly the best views of Central Park,” Hess explains. “If you’re there for fashion week, there are a lot of really good cafes that are close by, which are really great people-watching spots, if you’re not invited to the shows.”
We sip on lychee-tea-infused mocktails as Hess tells me how she went from being a fashion illustrator doing smaller scale jobs, to launching her own books and working with leading luxury fashion houses around the world. “I was doing lots of little fashion illustrations for Italian Vogue and a few other clients, but nothing big, and then Candace Bushnell, who wrote Sex and the City, saw my work and commissioned me to do the cover of the Sex and the City book,” she says. “So I flew to New York, worked on the cover, and then it came out globally, and that was really my big break. It was on billboards in Times Square, and bus signs and everything; it was the first time things really took off.”
Hess is based in Melbourne, Australia, where she studied graphic design before specialising in luxury-fashion illustration. She knows precisely how to emulate the quilted finishing and metal charms on a Lady Dior handbag, but is equally adept at sketching a vintage Mercedes-Benz car, leafy palm trees and adorable Dalmatians. Her distinctive drawings of modelesque females in the fashion world have inspired many a budding fashion illustrator to emulate her.
Beautiful women are sketched out in black ink, and are robed in glorious outfits – and that’s not all. Hess’s designs showcase entire scenes, from the bricks of buildings to the intricate hairstyles of her subjects. For Tiffany & Co, one illustration depicts women clad in jet-black pencil dresses outside the flagship Manhattan store. The image is purely in black and white, save for the Tiffany-blue bags and boxes that the women carry, and the yellow taxicabs on the street. For Ladurée Paris, the women wear pistachio green ensembles with high necklines and puffy shoulders, and sit huddled around a small table brimming with cakes and macaroons, with the Paris skyline visible from a window. For Prada, a woman sports a black turtleneck, shaded burgundy lips, a severe middle parting, heavy lashes and Prada sunglasses.
But one of Hess’s favourite projects had no relation to fashion at all – she was asked to draw 12 portraits for Michelle Obama, all via Skype meetings with the former first lady of the United States. “She wanted to appear exactly how she looks; she didn’t want to be enhanced in any way or look over-glamorous, and as a woman, I think she’s really inspiring, so drawing her was amazing,” says Hess.
Although Hess receives countless requests and proposals for commissioned work, she only has time to take on about 5 per cent of the projects she’s approached for. She’ll receive a brief from a client, work on a proposed plan, and once the client agrees, Hess likens her flow and drive to that of a runaway train. “As corny as it sounds, I’ll listen to music that relates to the project. So if I’m working on something very French, if I’m working for Christian Dior, I’ll play Café del Mar, or something quite French, and even with the candles that I’ll burn, I like to get into the spirit of whatever the project is.”
Hess draws all of her illustrations using a bespoke Montblanc pen, named Monty. Several years ago, she worked with the luxury maison on a collaboration with Unicef, and in their first meeting, she was asked if she could produce the artwork using a Montblanc pen. “At first, I said I couldn’t, because I use Japanese brush pens, and these were too rigid and the nib wasn’t quite right. And they said: ‘What if you describe what you really need in a pen, and we’ll send you to our bespoke room in New York where we could make a pen that suits you?’ For an illustrator this is the most nerdy thing that could happen,” says Hess, who flew to New York for the bespoke pen fitting and received her own handcrafted pen three months later.
In addition to working with high-end fashion houses, Hess maintains an online store, which stocks her famous illustrations on trays, vases, plates, cushions and more. “Through a lot of the luxury work I’ve done, I’ve met amazing scarf manufacturers in Italy and ceramic manufacturers in Paris, and through meeting them have kind of dabbled in making my own things,” explains Hess. “I just make them when I’m inspired, which I think is the ultimate luxury. I don’t feel any pressure to make a new range of scarves every month or season, it’s just based around how much time I’ve got between work and my kids and everything else.”
Hess’s e-store offers worldwide shipping and she reveals that while most of her clients are based in the US, Europe comes second, followed very closely by the UAE. Clients based here, she says, tend to buy things in bulk. “They go crazy and place big orders.”
While e-commerce already drives a lot of sales to the UAE, Hess has private clients here too, and she frequently gets commissioned to draw customised prints. “The women here have incredible wardrobes, bigger than most people’s apartments, so some of the really large-scale pieces I’ve done fill up an entire wall,” she explains.
In fact, Hess says one of her most interesting jobs to date was commissioned by a private client in the UAE. “The most spectacular [project] was the base of a swimming pool I created. I can’t say for who, but they had a rooftop pool here in Dubai, and wanted an actual illustration on the base of the pool. So I created one and it was then turned into thousands of mosaic tiles – it looks incredible.” Part of the deal was that Hess couldn’t post any images of the pool on social media, and when some high-end interiors magazines were interested in featuring it (one even wanted it as a potential cover story), Hess had to decline. “The client said no, they definitely did not want it in a magazine, and I respect that. But I would’ve loved it; it would’ve been great for me.”
Fashion and fantasy collide in Hess’s day job, which, she claims, she would be doing on the weekends, part-time, had she followed any other career path. Last year, she teamed up with Disney and Hallmark to create a greetings-card collection. “The brief was to draw princesses like Cinderella and reinterpret them as if they were on a runway today – they’re wearing made-up dresses because I didn’t want to draw real dresses made by another designer,” she says.
In a way, Hess’s job as a fashion illustrator is similar to that of a fashion designer. Both envision garments and bring them to life – Hess just does it on paper. “I have no skills to actually make a piece of clothing,” she admits. “I would never cross over to becoming a fashion designer. I love enjoying it and sketching it from the outside, rather than being inside the intense life. I mean, it never ends; fashion designers will create designs forever. It’s like me with drawing – I will probably draw until my hands don’t work.”
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, February 2.