Sun, 23 Mar 2003

Capturing the spirit of couture

Kunang Helmi-Picard, Contributor, Paris

Paris, often considered the capital of fashion, has spawned artists who try to capture the spirit of couture for instant delectation or documentation.

For the past 50 years photography has taken over fashion illustration, but there are still some hardy individuals who take the time to use pen and paper. They try to catch that transient moment of elegance that a stunning robe worn by an equally beautiful model represents.

Fifty years apart, both photographer Willy Maywald and fashion illustrator David Downton celebrate the beauty of mannequins and the magic of couture. Fortunately, however, there is also room for fashion caricaturists like Glady Perint Palmer, who earns her living doing serious fashion illustrations for several French magazines. Perint Palmer brought out a book, Indiscreet Caricatures, about the eccentrics of the fashion world she has been observing from the front row of shows since 1980. Her show, with work published by Assouline editions, opened during the March collections in Paris.

In spring 2003, one of the rare fashion illustrators, David Downton, is being exhibited at the Joyce Gallery until the end of April. Hong Kong fashion magnate Joyce Ma decided to feature him at the Palais Royal venue from the very instant she saw his work.

For his first Paris show, Downton is exhibiting drawings, paintings and prints of the British supermodel Erin O'Connor, with whom he has enjoyed a unique collaboration over the last three years. The show is a celebration, not only of O'Connor's extraordinary beauty, but of her role as "Queen of the Couture catwalk".

Originally trained in graphics, David Downton launched a highly successful career in illustration, helped by his natural ability portraying the human form, together with his spontaneous approach and economy of line. Since 1997, Downton has become a familiar face backstage and in front of the catwalk at the most glamorous and prestigious of the Paris couture shows. He has become what UK Elle magazine calls "The slowest paparazzo in the world."

When Downton met Erin O'Connor, it was a coup de foudre (love at first sight). O'Connor's unconventional beauty had already fascinated couturiers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier, Valentino, John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld. Downton enthuses: "I can't decide if she looks like a drawing or if she is how a drawing should look. She has strong features and is very linear. She is calligraphic."

O'Connor is delighted and declares, "David has captured my soul."

Just 250 meters further down from the Joyce Gallery, in the elegant Passage Vero Dodat, fashion photographer Willy Maywald featured in an exhibition at Pierre Passbon's Galerie du Passage and at cosmetic creator Terry de Gunzburg's new venues. The publication of the book by Elizabeth Pineau on the German photographer was also the occasion to show prints of this photographer's fashion work, which fashionistas were snapping up with serious photo collectors on opening night. Maywald's prints have become coveted collector's items.

Willy Maywald, born in Cleves in Germany in 1907, studied in Cologne and Krefeld before arriving in Berlin in 1928 where he worked as an assistant in the film industry. He came to Paris in 1931 and took part in the fertile artistic life of Montparnasse between the two world wars. Maywald captured the particular ambiance here and soon opened his own atelier of photography called May-Wa. He specialized in portraits, reportage and fashion.

In 1938 he met Christian Dior through couturier Robert Piguet. His international career as a fashion photographer began with work for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Femina. After the break caused by the war, he returned to Paris and in 1947 became the official photographer for Christian Dior after the first Haute Couture collection. Maywald also worked for Jacques Fath and Pierre Balmain, among others.

In 1949, Maywald began to work as a portrait photographer of personalities in the arts, literature and theater. Shortly before his death in 1985, the first big retrospective of his fashion photography was shown at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 1982 and his autobiography, Fragments of a Mirror, was published.

These three artists, Maywald, Downton and Perint Palmer, each document the multi-faceted world of Parisian fashion, past and present, in their own, individual way. Amusing or vividly elegant, these images capture those fleeting instants in a world where each new style rushes past at a dizzying pace.