I didn’t know what a fashion illustrator was until I went to fashion college at sixteen years old.
Tuesdays at college fast became my favourite day of the week, because we had our fashion drawing class with Julie Verhoeven. I remember she’d illustrate on anything: a newspaper, a brown paper bag – something so simple, and yet all I knew was drawing in a sketchbook.
I soon realised there was more to fashion than making clothes. I could draw fashion for a living; it was such an eye-opener.
Looking back at my childhood, I was happiest drawing people – eighties pop stars were my forte.
I was fourteen when I announced to the school careers advisor that I wanted to work in fashion.
“I want to be a fashion designer or a stylist,” I told her. I’d read about a day-in-the-life of a stylist in Mizz magazine, so I knew a job in fashion was possible.
“Well, that would be very difficult; it may be better to work in a bank or something,” the careers advisor told me.
I screwed up my nose and, undiscouraged, promptly applied to study Fashion & Textiles at Southend college, where Verhoeven taught me.
After finishing my diploma in fashion, I moved to London, aged eighteen, to study for a Fashion Design degree at Middlesex University.
Getting my fashion illustrations online
Circa 1995, while sitting with a group of friends, we started discussing our big plans for the future. I announced I wanted to sell my fashion illustrations one day. Someone in the group actually laughed asking, “Who would want to buy your art?” I felt slightly crushed, but I decided, there and then, I had to prove them wrong.
After graduating in 1997, I continued drawing fashion between jobs whenever I could; waitressing, sewing vintage Barbie doll clothes – which I loved because Barbie’s obviously a fashion icon – then working in fashion PR and marketing for some ten years.
In 2005, I set-up my first website (on the side), to get my art online. It was an exciting time because social media wasn’t a thing, and having a website wasn’t as common as it is today.
So uncommon in fact, the Independent newspaper featured my website in the finance section under the headline, ‘The best £30 I’ve ever spent,’ next to a headshot of me with the sun in my eyes.
Not quite the press coverage I wanted, but I did get a flurry of hits to my site, not to mention dozens of emails asking for website advice. Still, all press is good press, as they say.
Working as a fashion illustrator
Later on, I studied 2D Software Design at London College of Communication, while I was still working in fashion PR. It’s fair to say, I’m addicted to learning.
Armed with my design qualification, I felt ready to leave my office job and become a freelance fashion illustrator and graphic designer.
It was 2009, at the end of the recession, but it never occurred to me to be cautious. I was following my (fashion drawing) dreams, no matter what.
“Leap and the net will appear,” I told myself.
I went on to study Fashion Illustration in Photoshop at London College of Fashion – a short summer course. It was a different style of drawing fashion to what I was used to, but the point was to evolve and explore.
I started selling greeting cards and art prints, under the name soul water, in around thirty stores including Fenwicks in Bond Street.
More creative endeavours followed. My most exciting moments were seeing my illustrations on a fragrance bottle in Harvey Nichols and on beauty products in Boots.
I was a full-time fashion illustrator, selling my art. Although, it wasn’t quite mission accomplished yet.
The hard truth about being a fashion illustrator
One thing I didn’t love about being a fashion illustrator was chasing invoices. Some companies didn’t pay for six months to a year. Others closed down and didn’t pay me at all. It was pretty soul-destroying.
Then there was the inventory; I had boxes of cards, envelopes, art prints and packaging stacked high around my home.
I began to long for space, simplicity — and security.
Maybe I could become an art teacher to supplement my income, I thought. So, I took a teacher training course while I had the time.
Then, I got a part-time job packing orders for an online fashion company. A year later, a full-time position became available. I was already happy there, and I loved the product, so I went for it.
After three years of self-employment, I was back to working full time.
Some would assume I’d failed at freelancing, but I don’t think I did.
With every client job, I’d learnt something new — clients often asked me for something I’d never done before, and I got to discover a new skill. Learning on the job is the best experience you can have. I’d also managed to get a few more qualifications under my belt.
Now I was ready for something different.
Working in digital marketing
By this time, digital marketing was taking over from print media, and social media was, virtually, taking over. So, it was brilliant to be working for an upcoming fashion brand in the online space.
I became the website girl; updating the homepage, designing landing pages; copywriting, merchandising and creating editorial content.
As I said, I love learning new things, so I made it my business to research more about software, online marketing and customer behaviour.
On the way to work, I became obsessed with listening to business podcasts. The hour-long commute became my ‘learning time.’
I kept a handful of design clients, which meant sometimes working until the early hours of the morning and getting up at 6 am. I rarely slept longer than five or six hours.
Six years later, something had to give.
Rather than burn-out, I squished my e-commerce, design and marketing skills together to become a self-employed fashion illustrator and content creator. It meant I could be creative and keep learning in a more balanced way.
During my time in e-commerce, I’d downloaded as much of the digital world into my brain as humanly possible. And I’m forever grateful for the experience.
Putting on a solo exhibition
The first thing I did after leaving my full-time role was to throw myself into a lifelong dream I had: to put on a solo exhibition.
I booked a small white gallery (mainly to make myself go through with it), then gave myself only two weeks to plan, promote and illustrate everything.
A bit of a crazy thing to do? Yes, definitely!
Still, it was exhilarating.
I didn’t mind that I didn’t sell a single illustration. I’m not so deluded that I think everyone will flock to wherever I might be and buy, buy, buy.
In retrospect, I should have given myself a few months to prepare and promote my exhibition. And I wouldn’t choose December again; better to choose springtime, when people are planning days out.
In any case, my mission was to challenge myself and, ultimately, see my art on walls.
Was it financially viable? No. But I felt richer for doing it.
I would love to tell you you can make a huge living from being a freelance fashion illustrator, but in all honesty, you’ll most likely need more strings to your bow than painting pretty pictures.
Here’s what I can tell you about being a fashion illustrator:
Live with less, draw more
Every freelancer knows you have to be creative in all aspects of your life including eating, spending, indulging. Live simply to live creatively.
Work in fashion for the experience
A background in fashion helps because you make connections within the industry. I’ve never had an agent—many of my client work has come from people I’ve met in previous jobs or through social media.
Understand that being a fashion illustrator is a small part of the puzzle
You have to be multifaceted. Digital marketing is paramount to business, as is the software that comes with it. Get comfortable with it. Learn and absorb as much as possible—and keep learning!
Experiment by all means, but ultimately do what you do
Never try to be all things to all people. Let me explain. When I started my greeting card company, I made the mistake of trying to sell all kinds of cards. In hindsight, it would have been better to offer one size card, one envelope, and one style, i.e. simple fashion illustrations.
“Start small, define growth, and keep learning.” —Paul Jarvis, author of Company of One.