René Gruau: Fashion Illustrations

It's funny how you can have one thing planned and then get completely derailed by something you see or read. Well, that's how jolted I was when I came across these beautiful sketches by René Gruau in The Telegraph today. The artist who is best known for his work with Christian Dior will have several of his pieces up for auction at Christie's tomorrow.  I am including a few others here to showcase the breadth of his talent.   

One thing you notice immediately about Gruau's sketches is how timeless they are. Their fluid brushstrokes, contrasting use of colour and patterns make for some unusual fashion illustrations. In fact, they go beyond mere illustrations. They're really works of art.

There is an element of Andy Warhol in some of Gruau's work that is on display here.  While his images are taken from the fashion world rather than from celebrity there is a glamour to them that suggests both opulence and flair.  Part fantasy and part invention these sketches epitomize the women of haute couture as they existed during the artist's life.  Ironically, they are as relevant today as they were at the time they were unveiled.  And one can't help but notice a similarity in his style of illustration and its swiftly drawn approach to that of some of today's design houses with Hermès being one example.

There is a painterly quality to René Gruau's work that is as equally modern as it is stylish and feminine.  I think the writer Drusilla Beyfus described his technique quite succinctly in her article on the artist when she said:  "Using a broad, flowing brushstroke, pen, Indian ink and gouache, he would create a motif on a ground of flat tone. He drew on many artistic influences, such as Japonism, which was in the cultural air, the kabuki theatre with its emphasis on make-up and masks, and on Japanese woodcuts especially." (The Telegraph)

Born on February 4, 1909 in Rimini, Italy, René Gruau changed his given name, Renato Zavagli Ricciardelli, to his mother's maiden name after moving to Paris.  And it was in France that he first gained recognition for his talents in drawing before quickly catching the attention of the international press.  It is not surprising that his work gained so much momentum in the fast-paced and driven world of fashion.  For if there is one industry that can catapult an artist into the limelight faster than any other it's fashion.

Gruau was lucky enough to work with many fashion houses during his career but it was at Christian Dior where he collaborated the most.  He created some of Dior's most iconic images and when looking at them today you cannot help but appreciate their stark beauty.  There is much symbolism and meaning in his sketches, and particularly in his swan work for Miss Dior:  "A white swan outlined in sweeping black brushstrokes is shown sailing over calm waters and sporting a black bow - a Dior insignia - and a pearl necklace. The couturier kept swans at his country estate, Le Moulin du Coudret. Moreover, in the decor of 18th-century France - a period revered by the couturier - the swan represented renewal. Miss Dior was aimed at a new generation."  (The Telegraph)

What René Gruau's work does best is it captures a certain mood in fashion without so much as even referencing a specific trend or period of time. It is in this way that he conceives a certain image and hence the reason his designs appear entirely stripped of historical identification.        

The difficulty in trying to classify Gruau's work is that it belongs as much to the art world as it does to the world of fashion.  And I think it is this overlap and distinction that separates him from other fashion illustrators.  Gruau favoured and combined the use of ink, pen and guache in his art and with the the right amount of skill he achieved something quite sophisticated.  In the process, he elevated himself and his work in a way to ensure a lasting appeal.

His use of bright colour highlights the spirit of movement and effortless beauty that is synonymous with French fashion.  Light and airy his female figures move as though they are as much influenced by beauty and design as they are by the playfulness and pleasures of life.

There is much humour in Gruau's work as one can see in this sketch below.  What exactly René Gruau had in mind when painting these two paws remains a mystery.  I cannot help but laugh, what is it here that's so sexually suggestive: woman as tigress or an innocent taming a wild beast?

René Gruau's work and female images appeal to us because they're just as alluring as they are beautiful.  They can be executed simply yet they remain sophisticated.  Here, Gruau plays with colour and contrast and he captures so well the essence of a woman's beauty and expression; all the elements work brilliantly together.

Consider the following work and the ways in which the artist translates the fashion world into something a little less ordinary.  I love the exaggerated turban, the large bows and the tassels on the belted figure.  All of the details in this work are so well-executed.

And is there any item of clothing more quintessential and evocative of French style than a red beret? Perhaps, but consider how effective it is here.  The heavily accentuated and curved eyelashes complement the checkered coat without appearing rigid or geometric.  As a result, Gruau's lush brushstrokes and curved lines dispel structure and conformity.  His style is limitless and he crafts it to perfection.

René Gruau's work is consistent throughout and his familiarity with fashion coupled with impeccable taste is evidenced throughout the classic sensibility that he portrays.   His adoration for timeless designs become his signature look.  Less is definitely more and nowhere is this more illustrated than in Gruau's subject matter.  

The aura of fashion, its mystique and luxury is held with careful regard and calculated effort in these works.  It is clear that Gruau admires fashion as an art form and his illustrations epitomize the idea that this is the way we should really look at fashion.  For there is beauty in placement and detail as well as skill in the application of colour in all the elements of a work of art as there is in fashion.  At least that is what I think René Gruau tried to suggest.


  1. Fabulous illustrations. Such a beautiful gift
    Love the lady in blue and white trench coat
    Lee x

  2. Lovely post. I love the works of Rene' Gruau. The texture he portrayed - beautiful.