François Berthoud may be one of the best artists you’ve never heard of. His work has been shown countless times all over the world. He has a provocative style and peerless technique. But his reputation rests on four decades of work as a fashion illustrator, and it’s a sad truth that, unlike photography, illustration has been relegated to the margins of the cultural conversation.
Its contribution to fashion’s rich vocabulary is beyond contention. Erté, René Gruau, Antonio Lopez, Mats Gustafson: those four names alone span a century of dazzling, iconic work, and Berthoud sits comfortably with the very best of them. So it seems even more perverse that the art of illustration in fashion should be moribund during a vibrant time for animated films and comics and graphic art.
“Yeah, the comic sections in the libraries are huge,” Berthoud says. “All the manga stuff, the graphic novels, I mean, we’re very far away from those albums of 50 pages of Asterix or Tintin. It’s books of 300 pages. And lots of them. And they sell. The authors can make a living.”
Berthoud’s response is 400 pages long. It’s a great big slip-cased doorstopper of a thing, published by Rizzoli, that collects together three decades of his advertising and editorial work. When he was a child, he was impressed by the posters he saw in gas stations during family holidays in Italy — the sexy women, the candy bars — and he grew up wanting to create images that had a similar, unforgettable impact, that pushed boundaries. He has called his book “Fashion Fetish & Fantasy.” Notice there is no punctuation there. It’s fashion fetish, and Berthoud goes straight to the heart of fashion’s ineluctable allure with his bold, edgy art. He almost clinically objectifies items of clothing and accessories, turning them into icons, literally fetishised objects of worship. Bodies are a distraction.
“A dress evokes the presence of a person, just as a shadow evokes the subject that projects it,” is one of the book’s maxims. But he is also obsessed with more familiar erotic tokens of fetishism: zippers, fishnet-stockinged legs, belts, thongs, skyscraper heels, buckled ankles, leather thigh boots, bodies bound, all the tools of the dominatrix’s trade. It’s almost as though Berthoud is casting fashion itself as a dominatrix, the fierce ruling diva of our bodies and souls.
He and art director Beda Achermann fine-tuned the book for several years before they presented it to prospective publishers, but those years bracketed some pretty significant changes in fashion’s sensibilities, enough so that I’m wondering whether Berthoud had any pushback on some of the more explicit content, like the pictures he made to accompany jeweller/sexual anthropologist Betony Vernon’s BDSM-heavy book “The Boudoir Bible.” “At a certain point in the process, Rizzoli had this wonderful idea to show the entire book to a group of readers, female, 30-ish, American,” Berthoud says, incredulous eyebrows on full alert. I brace myself for the worst, but no. “They asked for a few changes. One text we had to drop. There was one sentence they saw as an incitation to rape. And one image, because there was some African texture in the clothing and there was the question of cultural appropriation.” Nothing else.
I’m impressed, because I feel some of Berthoud’s pictures share the transgressive, libertine spirit of Helmut Newton’s photography, the same spirit that infused Guy Bourdin’s photos, or Allen Jones’s art, to name just two other fashion-adjacent artists whose reputations have been up-ended by massive challenges to out-moded, male-dominated orthodoxies.
But Berthoud insists he has had no negative reaction whatsoever to his book, which surprises him. “Probably the fact that it’s a drawing not a photo is already helping to put things on another level,” he muses. “It doesn’t have the truth of the photography, right? You don’t see the flesh. But in another way, it can be even more provocative, because it has an intention. I’m asking myself the question now that Betony’s book is going to be republished, and there are some changes to be done, not in terms of censorship, but in maybe adding some other point of view. Otherwise it will be old, it will be dated, I guess. But no more censorship.”
“What I observe now is that there is a lot of erotica done by women,” Berthoud adds. “Even more than by men in photography, for instance. It’s really the opposite of having this male view on females, as it used to be. The creativity and liberty are not gone. You can still work on this subject in an interesting way. It’s a bit more open, there are more possibilities. I can still see the fascination with this world of beautiful shapes, this fetishism… legs, boots. You can play with it and it will in the end make an interesting image. So the game is not over. I really don’t think so.”
Berthoud was born in Le Locle, the town at the heart of the Swiss watch industry. Both his parents worked for watchmakers. Everything they needed for their jobs — concentration, precision, patience — he took on board when he began studying graphic design in Lausanne. In the early Eighties, he was hired as a layout artist by Condé Nast in Milan, where he was drawn into Italy’s radical comic strip scene. At the same time, Anna Piaggi, doyenne of Milan’s fashion avant-garde, was making a magazine called Vanity with Antonio Lopez, who was already a legend for his fashion illustrations. Piaggi’s typically visionary decision to expand the magazine’s horizons by reaching out to the comic strip community created a huge opportunity for Berthoud. He became one of the pioneers of “hyper-illustration” which pushed the representation of fashion to artistic and cultural extremes.
In the early years of the last century, illustration was everything for fashion publications like La Gazette du Bon Ton. Influential designers such as Paul Poiret hired the artists of his day to interpret his designs. Three decades later, the illustrations of René Gruau were standard bearers for Christian Dior. But the rise of photographers such as Richard Avedon and Irving Penn was already pushing illustration off the pages of Vogue and Bazaar. From this 21st century vantage point, Piaggi’s Vanity looks like the last gasp of a golden age. “Yes, for a few people,” Berthoud says doubtfully, “but, at the end of the day, it was not this huge thing. You cannot invent Antonio Lopez, and, because he existed, they had the idea of doing Vanity. Antonio came first, then the magazine.” Berthoud also points out that, at the same time in the Eighties, the brilliant illustrator Mats Gustafson was playing a significant role in Franca Sozzani’s epochal revamp of Vogue Italia. “Franca commissioned a lot of illustrations from Mats for a long period of time,” says Berthoud. “Then no more. He was not replaced with another illustrator.” The subtext is inescapable.
Nick Knight once told me anyone can take interesting pictures now we all have a mobile in our pocket, then promptly proved his point by showing me how to create a Nick Knight image on my phone in thirty seconds flat. So what could possibly be the place of illustration in a world that is a gushing geyser of digital imagery? The typically prescient Knight has platformed illustration on his website SHOWStudio but Berthoud makes the salient point that the world isn’t exactly waiting for more. There are no blank pages set aside in magazines for drawings, because photography fills them all up at a breakneck pace.” “Even independent magazines like Double Magazine, for instance,” he wonders. “They do a very nice job with photography, but no illustrations. Why is that?
“It’s a different culture,” he continues. “People in this field are savvy about photography, they follow new photographers, but they don’t have that sort of background on illustration. They don’t know how to judge if it’s good or not. Or how to prepare a story for an illustrator. It doesn’t make sense to look at a fashion show on a screen and then do drawings representing that same thing. If you really want to work with an illustrator and do fashion, bring the clothes, bring the models, bring the stylist, build something together with an illustrator so that at the end, we can maybe have a result which is telling a different story than a photography story. But this doesn’t happen.”
There’s a more challenging conversation to be had about where fashion illustration sits in the faceoff between fine art and craft. Now that the grand masters of fashion photography have been re-assessed and elevated, fashion illustration would seem ripe for re-evaluation.
There’s a conversation in his book between Berthoud and legendary French art director Jean Paul Goude, another of his “examples,” in which Goude laments that his work has never found a place in important contemporary art collections, even though he was a hugely influential and transformative figure. “What he did in New York, cutting the Ektachromes, he was a fantastic illustrator,” says Berthoud, who believes Goude is as seminal as any great modern artist. “It’s absurd that his work is not considered fine art. Instead, it’s ‘commercial’ art, which doesn’t belong in art collections. For me, it’s nonsense.” I get an inkling that Berthoud could also be talking about himself here, though he himself does have work in the permanent collection of the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich. “It’s a very nice design museum, not a fine art museum. I am now talking with the Triennale, here in Milan. I think the work I’ve done for magazines belongs in a museum like that.”
But I doubt that will be enough to address Berthoud’s underlying frustration. “Frankly, what is now in art galleries around the world, there’s a quantity of stuff which is absolutely nonsense. And there’s no reason why these things should be more valuable than work done by artisans or designers, illustrators and so on, much of which has a much better quality altogether. I mean they worked years and years and years in building a world, building a system which has a poetry to it and an identity.”
Berthoud likes the word “example.” That’s how he refers to the part played by artists such as David Hockney and Andy Warhol in his career, where others would be more likely to call them “influences.” “I realised when I saw the Hockney exhibition in London that you could do these things. You didn’t have to ask the permission of anyone.” But Hockney’s embrace of the most up-to-date digital technology has been less of an example to Berthoud. “At a certain point, technology was really helpful to speed up things, now I try to stay as far away from my computer as possible,” he says. “You can’t improvise, you can’t make a mistake. A mistake means it’s the middle of the night and you have to start all over again. All the work that I’ve done, it’s there, on a piece of paper and the colours are so strong. You can’t compare that to what you see on a screen. So part of my goal now is to work as much as possible in a non-digital medium. Also, technology gives you the opportunity to speed up some processes, but then it’s always more and more and more demanding. So you have to do things more and more quickly, and you’re delivering quantity. I think it’s suicidal to go in that direction.”
All-encompassing though it is, Berthoud’s book doesn’t bring us up to now for the simple reason that he hasn’t been making so much work in the last few years, one reason being that magazines are slowly disappearing (his words, not mine) and another being that he didn’t want to include some of the more baldly commercial commissions he’s been working on recently. “Generally speaking, fashion has changed in a way that I’m a bit lost myself, to be honest. And I can see a lot of brands losing their identity. It’s confusing. I don’t have this same drive that I had when confronted by fashion.”
“Comic strips were my first work,” he continues. “I would love to do another round of that. This might come. I need a good idea. I need a good subject. I need a good story. But I could go for it. Definitely. When I was in Zurich, I lost my studio because they were tearing the building down, so I couldn’t have my equipment with me. But now I have my studio in Milan, I have time. I’ve no pressure. And what I see also in the book is that there are ideas which haven’t been really developed.”
Now it’s my turn to have a vision: A François Berthoud comic strip based on his experiences in the fashion industry, perhaps centred on the women who’ve crossed his path since he specialises in drawing such strong female figures. There is certainly no shortage of them: the Sozzani sisters, editor Carine Roitfeld, his ex-wife Karla Otto. Imagine them drawn in Berthoud’s hyper-illustrative style, pushing fashion to artistic, cultural, even erotic extremes. New heroines, to follow in the footsteps of Crepax’s Valentina or Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella. It mightn’t be fine art, but it would be a hell of a good time.