The launch of Adidas Originals’ Holi collection in collaboration with Pharrell Williams in March had an interesting creative campaign – a set of illustrations in different styles created by a host of young Indian independent illustrators. Pratap Chalke made a vivid portrait of the American singer with shoelaces emerging from his Adidas jacket, Mira Malhotra showed him surrounded by water guns, and Jasjyot Singh Hans sketched the hitmaker in his trademark hat, getting splashed with colours.

Though in news for a different reason, the collection launch was indicative of a rising trend of collaborations that fashion brands and magazines are striking with visual artists and illustrators, as graphic design, animation and illustration increasingly become mainstream disciplines and recognisable art forms.

Bolstered by platforms such as Instagram and Facebook, independent artists have not only found an ideal space to share their work, but also create audiences and help shape their individual voices. This is true for the portraits by Los Angeles-based artist Bijou Karman, the colorful mash-up of pop culture and fashion by British Asian artist Manjit Thapp, and the instantly recognisable work of fashion artist Donald Robertson.

Fashion as a visual medium has often been imagined as a glamorous, highly-produced set of images. The shift now, however, is to make it more accessible, which is where these illustrators come in, boldly playing with body types and skin colours so that creative expression is extended to who is wearing the clothes, not just what is being worn.

Sudeepti Tucker for Elle India.
Sudeepti Tucker for Elle India.

Illustrations now play a big part in the creative direction and campaigning of a collection, and sometimes even translate to the actual design of clothes and accessories. Design house Prada’s collaboration with Taiwanese-American artist James Jean was a testament to that, as a commissioned project to a create a mural for one of their stores in New York eventually led to his graphic drawings becoming prints for their Sprint Summer 2018 collection. Tarot card-inspired illustrator Jayde Fish worked with Gucci for their Spring Summer 2017, and Indian artist Rithika Merchant’s illustrations featured as prints for French fashion house Chloé’s folklore-inspired Spring Summer 2018 collection.

In India, too, artists have begun to enter a visual and virtual dialogue with fashion. For some, this is leading to opportunities and newer ways of creative communication within commercial frameworks, and for others, it is a new artistic medium to explore and be inspired by.

Jasjyot Singh Hans

An illustration from the zine Sikh Ladies in Sick Fashion, by Jasjyot Singh Hans.
An illustration from the zine Sikh Ladies in Sick Fashion, by Jasjyot Singh Hans.

Celebrated for creating illustrations of voluptuous ladies with thick black linework and subtle bursts of blush hues, Jasjyot Singh Hans has worked with acclaimed designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Manish Arora.

The National Institute of Design alumnus, who also has a Masters in Illustration from the Maryland Institute Collage of Art, has harboured a love for fashion since he was young. His first job, straight out of college in 2012, was with Sabyasachi Couture. Hans had worked on an illustration-based project with his friend Surabhi Chauhan, who runs a fashion blog under the moniker Lovestruckcow. The project gained traction and grabbed Sabyasachi’s attention.

“He [Sabyasachi] really liked my interpretation of his fashion,” said Hans.

Initially hired to redesign the label’s website, he ended up working on a range of creative and collateral projects, including designing actress Vidya Balan’s wedding card. “I don’t think it is conventional for Indian fashion designers (or most fashion designers in general) to have an in-house illustrator. I feel like my illustration work overshadowed my original work agenda for them and Sabyasachi let me explore that as much as I wanted.”

The experience opened up many doors for him – as he went on to work as a print engineer for Manish Arora, created animated lookbooks for Péro by Aneeth Arora, and worked on the Woolmark Prize-winning presentation for designer Suket Dhir.

As Hans said, “I grew up flipping through Indian fashion magazines and remember this spread of [model] Carol Gracias in a kitsch maximalist photoshoot for Manish Arora’s Fish Fry, a collaboration with Reebok. I remember thinking about how invincible she looked, and how the campaign – for me – was less about the clothing, more about world building. And when fashion campaigns create a mood or a world where the clothes could just be an element is what I find exciting. Mulberry’s fashion film, Skirt, is a wonderful example of it.”

Hans’s personal practice explores the theme of body image extensively, consciously playing with proportion and scale, and his recent zine Sikh Ladies in Sick Fashion is his ode to the larger-than-life women who are his muses.

“As someone who loves fashion and illustration equally, it is the ideal realm to be in,” he said. “What I love about fashion illustration is that it can be interpretive or abstract. Some of my illustrations at Sabyasachi were used as a moodboard. I also feel like it is great for magazine editorials. But I’m still unsure about how lucrative it is for me to be able to sustain on doing just that. The limitation comes with its application for mainstream advertising, because clients mostly prefer to see exactly what the collection is, so an interpretive visual doesn’t quite suffice for it. That said, I do wish I saw more illustrated fashion magazine covers in future.”

Shweta Malhotra

Shweta Malhotra for Ogaan store.
Shweta Malhotra for Ogaan store.

It was the power of social media that led to Shweta Malhotra, another recognised name in the scene, carving her niche within the fashion industry. The art director and graphic designer, who worked at the advertising firm McCann Erickson and Ogilvy, started experimenting and combined two of her loves – graphic design and fashion.

“I did this project called ‘Something Cool Everyday’ – which was like one quick piece of graphic art every day for one year. I experimented with styles and everything that I liked – music, fashion, travel. For the first series that I did [in 2014], I picked my favorite looks from Lakme Fashion Week and I illustrated them. I think [people who work at] Elle saw the series and they commissioned me to do it for the next Amazon or Wills Fashion Week. So that’s how I got my first commercial project.”

The trend caught on and eventually, by 2015, Instagram was flooded with renditions of the latest runway looks by illustrators like Sakshi Vyas and Gauri Kumar, adding to the visual buzz of fashion week.

Malhotra has created a strong space for herself in the fashion and lifestyle industry, having worked on multiple branding projects with e-commerce companies such as Nicobar and Femella, boutique furniture design firm Limon Story, while also doing editorial illustrations for publications such as Architectural Digest and Grazia. Her recent work for indie fashion label Lovebird’s latest collection, ‘There’s no planet O’, showcases a seamless blend of art, fashion and design.

But Malhotra is sceptical about the viability of being a professional illustrator in India. According to her, the same editorial illustration project she works on would fetch five times more money in the UK or US. The difference in value could owe to the fact that in the West, illustration is a specialised discipline, while in India it’s currently still seen as being part of the larger umbrella of graphic design.

“In fashion it’s more about photography because generally people want to show the garments, show the product,” she said. “But…outside bigger brands like Prada are also doing illustration-based campaigns. It’s happening at that scale, and then slowly it trickles down here as well.”

Sudeepti Tucker

Sudeepti Tucker for Elle India.
Sudeepti Tucker for Elle India.

Much like Hans, another artist examining the interplay of identity and women is Sudeepti Tucker, whose illustration series, Prowl, features majestic, strong and sensuous ladies. Because of her work shared on Instagram, she was commissioned in January by Elle India to do a set of editorial illustrations for a piece on poet Rupi Kaur. The idea was to combine Kaur’s words and Tucker’s vibrant work for a fully illustrated fashion story – a change from the usual high production photo-shoot styled with designer apparel. Although she doesn’t consider herself a fashion illustrator per se, Tucker enjoys exploring the medium. “There are so many intersections between fashion and identity, art, environment and culture,” she said. “It is impossible to ignore and hugely impactful. My interest in it is steadily growing.”

Kruttika Susurla

Kruttika Susurla for Vans India.
Kruttika Susurla for Vans India.

Illustrators are also seeking to bring humour and a sense of inclusivity into an industry that can often create images of almost unattainable beauty. Kruttika Susurla’s campaign for Vans India’s Peanuts collection launch did just that. “The brief invited us to do our interpretation of sneakers in India,” said Susurla. “I wanted to show the other side of high-fashion/streetwear that I was more familiar with. I think it’s super cool how our grandmothers and aunties rock sneakers with their desi clothes when they’re out and about – comfort over everything else. This was the idea behind my illustration – giving a nod to the humour of the sneaker scene in India.”

The artist, who won a lot of acclaim for her Instagram project, 36 days of Feminist Type, believes that drawing has the potential to break barriers of age, complexity and language, making it a successful medium of communication.