How to Make It as a Fashion Illustrator in 2015

Step one: Get lots of Instagram followers.
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Dhani Mau
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Step one: Get lots of Instagram followers.

If you read about fashion on the Internet, it’s likely that you’ve come across at least one story along the lines of ‘TK Fashion Illustrators You NEED to Follow on Instagram”—a headline that would have, undoubtedly, had fashion illustrators of the 20th century scratching their heads.

A new generation of illustrators has popped up over the past few years with the rise of blogging and social media, and many have those platforms to thank for their success in a field that has evolved significantly since its inception. Traditionally, a fashion illustrator might have found employment capturing runway looks in real time for a magazine or newspaper (because photographers weren't allowed), working at a design house, or perhaps creating a stylized illustration for a magazine cover or editorial (which still happens, though much less frequently). 

Fashion illustration has long served as a substitute for photography. But instead of making the art of fashion illustration obsolete, technology has, over time, brought about a revival of sorts.

“The demand for fashion illustration has definitely increased recently, but I feel this is coinciding with an overall increase in interest in fashion by consumers,” says Katie Perrott, founder of The Illustration Room, a Sydney-based agency that exclusively represents illustrators. "The industry is so heavily saturated with photographs, everything is so digital nowadays," Katie Rodgers, who founded her blog Paper Fashion in 2009, adds. "I think hand-done work is very appealing to people, because it gives them a little break."

These days, fashion illustrators are touching everything from editorial, advertising, packaging and branding, to blogs, fashion shows and special events. Like bloggers, illustrators have agents, but that isn’t always how they get jobs. Those can come simply from hustling on Instagram.

Here are six things to keep in mind if you want to make it as a fashion illustrator in 2015.

A design background helps.

Most of the illustrators I spoke to studied design in some capacity. Rodgers, who has worked with everyone from Cartier to Coach to Disney, studied industrial design at Carnegie Mellon and went on to work in apparel design, illustrating in her spare time. Jenny Walton, a part-time illustrator who has worked with Harper’s Bazaar and InStyle, studied fashion design at Parsons, and says that her figure drawing classes were immensely helpful. “To be good at drawing, it takes a lifetime of drawing for hours and hours and hours,” she says.

Meagan Morrison, the illustrator behind Travel Write Draw, on the other hand, got a business degree from McGill University in her native Canada and ended up working in fashion PR in Toronto, completely unaware that fashion illustration existed as a career. She later researched the field and enrolled in FIT’s fashion illustration associate degree program, which helped — but so did that business degree. “I don’t think you have to go back to school [if you want to become an illustrator]. For me, [FIT] was an amazing opportunity to come to New York and establish myself in the city,” she explains. In sum: Choose the educational path that’s right for you.

You need a strong online presence, particularly on Instagram.

Rodgers had no intention of turning her love of fashion illustration into a career. She started a blog only to have an online portfolio of the work she was doing for fun (this was in 2009, pre-Instagram), and brands eventually stumbled upon it. The freelance offers snowballed, and she was eventually able to quit her full-time job.

While Morrison and Walton both maintain blogs (Travel Write Draw and Markers and Macrons, respectively), they got into the illustration game even more recently than Rodgers, and to hear them tell it, it’s all about Instagram. Morrison got the industry's attention — and built up her own Instagram following — by illustrating looks by prominent designers and street style stars in the hopes that they would regram her, which they often would. Then, in September 2014, Morrison was one of Instagram’s featured users, and her follower count soared from around 8,000 to 145,000 in three weeks. “Instagram has been the number one catalyst for all of my my commissions over the past six months,” she says.

It was through Instagram that Walton landed her first commission — paying $500 (a pretty low fee if you’re an established illustrator), which she couldn’t believe. “It was like, oh my god, they want to give me $500 for something I do in my free time?” Later on, she got an email from the creative director of InStyle, Rina Stone. It turned out an editor had shown Stone Walton’s Instagram, and Walton ended up creating artwork for an 18-page spread in the magazine. “If you have a skill and you just try and put it out there, it’s amazing how you could really reach anybody now.”

Instagram isn't just valuable for getting your work out there — clients also care about how many people you'll reach if they commission you. “I think for brands that it’s super important to work with someone who also has an audience, because [the brand is] getting the work and they are getting a little bit of advertising as well,” says Rodgers, who now has 435,000 Instagram followers.

You might need an agent, but s/he may not bring you jobs.

Most established illustrators have agents. Rodgers is represented by Digital Brand Architects, and Morrison is represented in Australia and Asia by Perrott of The Illustration Room. They are more responsible for prioritizing work and negotiating contracts than finding new jobs. Both Morrison and Rodgers say nearly all of their work comes through word of mouth and social media. “[Having an agent] helps a lot in terms of contracts and there’s legal terms that I don’t understand, but I don’t think you have to have it,” says Morrison. “I think it is better to have it once you’ve established yourself and you’ve grown a little bit on your own.”

Qualities Perrott looks for in an artist to take on? “The ability to effortlessly change the look of their subjects’ faces and body positions in each commission, portray personality and mood, and to create a new girl each time within their style.” She takes a 25 percent commission on work, which she says is standard.

You’re a freelancer.

Another important factor to consider when pursuing a career in fashion illustration is stability. Like any freelancing situation, there can be lulls and bursts of work with unpredictable pay days. Walton ultimately eschewed the uncertainty of a full-time illustration career, and joined The Sartorialist as fashion director last fall. "You can make a career out of [illustration], but you really have to hustle. That’s the nature of freelance, you never really know." 

You can also feel like you're on your own. "When it is just you, it's scary and the stakes feel super high — and most of the time, they are!" says Morrison.

It can be lucrative.

Experience and a growing social media following can drive up fees over time, which means some illustrators earn thousands of dollars for a single drawing. Walton says her fees have gone "from a few hundred to a few thousand" per job. Another full-time illustrator we spoke with says she is making "four or five times" what she had previously been making at a large corporate design company.

You need to stand out.

If you want to make a name for yourself in fashion illustration, you need a distinctive style. “Don’t spend too much time looking at what other people are doing, because I think that is discouraging and ultimately you want to be different, anyway,” says Morrison. “You want people to see you as the alternative; you want people to come to you because you bring something unique to their brand that they can’t find anywhere else.”

Style isn't just confined to your drawing — it's important to hone your image, or personal brand, on social media, too. “I can curate what I’m sharing and what kind of brand I want to be,” says Rodgers. “I can kind of give people a little view into my world.” Doing so can also open up opportunities for projects beyond illustration. “I don’t want to be considered just an illustrator, I am a hybrid of a personality with my skill,” says Morrison, who dreams of making her blog a full-fledged lifestyle site and having her own travel-oriented products. “I think that opens up more opportunities for you as well when you are a bit more multi-dimensional.”