A Conversation with Richard Haines

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Richard Haines had worked within the design departments of all-American brands including Calvin Klein, Bill Blass and Perry Ellis, before specialising in fashion illustration. Since then, the artist has lent his idiosyncratic style to numerous campaigns and projects: from Prada‘s wildly romantic 2012 Il Palazzo menswear publication; to Dries Van Notens SS15 ode to Rudolf Nureyev. In addition to working on commercial accounts, Richard Haines’ work has been the subject of two solo exhibitions, at Envoy Enterprises New York and Fuller + Roberts Los Angeles. Embracing innovative ways of displaying his work, Haine’s website What I Saw Today acts as a visual diary, inviting us on a tour through the fashion capitals, through quick yet considered renderings of its people and their everyday wardrobes.

I have been a long time fan of your work, but how would you introduce yourself at a dinner party?

I’m pretty straightforward. Whenever I meet people I look them in the eye, give a firm hand shake, and say, ‘Hello, Richard Haines’ or ‘Hi, I’m Richard’ – if they want more information I let them ask…

A recent body of work I fell in love with is the 2012 Il Palazzo series with Prada, can you explain a little more about this project?

I had met the people at Prada the season before they asked me to work with them. I was in Milan and missed their women’s show by one day and they were kind enough to ask me to come spend time in the showroom and draw – of course that in itself was thrilling! A few months later they contacted me and asked if I’d like to come and draw the Il Palazzo collection. That was an incredible moment, and from there I continued to research and draw the mood of the collection, and then finally they decided to put the drawings together into a book, and then T-shirts and an iPad app. An amazing experience!

And how would you describe your professional path to becoming an illustrator?

My path has been very circular! I moved to New York to become an illustrator, and backed away from it because I never formally studied it and was intimidated by so many talented illustrators in the field. So I spent most of my career as a fashion designer, and returned to illustration in 2008 when I started my blog, What I Saw Today.

You moved to New York, where from and why? What was New York like in those days?

I moved to New York from Washington, DC. Washington is a great city, but not much to offer in the way of fashion, and it was a bit conservative me, so I moved to NYC. I arrived in New York in the winter of 1975. It was a very different city then – the city was bankrupt and most people didn’t want to live here. But it still was a magnet for young people and people in the arts, and it was a very exciting, amazing time to live here. A lot less stores, restaurants and people, but I was 24 and to me it was the most amazing place to be – and it still is!

The bio on your website reveals the city as inspiration, can you still see differences in what is worn in different parts of the city? What about different cities?

Yes, of course. How people look in Brooklyn is very different from how people look on the Upper East Side. There are still great differences in different parts of the city, and that’s what makes it so visually stimulating. And of course people dress differently in other cities. The men are much more polished in Milan and Florence, and carry themselves differently in Paris. I love seeing how people carry themselves, and the reasons why. It’s fascinating.

What other places have inspired your work?

Every place I go inspires me – there is always something interesting to see, whether it’s a large city or a place in the country. The world influences art. Seoul, Tokyo Paris, everyplace!

How close to reality are your illustrations? Do you allow room for interpretation?

Drawing is a personal interpretation of how an artist sees the world. It’s my choice to determine how much reality I want to bring in. When I’m working on more commercial work I need to include a lot of information about the product, so that’s one kind of drawing. When I’m at a fashion show I look for details that tell the story – a pocket or a proportion. So it really depends on what I want to communicate with the piece…

You have worked at Calvin Klein, which has such a strong and all-prevailing brand aesthetic. Did you find it easy to adapt your own style?

At the time, yes, it was easy to adapt. I was much younger and willing. And I do think when a designer is going to work for a large house like Calvin then the goal is to enhance the vision of the person who owns the company – that’s the deal. I don’t know if I could do it now, of course! But I also really appreciate and respect what Calvin contributed to the vocabulary of American design – I was thrilled to work with him!

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A lot of your work, especially commercial commissions, is collaborations. What have been your favourite collaborations and why?

Anyone who comes to me and wants to work with me gets 100% of me and my efforts. I appreciate people wanting to pay me for what I do. So I approach each client as a ‘favourite’ regardless of the size of the company. Of course it’s thrilling to work with companies like J Crew, Prada and Dries Van Noten. But everyone is a favorite in my book.

You have drawn many a style icon, including Coco Chanel and Diana Vreeland!

Yes, those women were so powerful and they also weren’t ‘pretty’ in a traditional way – I love that about them. When I draw them I feel close to them, it’s a wonderful process, a way of meditation or communing with them, if that makes sense.

You self-publish a lot of your work online, via the ‘What I Saw Today’. When did  you decide to do this? Maybe you can explain a little more about the site.

 I’m afraid I’ve been much more focused on Instagram these days, but What I Saw Today is the blog I started to begin my career as an illustrator, so it has a very special place for me emotionally. Prior to that I was a fashion designer, and in 2008 the economy crashed and I couldn’t get a job, so I started the blog. It’s really my ‘love letter’ to the vitality of the streets of New York and later other cities.

Your site is very much about visual impressions and the things you encounter while out and about. I think illustration is often seen as a quite lengthy process of recording images compared to photography, do you agree?

Well there are different kinds of illustration. Some kinds are more lengthy and require layers of work – it really depends on what the artist is conveying. I am quicker and more about line – there’s really no right or wrong, just the process of the artist.

Do you think that photography – especially phone cameras, selfies and quick snaps – have changed the way we look at and experience things?

Oh yes, it’s a huge change. Before cell phones there was the digital camera and the images had to be uploaded onto a computer, and before that, it was film. I remember taking pictures of trips to Europe and coming home and taking all the film and getting it developed. There was a price for each image so of course people were much more selective. And the time lapse between taking a photo and seeing is was days, weeks. I love my iPhone and the camera. I have thousand of images there. Is it better or worse to have this immediacy? I have no idea, but I know I would miss it if I didn’t have it.

What I Saw Today was also published as a newspaper for SS14, will you repeat this?

My original intention was to publish it every season but then I got so busy with commission work that I lost momentum. I will probably go back to it – I love print and people still ask for copies of it and use them as posters.

Are there any self-portraits on the site? What would you wear in your perfect self-portrait?

I never draw myself. Someone just asked for a self-portrait and it was fun to do, but I have no interest in drawing myself. I guess I would wear what I always wear, a navy or charcoal gray sweater and dark ACNE jeans. I like to keep my ‘look’ very simple!

Who are your favourite illustrators? Do you collect?

There are so many great illustrators – Christian Berard, Antonio Lopez, Joe Eula, Marcel Vertes…it’s interesting, I’ve never collected the work of illustrators. I think I much prefer to keep them in the thought process. They are always with me!

WORDS: Felix Bischof

ALL IMAGES: Richard Haines

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Il Palazzo, Richard Haines for Prada