In today’s digital world it can feel like we’re drowning in the representations of other people’s lives. The New York Times estimates there will be 1.3 trillion photos taken this year – that’s a lot of selfies, brunches and sunsets – and the rate of social media uploads is even faster in the fashion world thanks to the army of bloggers and social media celebrities that have replaced industry gatekeepers.
But amid all of the noise, social media occasionally brings attention to the raw talent that is the beating heart of the industry. This was the case with Brooklyn-based illustrator Richard Haines.
The artist captures the world of fashion analog-style using loose charcoal lines and splashes of color. In his drawings, gestural figures appear fluid on the page, their frames punctuated by the curve of a hat, a coattail, a pointed shoe. In his studio, Mr. Haines fills notebooks and sketchpads; when he’s out on the town, he’ll sketch on whatever he can find: napkins, envelopes, the occasional receipt.
But despite his flair for putting pigment to paper, Haines career as a fashion illustrator was made possible by the digital revolution. “If it wasn’t for social media, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking today,” he says.
We are sitting in his studio-cum-apartment in Brooklyn, which is bright and south facing and has walls peppered with photos and drawings. As we talk, the occasional J train rolls by on the overpass, sending metallic patches of light and the screech of rusted steel through the window.
It began with a personal blog entitled “What I Saw Today”, which Haines launched in 2008. The site quickly caught the attention of fashion editors and designers, including one Miuccia Prada. In 2012, she commissioned the Mr. Haines for a yearlong collaboration that culminated in a 150-page concept book and capsule t-shirt collection sold in flagship Prada stores around the world.
At fashion events, Haines can often be found seated in the front rows scribbling the latest runway looks. The previous night he illustrated a live event for Elle where his drawings were projected onto a giant wall as he made them. “I have super short attention span,” he offers as a way of explaining his gift of capturing the body’s ephemeral movements. “I can make a drawing and post it as quickly as a photographer can.”
Haines posts many of his drawings on Instagram (richard_haines) where he has some 54,000 followers. His account also serves as a visual diary of his travels as his collaborations increasingly take him abroad to Paris, Milan and London. Partnering with fashion brands works well, he says, because he recognizes the nature of collaboration. “I understand that it’s not just about me, and it’s not just about them. It’s about bringing out what is my best for them.”
But his grasp of the commercial side of the business is also the result of years spent inside the industry. Prior to 2008, Haines spent much of his life working as a fashion designer for companies like Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis. When the economic downturn hit, his life began to unravel. “Everything I knew came undone,” he recalls. “I was out of a job and coming out of a divorce… It got to the point where I was literally selling art books to buy groceries.” That's when a friend suggested he should rekindle his passion for drawing and post his work online. “It’s a good story now,” Haines admits. “But at the time it was horrible.”
In addition to collaborations with brands and events, Haines is currently working on a book he describes as a ‘pictorial autobiography’ that traces his journey as an illustrator. He also continues to exhibit his work at galleries. Last year he had a solo show in New York (Haines is represented by Daniel Cooney Gallery in Chelsea) and he’s currently gearing up for a group show in Paris this October.
Recent successes haven’t resulted in self-satisfaction, however. “There is always something I find that’s wrong with my drawings,” he says. And he continues to push himself. Lately he has moved from drawing individual figures to scenes that involve groups of people, which he finds challenging. In addition to the human figure, he is fascinated by vintage French furniture. “I find these chairs have many of the same characteristics as people do,” he says, “only the chairs are usually more interesting.”
Apparently, he is not alone in this assessment. Recently, Haines posted a video on Instagram of a green chair he drew at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A few weeks on, the video has more than a million views. The response baffles Haines. “I mean, why…?” He throws up his hands. Certainly it is one of social media’s better enigmas. Rather than revealing the contrived contours of the curated self, Haines’ posts highlight the spontaneous delight of the creative process.