admiration and inspiration – Erté

Harpers Bazaar Oct 1931 Erte

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this summer, and one of the most delightful books I picked up was the autobiography of the great 20th century fashion illustrator and theatre designer Erté. I’ve never found an autobiography by a fashion illustrator before – they’re not known for being literary. While I’ve admired Erté’s considerable body of work, I knew almost nothing about him.

His book, Things I Remember, surprised me by being just as enchanting and delightful as his work. It was like sitting down to a long dinner conversation with a charming guest. He relayed his life experiences with humour and gratitude, exhibiting a genuine pride in his accomplishments without ever seeming arrogant about it. An industrious man who prioritized his work above everything else, he drew until the very end of his long life, weathering the ups and downs of his career and eventually having the great satisfaction of enjoying a revival of the fashions of his heyday within his own lifetime. So many fashion illustrators draw until their deaths – it’s not a career that offers comfortable retirements – or maybe it’s not the type of career you’d ever want to retire from.

The beginning of his career was equally fascinating – after serving in the military he simply wrote a letter to Harper’s Bazar with a few samples of his work from his days as an employee of Poiret, which launched his reputation and resulted in a long professional relationship with the magazine. He created their covers exclusively for over a decade. Simple, right? To a modern fashion illustrator, that sounds like a fairy tale! The 1920s must have been a magical time to be creative – people had a lot of money and wanted to spend it all on beautiful things. Erté enjoyed his success, owning a fine home, travelling with tons of luggage and servants, even doing a lucrative stint in Hollywood.

Of course he came from a privileged Russian background, and his life was full of eccentric aristocrats and flamboyant artists of all types. He documents with impressive honesty both the working relationships that flourished and also the ones that fell apart (like Poiret), the highs of prestigious jobs and the relief of less glamourous work when times were tougher. He weathered a change in fortunes when the Depression arrived, and survived the change of fashions in the 1940s by turning to the theatre. He even continued working in Paris during the occupation.

He was incredibly prolific. His images had a computer-generated precision even though they were drafted by hand – and a lively expressive quality despite their rigour. His working style was civilized, solitary, and methodical.

As a fashion illustrator, there are so few examples of your own kind to investigate with any type of intimacy. A creative career is a changeable thing, a never-ending roundabout of losing your way and finding it again. This summer has been a period of professional re-evaluation for me, and I found Erté’s story to be inspiring and reassuring. His flair, exquisite class, and dedication to his art, have helped me rediscover those same qualities in myself.

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