Interview by Filep Motwary
Fashion illustrations, landscapes, erotic portraits, plants, floating swans; the broad sweep of his brush transfers the most exquisite garments, senses and emotions, memory and fragility to paper, suggesting an almost poetic arbitrariness. A solemn simplicity even!
Mats Gustafson boldly uses watercolour to express his personal thoughts, desires or virtues, but most of the time to reflect the work of others through his talent in illustrating fashion. Ever since his multi-chaptered creative journey started around 45 years ago, his majestic work has been featured in the glossiest of the glossies while being exhibited in museums since 1986, as well as in galleries and renowned publications. He is soon to present a series of unrevealed works in Tokyo’s MA2 Gallery. I call him at his wonderful apartment in Sweden where he only arrived the day before, straight from New York.
FM: I would like to start from the very beginning when you left Sweden to pursue your dream to be an illustrator—a pretty daring thing to do. Would you consider those first steps and decisions as a kind of rebellion today?
MG: No, I wouldn’t say I was rebellious at all as anything as such would be out of character for me. The only thing I can say about that time, if we are talking about the late 1970s and early 80s, is that moving from Sweden to New York was a much bigger step than it is today. I mean the distance somehow seemed longer then. Today people work much more internationally. It was not rebellious of me but it was, maybe, a bit unusual.
FM: But since we are focusing on the 80s, that period was more about photography than illustration. This is how I mean rebellious in the timing you made your move to New York: the art of illustration was almost fading by then. It wasn’t the 40s and the 50s anymore, the golden era of illustration.
MG: Yes, you are right. When I first started fashion illustration it was already out-dated, in a way, and was considered a thing of the past. Do you know the work of Antonio [Lopez]?
FM: Yes, of course!
MG: Well, at the time I discovered his work in magazines that truly motivated me, thinking this is something I would love to do and there must still be room for illustration in fashion today. I had also met him on a trip to New York, prior to moving there, and he was very kind and encouraging. There was a possibility to become an illustrator in New York at the time but, of course, nothing like the opportunities for photography. Since there seemed to be room for more, I tried it and it worked out. Over the years—and I have been working for a long, long time already—people have asked me if there is a need really for fashion illustration, or at other times they say, “Fashion illustration is back,” as if it ever was gone. Naturally, it will never be as big as the years you referred to before, the 40s and the 50s—this has ended. On the other hand, I also think of fashion—its industry and media, the magazines and the way it is communicated—as an extremely visual medium and it allows so many different approaches to be expressed, to interpret or document it. Obviously, there is room for illustration as well. Today I think it is a bit difficult also to define illustration. Between photography and illustration, there are so many other ways of achieving both, with computer software and so on. Speaking for me, I still work the old way without the use of computers. I stick to my materials: watercolour and paper.
FM: Were you aware of the New York Fashion scene when you arrived? I wonder how you entered it and how long you waited before your first major commission?
MG: Before New York, my work had already been featured in a few international magazines, otherwise I don’t think I would have had the guts to move there. So, I was already connected to British and American Vogue, Interview Magazine…
FM: I know it was Grace Coddington who pushed your work to become international. How did everything happen?
MG: The short story or the long story? Well, you know I didn’t study fashion illustration. I grew up in the countryside of Sweden and left for Stockholm to study stage design. I had always been drawing fashion or something I had thought of as fashion drawing since I was a child. It was my favourite thing to do. So, I got some of my drawings published in a Swedish magazine. This got the attention of H&M, the Swedish clothing company, and they contacted me and asked me to work with them. H&M was my first client. When I graduated as a stage designer I never pursued that—I was already working as an illustrator. It was around that time, on a trip to London, that someone recommended me to Grace Coddington, then a young editor at British Vogue, and a meeting was arranged. I went there with some drawings under my arm and presented them to her. She liked them and commissioned me to do drawings for the next collections in Paris. This followed with commissions from US Vogue and Marie Claire in Paris. It all happened during the late 70s.
FM: What was your childhood like? What observations did you make then that are still with you? And what about your fondest memories as a kid?
MG: I had a wonderful childhood in the countryside of Sweden. I was probably an odd kid who preferred to stay at home and do my drawings, always supported by my parents. There was an understanding and respect for creativity and art in my family—my mother had studied art. But I knew from very early on that moving to a city was the important thing to do and I craved an urban experience. I later moved to Stockholm to study art. I am very happy about my childhood as it offered me a very solid foundation and a great love for nature.
FM: How have your observational and your practical processes changed over the years? Or the way you understand a garment before translating it on to paper? Does it take you long to observe your subject?
MG: Yes and no. Of course, I have enough experience by now, yet it always depends. When I start a new job or project, it is always like the first time. Maybe intentionally I do that or subconsciously—I don’t know: I sort of want to start everything as a beginner. Perhaps it is fear I have for doing things by routine. I am very productive and maybe because of that I always make it seem like a new challenge. On the other hand, working in this field, in a context where things are meant to be published, there is always a deadline and I am used to not having much time for each task. Although I have developed a way of working fast, I do go through this process of really questioning everything and perhaps struggle to eventually have some progress. The deadline always arrives and I have to finish…
FM: Do you use a live model when you work?
MG: Not really. Not anymore. Way back I used to work with a model. Especially when I worked for French magazines, as they were more old-school back then. If I had to illustrate a fashion story, the process was exactly the same as a fashion photo shoot—you know, with a model, make-up and hair and everything. But I always preferred working alone. For the model it was really boring to pose for an illustrator—at least with me was no fun at all. I suffered with the models! Photography must be so much more fun where you can move around and jump even. I developed a process or method where I work by myself. Of course, I still need to have all information and a connection with fashion through photos and videos in order to work with it. My most important professional relationship at this moment is with Dior and I try to see as many of the collections, the fashion shows, as possible to get the physical experience and the emotional aspect of it.
FM: What do you think drives your creativity these days, generally speaking?
MG: I think that after working a long time as a fashion illustrator or as a commercial artist—for over 30 years now—I value my own work even more. Of course, I love fashion, and collaborating with others is truly meaningful to me, but it always has been and still is important to work for myself and to also get away from fashion somehow and to explore other subjects and different contexts: portraits, the human body, landscapes, nature…
FM: What worried you then and what worries you now?
MG: In a way everything! I tend to question everything I do—I always have and I always will and I guess that’s part of my process. There are concerns like, “Is this the last thing I will ever do?” Or the fear of losing my “touch” as an artist. Questions like, “Does the world need another fashion illustration?” But I think it’s just all neurotic, this worry, and does not apply or is not relevant to reality. I think the concerns and worries on relevancy happen to people who take their work very seriously and the bottom line is that I want to do my best all the time. It’s a constant concern to me.
FM: What role does solitude play in your working process?
MG: For me, solitude turned out to be rather important and actually necessary. I do collaborate but not in the actual creative moments when I am applying paint to paper. It is a very private, isolated moment for me. Everything around the work I see as collaborative—the dialogue with the client, editors and art directors, the ideas… I love the element of collaboration but, in order for me to focus, I need isolation and solitude as well as time to get into that state where I enter real concentration. It would be pointless to compare myself with a photographer, but I assume that the photographer needs to accept the fact that there are always people around him or her. I would not be able to work like that. Solitude is crucial.
FM: What about patience?
MG: I have patience.
FM: Was it ever important to you and your work to be universal?
MG: I never put so much weight into what I do. Fashion drawing is a very lightweight form of art and I always thought of it that way. I am not saying it is easy to do but it is related to something superficial and something to be consumed and has perhaps a short lifespan. All of these factors I am very aware of yet I am always trying to do something that I would like to look at the next day or next year or that will have a longer life if possible. Also not to be stuck in time, even if time implies relevancy in fashion.
FM: That’s a very good point. Timelessness!
MG: Well, it is nothing I can justify or know for sure if I can achieve. I do think that this visual culture can be universal, although it’s a big word—it can be communicated over time and place. Also, it is not only my creativity we are talking about, as my task is to interpret the work of someone else and I have to give credit to that. If my work is universal it is also thanks to Raf Simons or whomever it is I am fortunate to work with. I see myself as the interpreter or others’ creativity. Hopefully I make sense.
FM: You use mainly watercolours. How much control do you have over your materials to achieve the right result? Do you allow an element of chance?
MG: To me, the beauty with watercolour is that you need to allow yourself this element of chance. In order to master watercolour you almost have to accept that part. Technique per se is something I find less interesting, but watercolour is a medium I’m comfortable with: it suits my temperament—I work fast. It doesn’t look so labour involved and it has the quality of sketch, lightness and quickness. Yet for me, there is a lot of work to get to that point.
FM: Which artists do you admire?
MG: If we focus only on fashion illustration, Antonio was and still is an inspiration. René Gruau whose work is perhaps the best in the history of fashion art. I have a contemporary colleague who is also a good friend, François Berthoud—an excellent artist whom I find very inspiring.
FM: You are soon to have an exhibition featuring a series of nude drawings at the MA2 Gallery in Tokyo. The work you chose to illustrate this conversation is all linked to your presentation in Japan and these works also mark a very difficult period for you.
MG: Yes. This work is from the early 90s. It was a very difficult time especially in New York and in Paris or in any big city with a present gay culture. It was the time when the AIDS crises culminated. It was devastating. But it was also a time that brought people together, which was incredible to see and to experience. The intense and collective support and the raising of a loud voice that didn’t come from politicians but from the people and the communities that were affected, like the fashion and art world and the music industry… A very powerful time in contemporary history. Trauma turned into activism. MA2 is a small gallery in Tokyo—a beautiful space in the Shibuya district. I had a show there about five years ago titled “Rocks and Trees” where I showed watercolours of nature.
They wanted me to have a show of fashion drawings when I realized it wasn’t as interesting. I really wanted to show the opposite, so I proposed to show work from the time when I started to do nudes and they liked the idea very much. I made these “nudes” in the early 90s as a way for me to deal with the time of crises. It was a very important period on so many levels as it was for so many other people. When you approached me for this interview for Dapper Dan’s “Poetry” issue, the timing felt right to reveal a few.
Poetry or poetic are not words I would use when talking about my own work. I mean, I know people who write poetry. But for myself, I don’t think in those terms. Maybe the closest to poetry I have been in my work was when I turned away from fashion and made these nudes and portraits and later when I did nature drawings. I think I wanted to approach tenderness, vulnerability and something more intimate and I guess this is something closer to poetry.
FM: Would you consider yourself a romantic?
MG: Yes, I am romantic, hopelessly.
FM: Is it important to underline a sense of emotion in your illustrations each time?
MG: Yes, I want to strike some kind of emotion. It can be understated or obvious but it is essentially important.
FM: You have worked and still collaborate to this day with some of the major fashion houses. How difficult is it for you to translate their world into paper? For example, if I asked you to give me the DNA of Yohji Yamamoto, how would you outline your approach to his work? And what about Dior, with whom you recently collaborated on a fabulous publication?
MG: You have to be able to understand the sensibility of a designer and his or her design, the way they work, and try to communicate those elements somehow and try to interpret them. If I, let’s say, had only liked Yohji Yamamoto, this ability of understanding would have been very limited. As a fashion illustrator you do have to vary your subjects, not like a chameleon, but you need to be flexible and open to understand different DNAs as you correctly just said. I don’t think it is rocket science, but still it requires a certain sensibility, a certain understanding or insight. I would think an editor has to work the same way in order to approach different visions. In fashion it is also more than one thing going on at a time. If we are involved in fashion we need to be open-minded, I guess.
FM: Do you strive for complexity when drawing a dress, for example?
MG: No, the exact opposite: I look for simplicity.
FM: There is always a hint of light, here and there. It is never a pompous sense of light but rather a discreet one. What is your view on light, coming from Sweden?
MG: There is light in the watercolour technique. It comes across from the white paper. It is not a very “dense” technique so light is allowed in somehow. But I guess it is also my choice of light you refer to… I have done things that look darker if you want, but yeah, there is light. And yes, coming from Sweden, the light is very precious and very important.
FM: You also seem obsessed with beauty and elegance. How does it feel to be creatively free through illustrating, to be able to simplify, exaggerate or even abstract reality and still get away with it?
MG: I find it intriguing and seductive and although it presents the work of others, it also needs to be reflecting my touch.
FM: Why do men play such a small part in your work?
MG: Perhaps because women’s fashion is visually more interesting: there’s always something “more” about it, shape wise, colour wise, conceptually. Womenswear is more inviting and it appears as a stronger subject. In my head menswear is strangely conservative. But maybe I am wrong, as I don’t follow men’s fashion as much. Perhaps I need to re-educate myself on this matter—perhaps change my approach and become a photographer.
FM: Have you already tried photography?
MG: Yes, way, way back but it was also very obvious it was with illustration I would continue. When we are younger, I think fashion is more sexual. Our interest in it at a young age is more related to sex. Isn’t it? Or is it just enthusiasm? As we get older, our sense of fashion becomes more abstract, and more distant, maybe more sceptical. When I look at young contemporary photography the presence of sexuality is so amazing and very honest also. Looking back when I started it was so conservative and reserved and closeted.
**Three unpublished nudes by Mats Gustafson, exclusives for Dapper Dan Magazine
Nude, at MA2 Gallery, Tokyo, from 17th November – 27th December 2017.
Special thanks to Lauren MacLean at Art+Commerce.
Interview originally published in Dapper Dan 16, autumn/winter 2017
Mats Gustafson (Swedish, b. 1951) began his career as an illustrator in the late 1970s, a time when editorial illustration was eclipsed by photography, and watercolor as a conceptual medium had barely been explored. A graduate of Dramatiska Institutet (University College of Film, Radio, Television and Theatre) in Stockholm, he first applied his graphic sensibility to the art of stage design. This experience translated into illustration when he began publishing his work in eminent international fashion publications. The elegant and subtly expressive character of Gustafson's watercolor, pastel and cut-out paperworks expanded the possibilities of fashion illustration and nearly single-handedly reinvigorated the genre.
Gustafson's fashion and portrait illustrations have been included in editorial publications such as French and Italian Vogue, The New Yorker, and Visionaire, and he has created advertising art for Hermès, Tiffany & Co., Yohji Yamamoto, and Comme des Garçons. His work has been exhibited internationally in solo and group shows. Gustafson lives in New York.