Fashion Illustrator Megan Hess on Her Shoes of Prey Collaboration
There are many lives exposed online. Through Clarendon and Lark filters, most of them appear pretty glamorous, if not just prettily posed. But few can compete with the world of Megan Hess. Hess is a fashion illustrator, that once common but now rare art form that depicts lithe ladies wearing the latest styles. During the ’40s and ’50s, and even into the ’90s for many European magazines, illustration was the primary visual expression for designers like Oleg Cassini and Pierre Cardin to showcase their creations. Hess’s modern-day illustrations for Fendi, Chanel, Prada and Christian Louboutin have taken her around the globe on enviable projects–you can see the pictures of these trips on her insanely lovely Instagram account.
However, her latest project puts Hess in the designer’s role. Shoes of Prey selected the artist to collaborate on a new collection of shoes. We spoke with Hess about her dream job, drawing Michelle Obama and the shiny shoes she created, which you can shop now.
How did this collaboration with Shoes of Prey come about? Why did it feel right?
Who doesn’t want to design a shoe collection? It was really exciting. In terms of the brands I work with, you know, I illustrate for everyone from Fendi to Prada to Dior; I’ve only worked with really high-end brands. So when I spoke with Shoes of Prey, their attention to detail, the way in which they were going to be making the shoes and promoting the shoes, everything from production to creative was really in sync with things that I work on. So I felt it was a great fit in terms collaboration. And then the fact that I could really start from scratch.
Was this you first time designing shoes?
Yeah, I mean I’ve illustrated a lot of shoes for clients. Louis Vuitton and Christian Louboutin—I’ve illustrated for both of them. So I’m used to illustrating shoes. But it’s a completely different ball game designing a shoe. And it’s funny, drawing a shoe really high makes for a great illustration. But when I came to actually creating the five shoes, I wanted to have one that wasn’t sky-high so that I could actually wear it in the studio during the day and then to an event at night. The actual wearability of the shoes really came into play for the first time to me.
What were your guiding influences for this collection?
You’ll see a lot of my work is really white with gold accents, my whole studio is white, black and gold. Gold has always been kind of a big part of my illustrations. It’s also part of an aesthetic that I would use styling things. So that was my first point of reference for Shoes of Prey.
And I have always been obsessed with the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s ruby slippers—the way she would tap them three times and they would sparkle. That was another part of the collection. I didn’t do them in ruby, though; I did them in gold.
What was your process like?
Shoes of Prey first sent me all of the materials that they work with. That was a really great reference point to start with. They sent me hundreds of suedes and velvets and leathers. And they said to me that even if there is a different color leather you don’t see here, we can create it. They can basically do anything. I first looked at the fabrics and textures, and based it on that.
And then I just sketched them. Basically I thought, if I could strip my entire shoe wardrobe down to just five shoes, what would be five shoes that could work across everything from day to evening to events. That’s where I started, sketching them out. Then I showed them to Shoes of Prey and we honed them.
Once we decided on the five designs, then it was important to me to personalize them. People who buy my books or scarves or prints know there is always something illustrative about it. So we worked on an illustrated dust bag for the shoes. I came up with the collection name, Fleur-de-lis. So we embossed in gold the fleur-de-lis on the shoe. Those little details were important to me so that when someone bought the shoe they felt that it was really thought through, from the sole of the shoe to the finishing touches.
Where do you see the different shoes being worn?
People often laugh when I say this, but I almost see gold as a neutral. Metallics, nude and black shoes you can wear with anything. I specifically did three heels and two flats. They’re both the kind of flats you can dress up or down. That was important to me: they’re flats you can literally wear with boyfriend jeans and a T-shirt or with something much more dressy.
The heel with the gold bow at the back is something that I would wear to events, somewhere where I needed more height. I think the bow at the back gives it a bit of surprise.
The sparkly gold heel is probably my hero shoe. It’s one that really can be worn all day and then at night. When we shot in the shoes, I was in them from 6am to 10 at night, and at the end of the day I kept saying, “My feet don’t hurt!” So that shoe can really cross over. I’d wear it with something more casual during the day and then put on a dress in the evening and keep the shoes on.
And then the nude heel is just a great staple. In summer, wear them with prints and patterns, and you could also put these with something black and something white. It’s just that really versatile heel that lets the outfit sing but is still really polished. And because it’s a nude color, I went with patent leather because there’s nothing worse than a nude shoe that the minute you step outside, a bit of rain or dust and the shoe’s finished.
How did you get into fashion illustration?
I’ve been doing it for about 15 years. I always wanted to illustrate, but in the beginning I couldn’t make the break into illustrating for high fashion. Then I was discovered by Candace Bushnell’s publisher. She found my work and they contacted me to illustrate the cover for Sex in the City. So that really was my big break. When that happened, my work was on buses and on billboards everywhere. That’s when a lot of other brands discovered me. The week after the book was released, I was contacted by Dior and Chanel and all the big brands I currently work with today. That’s really how things took off for me. I’m very grateful to her for discovering me. Since then I’ve really appreciated working on the types of projects that I always wanted to work on. Everything from illustrations for Wedgwood in the UK about their tea, to fragrance illustrations for Dior—and on that I would work with them in Paris—to animations and sketches for Fendi and Prada in Milan. What it means is that I get to work on projects all over the world and I love it. I feel very grateful that I get to do what was my passion as a kid.
The Harper’s Bazaar House from Megan Hess’s Instagram @meganhess_official.
And tomorrow you’re off to Dubai! Why are you going there?
For Harper’s Bazaar Arabia. Last year they asked me to design what I imagined what the house of Harper’s Bazaar would look like. So I sketched this Victorian-meets-Hamptons white house that they built in the middle of one of the biggest luxury shopping centers in the Middle East. So in the middle of the Mall of the Emirates is this enormous house that you can walk into—there’s this fashion room and a boudoir room. I’m flying back to Dubai for that tomorrow. They’ll have an exhibition of my work around the house and a Q&A.
Are there any fashion illustrators that you particularly admire or who have influenced you?
I really love the Russian illustrator Erté. He was kind of the first illustrator to make fashion illustrating a profession. And he illustrated all the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar back when fashion magazines were mostly illustrated. He is really original and iconic. He never really followed trends, he just created this imaginary world. I found his work when I was a teenager, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do this. It was just really inspiring to me. I still search for original sketches of his—and I have a couple. I still reference his books. Obviously my style is completely different, but sometimes it’s great to be immersed in the creativity of what someone else did.
You’ve illustrated and authored quite a few books, including one about Michelle Obama.
I was commissioned to illustrate 12 different portraits of her for the book What Would Michelle Do?—to be approved by her. It was terrifying, because she’s someone that obviously I really admired and someone that you don’t want to let down, that you want to do a really good job for. And also because she wanted it to be true to who she is. She wanted to look how she looks. She wanted her real office, the things she had on the desk, the real things on her wall. So I put a lot of effort into making sure the illustrations were true to who she is. Working on a project like that, I would cast as a career highlight because you don’t often get to work with someone well known but also someone who everyone really respects. I remember at the time I was working on it, there was a lot of controversy about the fact that she had cut bangs. And ironically at the same time I emailed the publisher to clarify what the exact wording was on her degree—because I was drawing it on her back wall. When they got back to me they said, “Well, she’s got four. Maybe just pick one?” And I thought, here is the world discussing her bangs and she’s got four degrees in everything from law to human rights. I was very, very honored to work on that project.
And you have another book coming out this year?
I release a new book each year. The book for this year is all about New York. My previous books were Fashion House, about home interiors; The Dress, an anthology of famous dresses throughout history; and Coco Chanel, almost an illustrated biography of her life. This year I’ve decided to do a book about New York because I’ve been going back and forth here for 15 years and I have all my favorite places to eat and shop there. The book will be out the first of November.
There are lots of travel guides out there already, especially about New York, but what’s different about this one is that it’s through a fashion eye, and it’s mostly illustrated. So the book has over 100 illustrations. It’s all about where to get the best coffee during Fashion Week, where Armani buys his pasta, the best place to buy heels in New York. It’s not all the most expensive places, but just places with a fashion twist.