Illustrator Richard Haines Talks Fashion, Boys and New York City

We went desk-side with the illustrator and got the scoop

Since starting his blog “What I Saw Today” in 2008, Brooklyn-based illustrator Richard Haines has straddled the line between artist and illustrator. Once a menswear designer for J. Crew, Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis, he now spends his time developing the street style renderings that made him one of the industry’s most sought-after illustrators nearly a decade ago.

From live-sketching the seasonal runway, to drawing for such names as Prada, Coach and Mr. Porter, his style breaks from what we would normally expect from fashion illustrators – the overly feminine, slimmed-down silhouettes that can be seen by the dozens. His style, however, sticks to the simple lines and a casual immediacy that feels more like a visual record than an illustration.

We met with the artist at his home in Bushwick to talk about his craft, his path to becoming an illustrator and the two things he loves to draw most – boys and clothes. COOLS: So Richard, what have you been up to lately?

Richard Haines: Oh, gosh. That’s a lot to jump into. [Laughs.] I’ve actually had an amazing year. I have been trying to enjoy my summer, which I actually did; I’m really bad at planning, but this year I actually made plans to go away and for a vacation to the beach, which was really nice. I went to the South of France for about ten days to draw at Hyères Festival, which was really heavenly. I had never been before – and to be an American and to be somewhere almost completely French and European was really wonderful. And I loved the location. I’ve always been obsessed with Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles – the French couple that built Villa Noailles there in the 1920s. But to just see the new talent that as an American, as a New Yorker, I don’t think I’d normally hear about; that was incredible, to get this inside peek at what’s happening with something that’s really European. I mean, I still get really excited when I see new things, and new talent, at a new setting; I was just kind of buzzing the entire time.

COOLS: It sounds incredible. Did you discover any new designers during your time there? 

RH: Yes, absolutely – Marine Serre. She’s incredible. She didn’t win the prize there, but she just won the LVMH prize. I mean, they’re all talented in different ways, but her shapes were so great – really, really lovely and just incredible to draw, like very, very narrow tops with these huge, voluminous skirts. As an artist, those are the kinds of shapes begging to be drawn.

COOLS: I can imagine that, especially with your style. And when did you start drawing?

RH: Well, I’ve always drawn; I started drawing as soon as I could hold a pencil. But I don’t think my parents thought someone could make a living as an artist. I went to school for graphic arts and fine art, but I was always illustrating and I was always looking at magazines and looking at newspapers – and drawing fashion.

COOLS: From fine art to fashion, what inspired you to make that move?

RH: I’ve always loved fashion even as a kid, even if I didn’t know what it was; I was just drawn to pretty things… beautiful things… dresses. But when I got older, when I was a teenager in the 60s and it was huge, huge change ­– the cultural shift was kind of seismic; that to me was fascinating because all of the sudden it went from being a really conservative, stodgy, black-and-white world, and it just exploded. And as a teenager, I was incredibly excited, and fashion was a really big part of that; to me, it was just a part of the revolution.

COOLS: Do you remember which designer made you excited about fashion?

RH: My first real obsession was with Yves Saint Laurent. And I think now, although there are amazing people designing under that name, at the time it was really revolutionary.

COOLS: Yeah, and I bet that was a great time to grow up as an illustrator. 

RH: Yeah, I mean, when I was a kid, I was looking at The New York Times and there were these illustrations from the couture shows, and I was just completely obsessed with them because they were just a few lines but they told the entire story with their shapes and the proportions and the details. I mean, it’s a bit weird because I was like 11 and completely obsessed with these things, but ever since then, it’s been about how can I tell this story in a way that leaves room for the viewer. Everyone has a different style but I’m always editing and eliminating because I think that there’s a way to have a spontaneous story that also brings people into it.

COOLS: So, after college, what happened next? 
RH: When I moved to New York a couple years after I graduated from college, illustration was really dying so I spent most of my career as a designer, drawing less and less. Then, in 2008, when the economy had collapsed, I was not getting any design work, so I started by blog, “What I Saw Today,” and I really started drawing in earnest again. It hasn’t really been that long of a career, but it’s been a lifelong passion.

COOLS: Oh, I love that! And you’ve been a full-time illustrator ever since.

RH: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing. It wasn’t like I was walking away from a design job to become an illustrator; the kinds of jobs I had as a creative director just didn’t exist anymore. I’d have all these really great salaries and all kinds of perks, and it all just stopped; they just weren’t hiring someone at my level anymore. So it was really just – Jesus, I had to do something. And when I started the blog, everything changed almost immediately. I had put it all out into the universe and everything shifted; nothing too cosmic but that’s basically it. 

COOLS: What would you say is the role of an illustrator?

RH: Oh gosh, I think there are different roles. For me, it’s documenting and recording what’s around me or what I find moving or poignant or emotional. And sometimes that’s a beautiful dress, and sometimes it’s not. So it’s really, to me, it’s a record of life. I mean, I look at cave paintings and pre-historic paintings, and they’re so beautiful and they’re so simple, but they’re also just so poignant because they’re leaving a story; they’re documenting. They’re basically saying, “We were here, we saw this.” And that to me is incredibly powerful. 

COOLS: You’ve said you draw a lot of inspiration from New York City; what is it about the city that inspires you so much?

RH: I think it’s because there are so many different parts of it. I think the fluidity of it and the acceptance of it – and I love that. I just love the fact that no one really gives a shit about anything. That kind of autonomy and acceptance, to me, is extraordinary. I mean, I’ve been here for such a long time, and I still can’t get enough of it; it’s pretty wild. 

But especially living in Bushwick, when I go to get the train and see some guy leaning and waiting at the platform, there’s something so breathtakingly beautiful about that moment of someone, the way they’re leaning or the way they look at their phone. There’s something about the posture that’s kind of breathtaking. It’s these human moments that are really breathtaking and inspiring.

COOLS: Would you say your style has changed a lot since 2008?

RH: Oh gosh, I mean, I like to push myself and take chances, but I still stay in a very familiar format (which is those materials on paper). I have done some painting, but I’m so much more comfortable on paper. And going back to really recording and documenting what I see. I love doing scenes with groups of people, because to me there’s something really beautiful about that connection. And that’s something I don’t think I would have done when I started – in 2008, it was very much a single figure on paper.

COOLS: A lot of your work I see in The New York Times and GQ is live runway sketches. Is it difficult to go from live-sketching to illustrating from an image?

RH: Yes and no. it’s an adjustment; they are different ways of drawing. I do a lot of people coming over to my apartment and we talk and they will sit for like an hour, two hours. And that’s one process because that’s also really getting into their psyche. And then there are the shows, which is really fast that’s just about line and shape. And then there’s working from photos, and what I do now is just save it and AirDrop it onto my laptop; then print it out just so I can get a bigger image. So, yeah, there are all these different ways of doing it.

COOLS: Do you have a favorite fashion week to illustrate?

RH: Gosh, no one’s ever asked me that before. I mean, I have an affinity for menswear because it’s my background in design, and I’m a man, and I’m gay. But I’m hard-pressed to go to a show and not be excited by something I see, whether it’s a men’s show, a women’s show, or a preview. When I’m in Europe and go to J.W. Anderson’s men’s preview, they’re insanely beautiful, and I’m kind of like a kid and I get really excited. But no, I mean, I love women’s, I love men’s, I love couture, I love accessories. There is usually always something amazing to find.

COOLS: In addition to fashion, you also draw men in the nude. What’s that like, drawing the male form?

RH: It’s really, really, really hard – no pun intended. I mean, it’s an extraordinary thing. It goes back to the beginning of time, recording beauty or this appreciation of beauty. And again, I think it goes back to the intimacy, it goes back to trust, it goes back to – I don’t know – a kind of honesty? Yeah, there’s really no bad side to it.


COOLS: From what I’ve seen on your Instagram, and at your exhibit in Paris last year, it seems like you also take their personality into consideration. Was that your intention all along?

RH: Oh no, no. It wasn’t my intention, but it really turned out to be so much about hearing their stories (and I think it’s because I am older and these guys are considerably younger) and that’s where a level of trust comes in. I’m genuinely interested in hearing their stories, but because I am older and I am drawing them it kind of gives them a comfort level too. And it’s fascinating, I ask a lot of questions and they answer a lot of questions; that’s really a big part of the process, kind of like what we’re doing. But for them it’s more like, “Where’d you grow up?”, “What was that like?”, “What was is like being gay?”, “Who was your first boyfriend?”, “Who was your first love?” You know, all those things. It’s actually a really beautiful thing, because there is that level of trust and intimacy – and that’s a really big part of the process of drawing, personally.

COOLS: And because they are portraits, not illustrations or sketches?

RH: Yeah, it’s a series of portraits, and what’s really important to me is what they’re saying. And who they are and where they are in their lives and the fact that they want to share that. That to me is really an extraordinary thing.

COOLS: So who are these boys – how do you meet them? 

RH: Well, it’s a very tight network of guys – mostly gay men – and just word-of-mouth. When I first moved out here, I had a show called “Boys of Bushwick,” and I think that kind of established it. Now it’s either I’ll see the guys and approach them, or people who know my work will approach me, or people will shoot me a DM.

COOLS: And how do these sittings usually go down? 

RH: Like how do they finally take their clothes off? [Laughs.] 

COOLS: Basically. [Laughs.]

RH: You know what, truthfully, in that process of having the guys come over, we just talk. I really pick up on the comfort level of the sitter. That’s not an intention. When that happens, that’s fantastic; I would never ever want to draw someone who felt uncomfortable. But to be honest, most guys that are 25-30 have no problem taking their clothes off. So that’s cool too. And that to me is really, there’s a whole other kind of layer, kind of the comfort and honesty between gay men. There are other kinds of layers in that but that’s kind of part of the story, also. Does that make sense?

COOLS: Yeah, it does. To me, there’s a real beauty in your drawings, because in a way they don’t even appear nude – it’s just raw, it’s them being vulnerable. And I think that’s beautiful.

RH: No, I appreciate that, you’re right. You completely got it.

COOLS: Well, what else do you like to draw – besides boys and clothes? 

RH: Honestly, that’s really it. [Laughs.] I do love to draw chairs. I have an obsession with anything French. I love going to the Wrightsman Rooms at the Metropolitan Musuem, and the galleries of French furniture, and these chairs just kind of talk to me. When I see these chairs, they’re really people; they’re personalities, if that makes any sense.

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