Studio Visit

All the Dior Dresses That Didn’t Show at Paris Fashion Week

Think less tulle and more...paint.

By: Tara Gonzalez
Photography: Ben Ritter

Fashion illustrator Bil Donovan travels the world with Dior, creating customized portraits for their clientele. He once had a line of 30 women wait to have him paint them. It all started when one of them approached him and shyly asked, “Can you make me look beautiful?” By the time Donovan put down his paintbrush, the line of women waiting was out the door. It was the first event Donovan did in collaboration with Vogue. It would take three more for Christian Dior to come calling.

Now Donovan has been the artist-in-residence for the fashion house since 2009. He has since taught illustration at FIT and SVA. His work has been featured in Vogue, Elle, and New York Magazine. Donovan even had his work featured in The MET’s Costume Institute. Sitting in his studio covered from floor to ceiling with his brush strokes, his paper-and-paint visions of dresses and design, Donovan can hardly believe how he got there.

He remembers the exact moment he fell in love with the way dresses looked and moved and felt. It was the scene in Sabrina where Audrey Hepburn enters (or, as Donovan says, “floats into”) the ballroom in a Givenchy gown. Donovan decided right there, in front of his TV in South Philadelphia, that he would work in fashion. After a lifelong obsession with old-Hollywood glamour, years of schooling, and teachers telling him he couldn’t do it, Donovan now has so many projects and paintings of Dior dresses, he can’t choose a favorite. But when I asked politely, he managed to pull out a couple that came top of mind.

Click through to see some of Donovan’s favorite couture illustrations and read how he went from growing up in South Philadelphia to working in-house for one of the biggest names in fashion.

“My teacher said, ‘I need to talk to you. Bil, you just don’t have what it takes.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ She was [like], ‘You can’t draw.’ I said, ‘You don’t understand. I want this!’ She said, ‘If you want this, then you’re going to have to work hard 24/7.’ I drew constantly. I drew my roommates, my cat, my hat, my toilet. I got better.”

“Someone from Vogue got in touch with me and said, ‘Would you be interested in coming to our event, just drawing?’ This woman there said, ‘Can you do my portrait?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do anything!’ And she said, ‘Can you make me look beautiful?’ She was ecstatic! ‘Oh my God, this is beautiful, I love this!’ Next thing I know I had like 30 women in line.”

“I did two more events with Vogue. The third event was—Christian Dior was having a special private party for their best clientele for couture on Madison Avenue. Then they offered me an exclusive contract as their first artist in residence. I kept reading the email, and sent it to my husband. I said, ‘Am I making this up?’”

“I was Dior’s first artist in residence. They would send me around the country to Saks, Lehman, Bergdorfs, for the women that are very good clientele for their beauty. The women come, they get a makeover, and then they sit with me and I do the fashion painting, a portrait.”

“It began in South Philadelphia, when I was I kid. I loved to draw and the magic that happened with a pencil and a paper and [that] you can make something out of nothing. I loved fashion, especially through the lens of Hollywood.”

“My epiphany moment was when I saw Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and she enters a ballroom in that Givenchy gown. She floats in. It’s so beautiful, I wanted to capture that in my drawing, and that’s basically how it started.”

“There’s an emotional connect to a drawing as compared to a photo. Models are emotionally driven, but there’s something to be said about the process of directly communicating with something by hand.”

“I received an email from the global creative director of The MET Costume institute, ‘Hi, we’re curious to know if you would be interested in doing illustrations for The MET Costume Institute.’ I wrote back, ‘Sign me up.’ I never heard back from him and was like, ‘Oh God, I was too informal.’ I wrote back, ‘Of course I’d be interested.’ And then he wrote, ‘Oh, lovely to hear that!’ Unreal! I’m from South Philadelphia. You have to be kidding me, ‘would I be interested?’”

Part of the series:

Studio Visit