Exclusive interview: Inside Megan Hess' illustrated world
'Freehanding fashion's finest line'
Dressed in an angelic Zimmermann jumpsuit and statement gold Saint Laurent shoes, Megan Hess is in Dubai for the launch of her latest book, Coco Chanel: The Illustrated World of a Fashion Icon. Over 270 monochromatic pages, which are injected with bursts of colour, Megan tells the story of Mademoiselle Coco Chanel in definitive detail. Here we speak candidly to the Australian beauty about her sketching, style and those Sex and The City book covers that sent her status from everyday artist to coveted creator.
Welcome back to Dubai!
Thanks! I was just thinking that over the last two years, I have been to the region eight times. I first came here for a private client, now I have quite a few private clients that I do large scale art works for.
Your works range from pretty pictures to home interiors. What's the most prolific piece you've created in the region so far?
It was on the roof of, I want to say a palace, but I don't think they call it a palace. Anyway, it's an amazing home and I had to illustrate the base of their pool. The theme was an all-blue concept to match the water, and the image was of a woman with a flowing veil across her face. It was really tasteful.
What other works have you done in the region that standout?
I came to Abu Dhabi for Art Culture and Society to illustrate some key illustrations including the Sheikh Zayed Mosque as well as the Formula 1 and their art museum. I also came to illustrate a Royal wedding, which was totally different again.
The projects I've worked on in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are really interesting projects. They're totally different to projects I would do in New York or Europe.
How did you crack it in the more established markets?
My big break came when I created illustrated book covers for Sex and the City. Then came the agent in America, and so all of my work pretty much started in New York. Although I do a lot of work in Europe, and I still do the occasional things for Australia. I still live in Melbourne and I have my main studio there.
Is your studio at home or do you have it elsewhere?
I have a studio outside home. When the kids were little I worked from the studio at home, and now that they're at school I've literally moved three metres down the road into a studio in the street where I live. It's really quite nice to have that separation. I can just walk out in the morning and leave the dishes in the sink. When I worked from home, even if no-one was coming over, I couldn't relax and draw for Louis Vuitton with dishes everywhere. I needed a calm space where I could relax and draw, so I would always clean up first. Now we all leave at the same time, I go to work, the kids go to school and I can just slam the door behind me, even if it's a mess.
Tell us about your studio space?
It's big and white. I love white, it feels like a blank canvas. When you're working with a lot of pattern, colour and texture, sometimes if you are surrounded by it, it's almost like noise — visual noise that makes it harder to draw. I could have acres of white space!
Do you have any quirky work rituals?
At the end of every day I lay out all of my projects on a big long white table and I turn them face down. Then when I come back the next morning, I'll turn them all over one by one and I can see instantly what it is I need to do to it; whether it's finished or whether I want to start again.
You have a very distinct look and feel. How would describe your style in terms of your art?
It's always hard to describe your own style. I do a lot of signature characters. If I'm doing a quick Monday sketch or quick Friday sketch I will often draw those characters that are just second nature to me to draw. But with other projects I might draw the actual person.
How do you develop your style?
I began drawing in mainly black and white, using a Japanese brush. Then I collaborated with Mont Blanc a few years ago on a project for UNICEF and in the midst of that project they made me a bespoke pen. I still use that pen, which I call Monty, even though the collaboration with Mont Blanc has long finished.
Yes, Mont Blanc have a place in New York where you go into this room — it's like NASA — and you sit there wired up to this electronic board and you draw for about 40 minutes. Bust basically it measures how you hold the pen, the ink, the weight, everything, and then that information is fed into a computer that goes to Germany, and in three months time they have crafted a pen just for you. It's nerdy but I use it for everything and in my line work, my style is somehow connected to the pen that I use.
What would you do if you ever lost it?
Ooh! Actually I didn't bring it on this trip, because I'm going to so many countries that the thought of loosing it is terrifying. I could never ask for another one, it's too expensive to do it again. I actually keep him in a safe at home when I'm not there, but otherwise he just sits on my studio desk. I try not to move him from the studio and just use him for my daily projects.
Speaking of projects, your new book is out!
Yes, it's basically an illustrated autobiography of Coco Chanel's life. There are lots of autobiographies about Coco Chanel, but I wanted to do an illustrated journey. I have always loved the clothing and the branding, but the book is more about her as a woman. She's always been inspiring to me. Her story starts from when she went from a little girl, in particular from when her mother was dying and her father drove her to an orphanage and left her there. I've always been intrigued and fascinated by how someone starts with nothing, and in a tough situation went through life to become a wealthy iconic fashion designer. The things she did in her time, which today don't seem like such a big deal, but she got rid of corsets, when they only wore black to funerals and she made a black dress to wear during the day, cut her hair short and had such convictions. She never did quite get to see the impact she had but if she could see her atelier in Paris today...
How long did the book take you?
It took me about a year from when I signed the book deal to when it was completely finished. I had this image that I would be doing this book in a country house with big bay windows and coffee brewing. The reality was I still have my commercial work with fashion clients that I love doing during the day and at night and on weekends I would give myself certain blocks of two days to do 20 pages.
Take a look inside the book...
Coco Chanel: The Illustrated World of a Fashion Icon by Megan Hess is available at Magrudy's and Kinokuniya, Dhs108.