INTERVIEW WITH GLADYS PERINT PALMER
LIFE IN A CONTINUOUS LINE
Gladys Perint Palmer keeps alive an almost forgotten hand-drawing technique. She describes herself as a woman who prefers the comfort of old sweaters and pants, and living in isolation on Denman Island. In her rich career, she worked for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, L'Officiel and Vogue, among others. After a year spent at Parsons School of Design, she came back to London and got her first job: to illustrate the cover of Vogue. Despite her achievements, Perint Palmer is an extremely humble woman. While Paris Fashion Week is in full swing, the famed GPP is preparing for her third masterclass to be held in February in collaboration with the Gray MCA Gallery in London.
In one of our first conversations you mentioned that we both come from the same part of the world. Being a Hungarian, educated in England and the United States, married in Hong Kong to an Englishman, now living in Canada, can you tell us how these different cities and countries colored your life?
Yes, I was born in Hungary and today I live on a small island in British Columbia. Living in so many places and knowing so many people from different backgrounds has given me a wide perspective on life, attitudes, prejudices. I come from a family of artists, doctors, and musicians. My husband Simon Palmer used to be in shipping and now spends more time than ever on voluntary work. My elder son Tim works in the film industry, he is a director of photography. My younger son Barnaby is a conductor in China who currently lives in Vienna. I believe that education and travel are key. Of course, after vaccine. Thanks to scanning, Dropbox, and email, it is possible to work anywhere.
You studied at two of the finest fashion schools in the world, Central Saint Martins, and the Parsons School of Design. What sparked the interest in fashion? I have read that you learned to draw from your mother who was a dress designer. Were your early drawings also focused on fashion?
My mother was a dress designer and used water colors in her work. My grandmother painted on anything and everything: furniture, mirrors. Since I was a toddler I was always drawing. I realized that drawing attracted attention that, as an only child, I craved. Now it is the opposite: When I draw on the iPad, even surrounded by people, I am happy to be invisible. My advice to young women who are about to start their career is simple: Work, work, and work! Follow your gut! I actually happened to get into fashion illustration accidentally. I was heading for illustration at Saint Martins. At the end of our foundation year, in July, we chose our disciplines. An instructor told us, 'You are all professional illustrators. I expect you back in September with sketchbooks filled with work.' It was an unusually beautiful summer, we all went to the beach and none of us did a stroke of work. We did not dare return to illustration and went into fashion. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. During my year at Parsons, I went to see the art director at Harper's Bazaar and I was assigned nine pages of drawings. Returning to London, my first job was a cover for Vogue.
You state that you have a highly developed sense of irony that is often mistaken for wit. I noticed this throughout your work, especially in the captions that follow illustrations you made for „Fashion People“. I noticed it also in some of your illustrations such as „An Austrian“ or „Gargle the Goat“, completely unrelated to fashion. If irony is a means to humor, and humor is the heart of literature, should it be in the heart of fashion too? Or, is that the case already?
Humor is everywhere. Including, and especially in fashion. Irony is difficult in the time of Covid. Let's replace irony with kindness?
You first started drawing in pencil and charcoal. Today, your approach to drawing is different, as you seem to use so many different techniques at the same time to create your unique illustrations. Glitter, pastels, sharpies, ink bottle dropper, your granddaughter's crayons, fingers... Can you guide us through your creation process?
Not really. The process is natural, some from inspiration: Toulouse Lautrec and Matisse, my teachers, even some pupils. Some by accident: using dropper. Over the years, my technique has evolved. I first started drawing in pencil and charcoal, and now I mostly draw with an ink bottle. Specifically, the ink bottle's dropper. I sometimes embellish my sketches with pastels and glitter. At Saint Martins I worked with 6B, 8B, and charcoal pencils. At Parsons I discovered drawing with charcoal and oil pastels into paper soaked in paint thinner. Later I found that ink and pastels were an excellent medium for drawings to be printed. However, ink took a day to dry before adding color. So, if the deadline was tight, I used felt tip markers instead of ink. Since Saint Martins, I use my finger with which to draw. My fashion drawings, from the international collections, are from my own photos. I can piece together an outfit from three or four (bad) pictures, to make sure details are correct. I am not a designer, but a reporter, so the drawing must be accurate.
What role does technology have in your work? Does sketching on an iPad has advantages other than the speed of information flow?
The iPad is a tool, but it is the wrong shape for fashion. I used it a lot when I was commuting. Now, in my studio, I prefer paper and regular art supplies. My iPad is idle. Emailing and We-transferring have replaced FedEx.
You say that a fashion drawing must be exaggerated. This is clearly noticeable from your work. Your illustrations are theatrical as you focus on opulent, over-the-top clothing. They are fluent, somewhat atypical, always telling a story about the dress or the person you are portraying. Can you share with us some of the most memorable outfits you illustrated throughout your career?
It is hard to say, but I can tell you whose work has often inspired me: John Galliano (also, for Dior), Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Azzedine Alaïa. I always look for the silhouette, color, a long neck, good shoulders, long legs. I was also often inspired by the people sitting in the first rows of fashion shows. This happened to me during fashion week in Milan when i first met Anna Piaggi. She was dressed in a green foam Statue of Liberty headdress and choker of piano keys. I believe this extravagant hat was designed by Stephen Jones. I was fascinated by her outfit so I spontaneously drew a portrait of her. The next day, I saw her again and showed her my drawing. Afterwards, I started working for Italian Vogue and L'Espresso Più, and also had an exhibition in Milan. She was my mentor and I owe her a lot.
Your illustrations are rarely still. There is a lot of life in them, movement and speed. This movement is directed along lines, edges, shape and color within your works. Is it safe to assume that you see movement as an imperative in your art?
An absolute imperative, yes! That is why I love side views and big steps. Back views are also good. Full frontal is a like a lookbook: boring. Alexander McQueen was a master of movement. Each of his creations seemed alive. He presented his Autumn/Winter 2002 collection in La Conciergerie in Paris, the former prison where Marie Antoinette spent the last weeks of her life. In that dark space, there was a kind of sinister and macabre atmosphere as the models walked the runway leading Alsatian dogs on leather leashes. The entire packs of wolves were also housed above the audience, in former prison cells. The entire audience was thrilled and terrified at the same time. I believe that movement became a signature in my work. I remember meeting Gianni Versace at Linate airport and he asked me: Gladys! Would you like to draw my houses? Incidentally, the book Do Not Disturb has 18 pages of drawings of his houses in Milan and Como.
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, you held two intimate virtual masterclasses in collaboration with Gray MCA and its fashion curator Connie Gray. Marking the original opening date of Drawing on Style exhibition, now postponed for February 2021, this was a rare and unique opportunity to learn about fashion illustration using Alexander McQueen and Dior as design inspirations. You seem to find a lot of joy in teaching as you share anecdotes and stories from the world of fashion that one cannot learn in a school. Can you tell us a bit more about this experience?
The best part was ─ and still is ─ working with Connie Gray who is interesting, interested and makes positive suggestions. Thank heavens for Zoom! Gray MCA will also be exhibiting my work in the exhibition Drawing on Style in London in September 2021. The exhibition is held annually during London Fashion Week, and a capsule show then transfers to New York in January of the following year. My work will be exhibited alongside the great masters including René Gruau, René Bouché, Antonio Lopez, and Bil Donovan.
The third masterclass A Fine Line is also scheduled for February 2021. Who will be your next design inspiration?
This is not about a single designer but my work: life (nude) drawing, portraits, architectural drawings, composition, and more. I will, of course, share more anecdotes as was the case with the previous masterclasses. A Fine Line will be held on February 24th.
Speaking of anecdotes, can you share some with our readers?
The best anecdote is that the masterclasses almost never happened. I was invited by Bil Donovan to take part in an exhibition at Society of Illustrators in New York, January 2020. The day before we were to fly to New York there was an enormous blizzard, we could barely get the car out of the driveway. Then, a school bus skidded and blocked a hill. We had to take another road called Pickles, fortunately downhill, to the far end of Denman Island to get to a ferry. We made the ferry with minutes to spare. Then we had to drive through deep snow to leave our dog Henry at a kennel. We took a ferry from Nanaimo to Vancouver to catch our flight to New York (having left my sheepskin in a cloakroom!). Once in New York and in our hotel, Connie and Ashley came to me and looked at my work, and offered to represent me. Every time I pass Pickles, I am reminded of Gray MCA.
You stated once that you draw fast and write slowly. After Adam & Yves, a book that is both entertaining and informative, what are your next plans in terms of publishing?
As far as the future is concerned: More books, more travel, more of art! My agent has a number of manuscripts including 'You are not on the List' and 'ABC of Fashion'.
(The interview is published in print issue of Elle Croatia for March 2021)