Exploring the duality of women through fashion illustration

Fashion illustrator Laura Laine’s latest subjects are inspired by powerful Middle Eastern women

Nothing Compares To You: an illustration by Laura Laine
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To my eye, the women in Laura Laine's illustrations look tough, defiant and empowered – but they can be viewed in myriad ways, their creator admits. "They can be so many different things. I've heard everything from depressed to strong to mysterious. I'm happy with any interpretation," Laine tells me during a recent trip to Dubai.

The one thing that they are not supposed to be is easy. There is something beautiful yet slightly surreal, and almost Tim Burton-esque, about the protagonists of Laine’s works – with their unflinching gaze, elongated limbs, exaggerated manes and slightly distorted proportions.

An illustration by Laura Laine. Courtesy Laura Laine
An illustration by Laura Laine. Courtesy Laura Laine

“To me, it is an exploration of the different sides of women, or maybe of myself, although that is definitely not a conscious process. I am trying to convey a mood or a story. I want there to be something there, instead of just making them plainly happy or accessible. In that sense, commercially, it is not such an easy aesthetic, because normally what sells is a happy, colourful, smiling face, of somebody who is beautiful,” Laine explains.

“I am not trying to do something that is purely dark or intimidating; that’s not my purpose at all. But there are some themes that are a bit uneasy, or that convey some sort of conflict. Themes like this really interest and inspire me – the conflict that people have within themselves. I don’t want to do something that is traditionally what we think fashion illustration is. Partly maybe there is some criticism in it as well, of a certain side of the fashion industry,” she adds.

Both of Laine’s parents are artists, and she has drawn “constantly” since she was a young child. She did a bit of modelling in her late teens, and when it came to deciding what she wanted to study at university, she decided that she would give fashion design a try. “During my studies, I discovered that designing wasn’t really my thing. It was really all about wearability and other practical things; it’s not as glamorous as people think. You really have to have a certain kind of mindset, and I feel that there are already so many clothes in this world, so you need to be creating something really extraordinary if you are going to add to that,” she explains.

Laura Laine. Courtesy Laura Laine
Fashion illustrator Laura Laine has worked with brands such as Givenchy, Harvey Nichols, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Sephora, Zara and H&M. Courtesy Laura Laine

Laine found her forte when she took some courses in fashion illustration and immediately began picking up commissions; by the time she graduated, she was already working almost full-time on her drawings.

Her aesthetic may not be the easiest sell, but sell it Laine has. The fashion illustrator has worked with brands such as Givenchy, Harvey Nichols, Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Sephora, Zara and H&M, and has had her work featured in books, magazines including Vogue, GQ and Elle, as well as newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times. She has also taken part in countless solo and group exhibitions, and her work is part of the collections of the Helsinki Design Museum and Benetton Imago Mundi.

Last month, she presented her first major solo exhibition in the Middle East, with a 10-piece collection at The Courtyard Gallery in Al Quoz. Dubbed In Bloom, the collection explored the duality of the contemporary Middle Eastern woman. "Women here have this really powerful presence," Laine says. "There are all these strong women who are doing their own thing and being creative in their own fields."

This is translated into figures that gaze out haughtily from underneath a gold-flecked, fur-trimmed veil, or an elaborate feathered headdress. They appear swathed in black or dwarfed by a balloon-shaped dress. They are, as Beyoncé might say, fierce.

The sketches stand out for their exaggerated ensembles and hairstyles. Courtesy Laura Laine
The sketches stand out for their exaggerated ensembles and hairstyles. Courtesy Laura Laine

Laine predominantly works in black and white, using pencil and inks, “because it gives more emphasis to textures and volume and composition and different materials”. Details are captured with remarkable precision, as are fluidity and movement, all underlined by this ever-so-slightly eerie sensibility.

Laine admits to having been influenced by Japanese manga comics, which she used to fervently search for on family trips to Italy each year, since they were not readily available in her native Finland. "Later on, I really got into the Vienna artists, like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. Those artists have also been a major inspiration to me. They are not so relevant now, but when I started to illustrate, they were very useful in helping me find an aesthetic that was interesting to me," she explains.

This region is a perfect match for the illustrator’s signature style. “If you look back at my work, I’ve always been very interested in this very decorative, opulent, almost Oriental style – and it’s not at all Finnish or Scandinavian. I love minimalistic art and design, but am somehow unable to create it myself.”


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