Melbourne-based Megan Hess became a name on the world’s most fashionable lips when, in 2008, she illustrated Candace Bushnell’s bestselling Sex and the City. In the years since, Hess has found her always-chic illustrations in publications such as Vanity Fair, the windows of New York City’s Bergdorf Goodman and even at the bottom of a private pool in Dubai; her client list reads like a who’s-who of the fashion elite, including Chanel, Dior and Cartier.
But it’s not only pretty runway creations that inspire her, and consuming the world’s mix of cultures as she jets from one stylish hub to the next plays a large role in finding inspiration – as does exploring the fascinating stories behind the world’s most celebrated designers, which she shares in her just-launched book, Coco Chanel: The Illustrated Life of a Fashion Icon.
Fashion illustrator Megan Hess in Paris, France
What inspired you to get into fashion illustration as opposed to other forms of art and design?
I’ve always had a love for fashion and it was something I was most excited to draw. Not necessarily the actual clothing, but the world of fashion is something I found interesting and I thought if this territory is something I can work with, that would be my optimum. I’ve never wanted to be a fashion designer per se, but I have a love of clothing and design.
How did the idea for your third and newest book, Coco Chanel: The Illustrated Life of a Fashion Icon come about?
I love Chanel as a brand, but more importantly, I’ve always been fascinated with the story of Coco Chanel: knowing her mother died when she was very little and her father drove her to an orphanage and left her there, and to start from such humble beginnings to become the world’s most iconic fashion designer, and build an empire at a time when there were no female designers.
She got rid of corsets, she chopped all her hair off, she did some amazing, iconic things for women throughout her career and I think that’s really inspiring. Even though there are lots of autobiographies written about her, I wanted to do it from the eyes of an illustrator. I wanted to illustrate her as a little girl in the convent, and when she first moved to Paris, and first set up her millinery boutique. The journey of her life – even if you’re not massively into fashion – her story as a woman is so inspiring.
Is there a particular brand that you’d love to illustrate that you haven’t yet?
I always say – in the hope that she’ll read it and get me to do it – Vivienne Westwood. She’s so brave and original, and the fact that she’s doing it her way and remains true to how she started with the punk look is amazing.
You draw with a Monblanc pen you refer to as “Monty”. What’s special about this pen?
The pen came about because I worked on a project with Montblanc where I created four illustrations that we could auction to raise money for UNICEF. In the meeting to discuss what I would be drawing, they asked if I would be able to do this project with one of their pens, to better connect the collaboration. Used to Japanese brush pens, I was unsure that I could get the same effect, so they sent me to their bespoke programme in New York.
There, they wired me up with an electronic pad and measured my writing – how I hold the pens, the level of ink, the weight – and I drew for about 40 minutes while all of that information was input into a computer. Three months later, a handcrafted pen made just for my drawing style was completed. When it arrived I was thinking, “What if I can’t draw with it? I’ll just have to pretend I do after all this effort they’ve gone through”. But as soon as I started drawing with it, it felt like an extension of my hand. That collaboration is long finished but I draw everything now with that pen.
How does travel inspire your work?
It’s not always in obvious ways, but I think travel is the biggest form of inspiration. Probably the greatest thing about the work that I do is that it’s in different countries and it means that I get to see different cultures and fashion, meet different people, try new food – and all of those things evoke new ideas. The biggest inspiration for me, in any destination, is a really local, busy, interesting coffee shop or place that I can perch myself and sketch and observe what people are wearing and how their hair is – that to me is the most inspiring thing about travel.
What’s your favourite travel indulgence?
I think being in a restaurant with amazing food and a great location is my top experience. Let’s say I’m in South Beach, Miami – I would not skimp on sitting somewhere that has an amazing view, where I see the action and the atmosphere. Whatever it costs to be there, I will pay that, rather than be somewhere that I can’t really see or feel. That’s something I won’t compromise on when travelling.
Are there any travel accessories that you never leave behind?
When I fly, I have what I think is the perfect travel bag. It’s a Louis Vuitton carry-on that has the best compartments: a front flap that has everything for your iPad and phone, a travel section where you can keep all of your travel documents, a slip for your laptop and separate area where you can put socks and shoes and blankets and stuff. It’s
the Rolls-Royce of bags. And I’m always cold on flights, so I bring my own cashmere blanket that rolls up really, really tightly and is super lightweight and warm. And an Australian balm called Lucas’ Papaw Ointment is the ultimate in keeping my skin hydrated.
What’s your favourite luxury destination?
I love L’Hotel, a little boutique hotel in Paris’s Saint Germain, in the heart of cobblestoned streets and where Oscar Wilde once lived. Every room is completely unique and they have basement baths that are heated, almost like a Roman bath, and there are candles lit and you get a glass of champagne and it’s just amazing.
You’ve created illustrations that depict stunning architecture and interior design. Which luxury hotel showcases your favourite aesthetic?
I really love the Palazzo Versace hotel in Australia. Versace is very intense as a brand and look, and when it’s put together from head to toe it can be a lot – unless it’s the actual hotel. The thing that’s so amazing about it is that it’s the extreme of the brand and its look. It’s unashamedly over the top. Entering Palazzo Versace is like walking into Donatella Versace’s wardrobe and I love it; they have not held back in any way. It’s really fun and everything down to the taps are Versace. It is a true fashion hotel. I’ll be fascinated to see the Versace hotel when it opens in Dubai.
Where is your favourite destination for fashion week?
I think all of the destinations are amazing for different atmosphere and reasons but Paris is my number one. The Chanel show in Paris is probably the best of all the shows because of the elaborate lengths they go to, and so it feels like a theatre production. Some of the Paris designers are probably my favourite, but purely for the creativity that the shows and the sets display in Paris, I think it’s my top choice.
Your scarf collection features four destination-focused pieces. Are any locales currently inspiring a new addition to the collection?
One that I haven’t brought out yet but I have designed is inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival. I was on a plane and watching a documentary about the chaos and colour and vibrancy and I thought that is great inspiration for a scarf. So I’ve done four different “samba queens” on these four different scarves. There are so many destinations that would make for a wonderful scarf; anywhere that gives a culturally different look and feel. Dubai and China would work very well.
Where is on your travel bucket list?
I tend to go to the same places for work, and I love those places – those are usually the fashion week cities and Dubai. But I would love to get back to Greece and see the islands. That’s somewhere that I have been but not for many years and I would love to return. Friends of mine have done this amazing thing over Christmas at the North Pole, where you can actually stay at the North Pole in an old, traditional hotel that is set up for Christmas. I know it sounds really tacky but apparently it’s incredible and I have two little children and they would love that – I would love it!