Being Mama: Fashion Illustrator Megan Hess
For fashion illustrator Megan Hess, “Success is waking up and being excited about what you’re going to do that day,” which might include sketching for Dior, Vogue, Prada or Tiffany & Co., working on her newest children’s book, and, of course, being a mama to her two children.
An internationally renowned illustrator for some of the world’s foremost fashion designers and luxury brands, Megan Hess has written and illustrated 16 bestselling books and is the Global Artist-In-Residence for the prestigious Oetker Hotel Collection. She is also mother to Gwyn, 15, and Will, 11, both of whom helped inspire her to create the popular children’s book series, Claris: The Chicest Mouse In Paris.
We talked to Megan at her home in Port Melbourne, Australia to learn more about her experiences as a young artist, her segue into the world of fashion, how Claris the mouse came to be, and ways her son and daughter support her role as a children’s book author and illustrator.
Tell me about your experience as a young artist.
I don’t remember ever not drawing. I remember feeling like it was something that came naturally, something I enjoyed right off the bat. It was just one of those things that clicked, the one thing I knew I really loved, which gave me a sense of joy. I can’t ever remember not feeling that.
What inspired you to focus on fashion illustration?
I fell in love with fashion early on. When I was about eight years old, I saw Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Rear Window. It was the first time I connected with fashion. I noticed Audrey Hepburn’s and Grace Kelly’s dresses and really wanted to draw them.
When I was in my teens, I found a book about the Russian artist Erte in an old bookstore. I was blown away by his fashion illustrations and obsessed with his style. I think that’s where I began to have real interest in this type of illustration, though I had no idea that it could actually be a job.
I thought that if you were a fashion designer you needed to draw your own sketch before you made something, which is why I did a couple of internships with small local fashion designers in high school. I learned pretty quickly how hard actually making something is! I remember at the end of this experience realizing that I wanted to draw clothes, not sew them.
Do you envision either one of your children following a similar professional path?
My daughter Gwyn and son Will are really different from me. I don’t think my kids will go along the same path as I have, but the one thing they get from watching what I do is that I wake up and am excited about my job. Success ultimately is waking up and being excited about what you’re going to do that day, especially on a Monday morning. So I think my kids know that from seeing the joy I get from what I do.
What do your kids think about your career as an illustrator for some of the world’s foremost fashion designers?
The kids just do not care. I would tell them I’m doing this thing for Karl Lagerfeld and Fendi and how exciting it was. They’d just look at me and ask, “Can we have a snack?” When they heard I was doing work for Disney they were a bit more interested.
I noticed that pastels and blooms play a prominent role in your aesthetic. Have you always been drawn to that palette?
Yes, I’ve always been drawn to bright and light spaces. I’ve got a good friend who says to me all-white rooms make her feel like she’s at the dentist. So, everyone’s different. To me, white feels free and optimistic.
When I was just starting out, I would try to carve out a little space that felt right for me. It always included a little bunch of flowers and as much light as I could get. If I could paint the room lighter I would. It feels like a blank canvas. I need to start light, then build color and softness on top of it.
I’ve read about the bespoke Montblanc pen you call “Monty.” What makes this pen so special?
I did a project with Montblanc for UNICEF and they wanted me to create four pieces they could then auction. During the meeting they had all the pens lined up and paper in front of everyone to brainstorm. So I just picked one up and started drawing with it.
The head of marketing noticed and said, “Oh, I’ve got it! She can draw the four pieces with a Montblanc pen.” And I was thinking, oh no. I’d never even written with a fountain pen. Maybe I could just sign the drawings with it? And everyone said, “No, that’s not as fun.” By the end of the meeting they said they would send me to New York where they had a bespoke program and could make me a pen based on how I actually drew. As an illustrator, it was the coolest thing that’s ever happened. I do pretty much all my line work with it now.
In addition to fashion illustration, you’ve created portraits for Michelle Obama, Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett, among others. How does portraiture differ from fashion illustration?
Fashion illustration includes the characters I’ve created, and they come naturally to me. It’s a different process when you’re drawing a real person. If their eyes are a bit deep or their nose is off by a millimeter, it won’t look like them. I mean, everyone wants to look their best, but someone like Michele Obama wants her portrait to look really true to who she is. When you get to a place where you think, okay, this looks right and if the subject is happy with it, it feels like you’ve just climbed Mount Everest.
What inspired you to create the children’s book Claris: The Chicest Mouse in Paris?
When my daughter was little, I read books to her every day and night. While I was reading her different books, I just had this feeling that I would love to create a children’s character.
I was working at Paris fashion week and had just released a book on Paris (Paris: Through A Fashion Eye) at my little balcony at The Bristol Hotel. I looked across the street and saw a little white mouse dart across and stop. I remember just looking at it and thinking, I guess there are mice, even here, on this very fancy street.
And I thought, that’s it! My children’s book character is a mouse! A mouse who’s new to Paris.
It’s a long flight back to Australia from Paris, a good 18 hours or something, but I couldn’t sleep. I was just lying there thinking about this character. I imagined the adventures she could have. I searched for names that rhyme with Paris, because she was going to be the fanciest mouse in Paris. Since that day I’ve been creatively into it and it’s become probably my favorite thing that I work on.
Have your children helped with your Claris books?
Yes, especially because kids will tell you straight away how they feel. They also point out things that are or aren’t believable. They’re really astute.
My daughter’s been really great with the logic of things. She’s a realist and I’m an idealist, so she’s great with perspective from that angle. My son has been helpful for Monsieur Montage, the British Shorthair cat. I’m not as good at drawing males as females, so I photograph Will in action, and that’s how I draw the character.
What can young readers look forward to next in the Claris series?
Abigail Fig: The Secret Agent Pig is coming out in March of 2022. She appears as a posh socialite in the Claris books, but really no one knew that there was something else happening behind the scenes with her.
What advice do you have for parents whose children are interested in fashion, illustration or fine art?
I get parents reaching out to me all the time about this and they’re very nervous that their children are interested in art or fashion because it’s not necessarily a secure profession. And I always say to them, if their child has real interest, the more you encourage them, the better. If it’s something that they’re not necessarily meant to do, they’ll lose interest over time.
When people have a yearning to do something and suppress it, they’re always left wondering. So I think parents should encourage their children to pursue their passions. They might be really good and it’ll work out or they’ll realize it’s not something they really want to do. After all, it’s better to try than always wonder, “What if…?”