Interview by { Beth Weitzman 

Portrait by { Sara Hanna 

Illustrations by { Bil Donovan

Appointed the first artist-in-residence for Christian Dior Beauty in 2009, renowned fashion illustrator Bil Donovan fills every one of his works with glamour, luxury, style and a slightly abstract sensibility reflective of his creativity, as well as his background in fine art. His client list includes many of the world’s leading luxury and lifestyle brands, including Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, Vogue and Mercedes-Benz. Donovan is also a gifted teacher who imparts knowledge based on years of experience to students at Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Art, both in New York City. We recently caught up with him at a benefit for the Georgia Breast Cancer Coalition where, for the second year, he volunteered to paint portraits of attendees to raise money for the charity.

When did you first realize you had a gift for illustration?

Drawing, to me, was magical. As a child, I was fascinated that a crayon to paper could conjure up an image out of the imagination. I loved drawing, but my observational and draftsmanship skills were in need of fine-tuning. My passion informed my thirst for knowledge and developing those skill sets. So, after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology with a degree in fashion illustration, I enrolled in continuing education classes at the School of Visual Arts. I took classes in the illustration department for six years in drawing, oil painting, watercolor, acrylic, color and design, to name a few. During this period, I realized I had made major strides in my work and my skill sets were solid.

Are there similarities between illustration and fashion?

All creative endeavors overlap, whether it is draping on a dress form or making marks on paper. Inspiration, together with a unique vision, filtered thought creativity and intuition shape the work.

How did you connect with Christian Dior? 

Vogue booked me for a special event with Dior in December 2008. I wore a suit and created fashion portraits of Dior’s couture special clientele. It was a huge success, and the clients and Dior were very happy. Two amazing women were responsible for bringing me into the world of Dior—I call them my fairy godmothers—[beauty publicist] Dianne Vavra and [marketing consultant] Brooke Travis. 

How did it feel to be appointed Christian Dior Beauty’s first artist-in-residence?

Beyond my wildest dreams. It’s an incredible honor to be associated with such a renowned and legendary house. It was a monumental shift in my life and career… I attempt to honor that history and standard of excellence of Dior by creating work that is elegant, glamorous, spirited and luxurious.

What are some highlights of working with Christian Dior?

[I was] commissioned to create a large painting for the Dior Suite at The St. Regis New York. I did a historical fashion timeline of Dior’s legendary designers, including the maestro Christian Dior, of course, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan and Gianfranco Ferre. [Another] time, under the guidance of Dianne Vavra, I did 22 portraits of beauty editors from all of the magazines. I met this incredible beauty and style icon, Sara Brown, who is now a good friend. 

Do you have any other favorite brands with whom you’ve worked?

St. Regis, I illustrate their signature cocktail, the bloody mary, for all the locations; illustrations for a catalog for Graff; an animation for L’Occitane; NYFW for New York magazine; Luxure magazine, where I get to illustrate the couture collections; The Washington Post; Harper Collins; and South Coast Plaza.

What project are you most proud of?

About four years ago, I received an email request from Raul Martinez, the corporate creative director of Condé Nast, inquiring if I would be interested in illustrating 12 couture fashions for [The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s] The Costume Institute. I had to read the email twice for fear I was misreading. The curator, Harold Koda, was retiring, and they wanted to present him with a special book of illustrations and photography of the work he had acquired for the collection—Armani, Versace, Givenchy, Valentino, to name a few. This was a dream job, aside from the deadline of three weeks to complete everything. Certainly one of the most important commissions of my life, and the time restraints put me in a bit of a panic. I froze, thinking this work had to be my best, I can’t screw up, all of the usual suspects of insecurity that whisper in your ear from time to time. Experience has taught me that if you allow preciousness to dominate the work, then the work is DOA. I needed to trust my vision and intuition—and I did. The pieces are some of the best work I’ve done, and I am ecstatic to have my work included in the permanent collection of the Costume Institute of The Met. 

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

My students. It’s important to share knowledge as it was shared with me. The students are incredible, and I have a good working relationship with each student. I make it a point to know their names and work, so that I can guide them as needed. I treat them as professionals and expect the same, and it works. They are passionate and inspirational, and I admire and adore them.

What do you hope students take away from your classes?

Integrity in their work and to never lose sight of their passion, wherever it may lead. To push the limits and explore possibilities. Talent is a gift. The artist needs to take responsibility for that gift and nurture it through practice, study and experimentation.

How did you get involved with the Georgia Breast Cancer Coalition?

Through a wonderful, talented woman, [photographer] Sara Hanna, who I met at a Dior Saks Beauty Event. We just connected and began talking about art and charity work and Sara asked if I would ever consider doing portraits to raise money for the charity. Of course, that was a no-brainer. I think artists have a responsibility to give back through volunteering and charities. I love the organization and the women involved. Each one is charming, stylish and lovely, plus we raise funding and have a great time.

How was your experience at the recently branded Waldorf Astoria Atlanta Buckhead, where the GBCC event was held?

The Waldorf Astoria is a beautiful hotel. It harkens back to another era of timeless elegance and style. This location blends a modern approach and yet retains that allure and standard associated with the Waldorf. My room was a beautiful suite and one of the most comfortable beds I’ve experienced. The staff are wonderful, attentive and efficient. And it has a great gym, which I always look for in a hotel. And fantastic cuisine, hence my need for the gym.

Did you get a chance to do anything else fun in Atlanta?

Sara brought me to Umi, where we had an amazing dinner, followed by cocktails at Himitsu, the adjacent private speakeasy. It was an incredible evening.

Favorite thing about Atlanta?

The women knock me out. Funny southern charm, wit and style. 

What inspires you?

Moments in time. Watching a beautiful woman enter a room. Couture—the fabrication, draping and designs that are visual sculptures, drawing from life. Nature, color, shadows, light, texture and, most of all, a blank sheet of paper ripe with possibilities.

What’s next for you?

You are the first publication I have shared this info with. I’m so excited! I am chair of the Frances Neady collection of fashion illustration at FIT’s Special Collections. It is an incredible treasure trove of original fashion illustrations from the turn of the century to today. At the moment, I am soliciting new work and working on a show of fashion illustration [at the Neady collection in 2020]. I will also have a solo show of work in September 2021 in Bath, outside of London.


Fashion Illustration: The Visionaries

A Century of Illustrations from the Frances Neady Collection

Society of Illustrators, 128 East 63rd St., New York, NY

Jan. 7-March 7, 2020