Cathy Horyn on ‘Joe Eula: Master of Twentieth-Century Fashion Illustration’
The enigmatic artist had a need to “seek the essence” of things; an icon in her own right, Cathy Horyn seeks to better understand Joe Eula’s essence in her new book.
American journalist Cathy Horyn begins her tribute to the late fashion illustrator Joe Eula with an anecdote regarding Coco Chanel from 1962. Eula was in Chanel’s Paris salon rapid-fire sketching — in part because speed was his signature, but also because Eula wasn’t technically supposed to be there. “The French houses didn’t want anyone sketching their clothes; they complained incessantly about copies,” wrote Horyn.
In fact, Coco Chanel was headed directly towards Joe Eula to kick him out when Eula, in his impulsive way, began sketching the famed designer. “…By the time the terror had reached him,” Horyn wrote, “he had finished her portrait.” Chanel and Eula would go on to be friends — she and the same illustrator who sketched brave, fluid lines that brought immediacy and life to the houses of Dior, Givenchy, Bill Blass, Charles James and Halston.
Joe Eula was a true artist. He brought out the sound of Miles Davis in a haunting, backwards-leaning, horn-blowing silhouette of a man. He made dresses dance on paper. He captured the soul of the Supremes with his dexterous gestures and rendered the sheer likeness of society women with mere strokes. He was the creative director of Halston during the ’70s, “the era of the designer’s greatest influence.” He was a critic; unafraid to speak his mind or have an opinion or live his life any way other than exactly how he saw fit. He once stood up during a 1980 Saint Laurent couture show, took Lizzette Kattan (then fashion editor of Italian Harper’s Bazaar) by the hand, said a few choice, albeit critical words and marched out of the venue. And those who met him seemed to fall immediately under his spell.
“Joe Eula: Master of Twentieth-Century Fashion Illustration,” (Harper Collins) explores the enigmatic man who Andy Warhol once called “the most important person” in New York. “What makes Eula such a difficult figure to grasp in the fashion and cultural scene of the past seventy-five years,” wrote the book’s author, Cathy Hoyrn, “is that he sticks out like a sore thumb, and yet in another sense, he seems nowhere to be found.”
She notes that despite all he produced, Eula is rarely mentioned among the list of such regarded fashion illustrators as Eric (Carl Erickson), René Bouché, and Antonio Lopez. When Horyn was asked to write about Joe Eula’s career to accompany an archival collection of his work, she knew that to a different generation — those under the age of 45 — Joe Eula was going to feel new.
“His career,” she told me during an interview in October, “what he was doing then is what people want to do now: a little bit of everything. They want to be a stylist, but also have a collection, and be an art director. People that are in their twenties today don’t think, ‘I want to sit in the front row until I’m 80.’ They don’t want to do that. If they do, they’re crazy. They can do many different things, and Joe believed in that. And he did that.”
What follows is a conversation with Cathy Horyn on the brilliant fashion illustrator, artist and respected rebel, Joe Eula. If his name was previously forgotten or unknown, perhaps this book can change that.
Amelia Diamond: What made you want to be part of this project? It seems like you have a very personal relationship with him.
Cathy Horyn: I do, and that’s why I did the book. Melisa Gosnell [executor of the art estate of Joe Eula] — her name is on the cover — she was very close with Joe. I met her through Joe when he was still alive. They were very close. Joe trusted her, as far as his artwork. She went to Harper Collins and said, “I have this book idea.” They called me, and because it was Joe, I said yes right away.
I knew a lot…about Joe, but it was still difficult for me to get my head around him. What was Joe? How do you describe Joe? When David Downton [fashion illustrator quoted in the book] is talking about why Joe is not in the pantheon of illustrators in terms of technique, he’s right.
AD: Downton said you could never get a “bad Eric,” but you could get a “bad Joe.” I guess I wonder — why?
CH: David Downton noted that Joe worked for newspapers, and Eric was in Vogue. The famous illustrators were in magazines that people kept. People threw away newspapers. We forget that; that people really kept those magazines. My mother, she kept all of the W’s, she kept Gourmet. Sketches appeared in American Vogue, going back to the 20s and the teens, before photographs were allowed to be published — it was all sketches. That’s one factor.
Also, Eric wasn’t sketching on deadline, Joe was. Joe was sketching — often in shows where he wasn’t supposed to be sketching. Another factor is that Joe had no attention span, he was very impatient. He didn’t want to revise.
AD: It seemed like his personality jumped off the page.
CH: Yet he wasn’t annoying. Some people who are like that are. I don’t know what he was like in the ‘70s — people who had known him then — mid ’70s to early ‘80s — said they weren’t great years. He was working, but there were too many drugs. People who knew him during that time brought it up later and said he had really come back down to earth. But when I knew him, he was fairly gentle.
If my house was burning and my dog was out of the house and I could grab one thing, it would be his drawing of me, the one that he did in the kitchen. He did that in 30 seconds on a notepad in his kitchen. It was half that size [printed in the book], maybe a little bigger.
I had come to his apartment to interview him about Bill Blass. It was a sunny day, we had just met. We sat in his living room talking, and all of his original artwork was there too, so it was like a big gallery in a tiny, weird apartment. Then we went into the kitchen, which was like as big as that bar over there [points], maybe smaller. I wanted to see the view out the window and he just said, “Stop right there,” then ripped it off and handed it to me.
AD: Was it so fast that you couldn’t be embarrassed?
CH: I knew enough to stop. I just stopped. I didn’t look down. I just did what he told me to do.
It’s one of my favorite things. I don’t think there’s a photograph that anyone’s done that’s as good as that drawing. It’s what Liza Minnelli said, which I thought was very dead-on: “Joe showed you how the dress was meant to be worn.” It’s the intent. I thought it was so true, because she said, “I move all the time.”
To me, he captured the person that I think I am.
One of Joe Eula’s illustrations printed in the book
He did have a big ego. He could be assertive. If you were working on something and talking to him about it he’d be like, “No, forget that.” Other times he’d tell you to do things that you didn’t want to do — or couldn’t do. But most of the time he was right, because he was so contemporary.
It’s just funny to me that he spent so much time with Halston, but he never broadcasted that fact. He did say to people, “If it weren’t for me, there wouldn’t be Halston.” He said that after that earlier decade. When I met him, in the end of the ’90s, he never talked like that. In fact, I didn’t think to ask him about Halston.
AD: And Halston never really made this relationship public, it seemed.
CH: Very little. The only way you knew about it was if you were around, you went to Joe’s parties, and you read the Warhol Diaries. That’s it. There’s a lot in the Warhol Diaries about Joe, more than I expected, but he wasn’t at Studio 54, he wasn’t really a part of that scene.
AD: Do you think that’s why he was able to capture these moments? There are writers who are so immersed in the fashion industry — especially young ones — they feel such a passion and such a love for it, that it can be hard for them to disassociate themselves from it when need be.
CH: That’s generally true, though. Joe knew everybody, so it was kind of a weird combo.
I expect some of his attitude was about work, that he had to be involved. He was a real worker bee. He had a chalkboard in his apartment on 54th street that had his entire schedule written on it, whoever the new client was, the new job. He was constantly working.
I also think he was okay being in the background. There were moments where he wasn’t, but for the most part, he was ok with it. I think Joe probably believed pretty early on that he was crucial to a lot of people, and I don’t think he needed to go beyond that. There’s evidence of this that later on — in the ’70s and ’80s, when he stands up with Lizzette at the Saint Laurent show — I mean it’s unthinkable he would do that. He was friends with those guys. They were friends afterwards, actually.
AD: I think that’s something Emilia Petrarca’s article touched on — that in this day and age, people are afraid to be critics, are afraid of opinion. He wasn’t like that.
CH: Not at all. First, he grew up in a climate when it was free — there weren’t really critics — he could be the person who he wanted to be. There is the big question: was he bisexual? Some said absolutely not, he was gay. Others said yes. There were men, but he never lived with anyone. I think Joe could very easily have said to someone, “Okay, that’s it, out.” He could get impatient with people. He wanted his world, to do things the way he wanted to do things.
People who lived in those years, ‘60s, ‘70s, a little bit of the ‘80s, they were more tolerant, they were more assertive, there was no political correctness. They were all such strong personalities. Later on, Joe would say, “Fuck them.” But when he said something like that, you could look at him and say, “Joe, you never cared. Why are you getting upset now?” He never followed those kind of rules.
What bugged him about Halston in the end was that Halston got so grand. He would say, “I’m the only person who could tell Halston, ‘You’ve got your head up your ass.’”
AD: You wrote that some people felt Joe might be resentful of Halston, that he was living vicariously through him. Did you get that sense?
CH: Not really. I did hear that from people. Halston was where the action was. When I did Joe’s obituary and I interviewed Fernando [Sánchez, late designer and friend of Mr. Eula’s since the ’60s] and he made that comment: “If it hadn’t been for Elsa [Peretti] and Joe, Halston would have never been the success that he was.”
AD: Another thing that was amazing about this book is the time. It was such a beautiful time in fashion; it feels like we don’t have that now. They say we’re always nostalgic for the past, but I can’t help but look back on that period with Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld and Oscar de la Renta and Andy Warhol, all in the same room…
CH: We all have to deal with the Internet and what it’s done. That’s the answer, right there. It’s not killing fashion, it’s making fashion into something else. Fashion will be there. It is an evolution. I look at it like that. In 15 years we’ll be looking at someone else. I don’t mind it. I think it’s easier if you don’t judge it too much or feel too sentimental about it.
The era of Oscar de la Renta and those guys of the ‘60s, building those brands the way they did, coming out of the back room and becoming superstars, and Oscar being the superstar because of his ambition, that’s what he wanted. Azzedine Alaïa used to say that you wouldn’t get another original designer who could also have an impact — like how Azzedine had an impact.
But, I always look at Margiela. He was a guy who came along in his time and made clothes out of garbage bags and showed in the subway, and it created a movement. He did it on a shoestring. It can be done, and I believe there are people who are personally dedicated enough. We’re just not in the moment right now.
AD: We were just talking about an article in The Atlantic — “Is 25 the new 21?” — and the point that the author circles back to is that kids in this generation have such strong parental support, so they can take creative jobs for little to nothing. We’re very set on our career goals, but because of supportive parents, very few of us are really “starting from scratch.” At the same time, I feel like these modern opportunities afford for more people to come out of the woodwork.
CH: I think so too. I think we’re seeing that especially in writing. I find things to read all the time by young writers. People will say, “Did you see so and so on Salon? She’s great,” and I didn’t know about her. I find that there are a lot of opportunities in a strange way. Blogs are getting a lot of respect. I think that what’s got to be tough — I don’t know if you guys feel angst — but there was no angst when I was coming along. You just moved up the ladder.
AD: Leandra is more comfortable with the word “blog” than I am. She’s one year younger than I am, and I know this is weird, but she’s just under the wire whereas I’m a little bit more “magazines.” She’s very comfortable with it. I’ll always say “website” and she’ll say, “We’re a blog, you can say it. It’s good to say.”
CH: She’s right. But I can hear what you’re saying. You’re in the hybrid. You’re in the in-between stage. It’s funny to hear about people who still live in the magazine world. The angst we didn’t deal with. We dealt with recessions. I applied to 75 newspapers when I got out of graduate school. I wrote those letters. I heard from 3. It was post-Watergate. I eventually got a job, but the pickings were slim. I wasn’t worried about it. I wasn’t panicky. No one was talking about newspapers going under.
My first interview at The Washington Post was like a meet and greet kind of thing. They said we have no job for you but we just want to meet you to keep an eye on you. When I finished the day of interviews the man who was in charge of administration said, “Everyone really liked you. You got great feedback. It will be about seven years.”
It was seven years.
AD: Was it really?
CH: Oh yeah. I went off, got another job. Then I went to Detroit. Then I started covering fashion, and that’s when they were interested.
AD: We have so many readers who care about writing too. Do you have any advice? It’s a scary field to enter into. It’s over-saturated, which is exciting but probably overwhelming.
CH: I think a true voice always works. Never look at what anyone else is doing. Look at it, but say, “Eh.” I remember for a while, everyone was beginning interviews with, “Last Wednesday…” and I remember thinking, Can anyone start a story a different way? I think it’s good to stand your ground. And I think snark is over. Snark will kill you, and irony will kill you unless you’re really good at it.
Also, I’m not too interested in first-person. When I first started, my father used to say — just as an exercise — try to reduce the length of your copy by 50%. I had too many adverbs and adjectives. It’s the same with first person. See if you can reduce it. It’s more graceful without it.
The other thing I would say about those who want to be critics: it’s an opportunity. Look at the writers who aren’t fashion writers, who are great critics. Look at Sontag, look at Ellen Willis. Look at Manny Farber, the film critic for The New Republic and The Nation. I used to read all the new journalists in the ‘60s. Those were my influences. When you see how people can think about stuff, it gives you encouragement. I think there is definitely an opportunity for someone to get into it.
AD: So. It seemed like people approached Eula with apprehension, or an aversion to him, and then every time, when he drew their portrait, it was like “…and then they became friends, then they became close.” It was almost as if he put a magic spell on them.
CH: He did have a way with people, whether he drew their portrait or not. I felt like I knew him for a long time. We had a rapport. Maybe because with Joe, we were there talking about Bill Blass, and I felt like I was talking to an equal, whereas Bill was no equal. Bill was way up here. Maybe Joe always felt like he was among the worker bees. He wasn’t one of the grand people, although he could have an attitude like that, obviously. Maybe that was it. Lizzette was a classic example of love at first sight, and they stayed friends until the end of his life. Joe had such an affection for the Italians. For Elsa, number one. I wish I could have interviewed Elsa for the book…
Joe Eula’s sketch of Elsa Peretti
Maybe it was magic, though. He just had a wonderful way.
It’s funny, we talked about then and now, and one of the things that always struck me is that it always seems like people then had more time. They were less in a hurry to get somewhere, so if they met someone they liked, they would just stop and get into the conversation. They weren’t necessarily thinking, “Well, what is this person going to do for me?” I’ve never been able to put my finger on why the world today is like that. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I feel that way.
Whenever I hear Joe’s stories, I think of the way he lived upstate. It was so perfect and untouched, with these big old stone walls. The photos [in the book] showed only 1/10th of the place. He’d have fresh flowers, and this fireplace he designed like something out of Italy.
Back then, you could take time to do things and hang out. Joe had that in his personality always. I would go up there and sit in the kitchen, and I never felt like I had to be anywhere else. I could be there. Maybe if I left New York I would find it among other types of people. That’s why people leave New York, actually.
Joe was able to maintain that until the end of his life. He never was affected by commerce.
…You know, I remember taking him to the racetrack, to Belmont, for a story. It was so beautiful. It was a beautiful day. Poor Joe had emphysema, but he was like, “Okay, let’s do that!” Joe and I just schlepped around the back of the track.
AD: And he would just draw while walking around?
CH: He would stand; he would lean. Joe did a lot of drawings on the spot and then he allegedly revised some, but I don’t think he did that much revision. What did he on the spot was as good as it was going to get. He had this amazing feeling — 20 times more than mine, a sensitivity for things. I definitely had it for Belmont; I knew that there was a story there even if I couldn’t explain why. It was my favorite type of fashion story because it was about the essence rather than something that’s real. It’s the aura, and not the thing.
When you stand there at the back of the track and you watch these girls and guys, and the way they have their clothes on — it wasn’t the jockey silks. Can you imagine today, proposing a story about the back of the track at Belmont? It was fun. It was a different kind of world that you’re trying to capture.
AD: Do you have anything else you want to say about this book?
CH: I’m glad we did the book. I’m glad Liz Sullivan and Harper Collins were behind it. It looks the way it looks because of Liz. She really did an amazing job.
AD: It must have been like your baby.
CH: Kind of. I had my portion to do. I love research, I love the reporting. I love talking to people and figuring things out. Joe wanted to do a book, and I think he was resistant about working with other people to do it. I think we captured the essence of him, or captured what was important to capture.
What I hope people get about it — we all say this now, but the world moves on so quickly. Everything becomes very packaged. You don’t get a sense of what people were like. Fashion’s terrible about that: packaging things, cleaning them up, the person’s real personality is gone. They all look like saints.
I think a book like this, with its warts and all — he wasn’t perfect, he did some bad things, the loudmouth moments, the Saint Laurent moment, the drugs, the fact that he was hiding money in the backyard in a paper bag… It’s one more keyhole to look into the way the world was at a certain time. For someone assembling their historical views of things, I thought it would be good to have Joe’s perspective.
“JOE EULA: Master of Twentieth-Century Fashion Illustration,” by Cathy Horyn was published on November 11, 2014. To learn more, or purchase the book, visit here. Illustrations above come from “Joe Eula: Master of Twentieth-Century Fashion Illustration,” Copyright 2014 by Melisa Gosnell. Images reprinted courtesy of Harper Design.