Nuno Da Costa is the fashion illustrator’s illustrator, commanding respect in an industry that has arguably prized the camera over the paintbrush since photography emerged over a century ago. His style, a mixture of craftsmanship, fantasy, and judicious use of technology, is immediately recognizable yet he attended none of the top fashion schools to hone his vision. His atypical route into fashion illustration began during his studies of Modern Languages, Latin American, and Hispanic Culture at Kings College London. When he discovered fashion illustration could actually be a career, he left, and, with the bold naivety of youth, created an illustration portfolio to present to art directors. Fast forward to today and his title is Official Illustrator of Vogue Portugal, he is ambassador of Fida (Fashion Illustration and Drawing Awards) and his array of clients include, Chanel, Maison Thierry Mugler, Disney, the Financial Times, British Vogue and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Tokyo to name a handful. FashionUnited discusses with Da Costa his enviable status as one of the leaders of the current renaissance of fashion art.
How did you discover fashion?
I didn’t even really know that it was “a thing” until some friends took me to an exhibition at the Fashion Illustration Gallery for the launch of the Fashion Illustration Now book by Laird Borelli. That was a real aha moment. I had been drawing every day since I was around 3 years old and fashion illustration married my two loves, painting and fashion, so it felt like I had found my world. I phoned various magazines in London and arranged go-sees. I started working within a week. I was super fortunate.
What’s a typical day like for you?
A typical day starts with taking the dogs for their morning walk around 6.30/7am, coming back, exercising, showering, coffee so that I am ready to start my day around 8.30 am, (I only mention those because they are really important to get me in the right headspace). Then I check and answer emails that came in overnight. I spend the mornings researching unless I am already locked into the painting part of a project. I normally end my day around 7 or 8 pm.
How much time on average do you spend on a piece of work?
That’s a little hard to say. I normally juggle multiple commissions for various clients at the same time. So I send sketches for client sign-offs and work on other projects whilst I wait for the approval. It is a constant rotation unless I am fortunate enough to have a generous deadline.
You are at a point where you pitch your own concepts to Vogue. How do you come up with ideas and what does the pitching process look like?
Yes, I am super fortunate. As well as the wonderful projects Vogue Portugal asks me to participate in, I also have the opportunity to pitch my own concepts which is really unheard of for an illustrator. The issues are based on themes rather than months so the unique themes really set the agenda and my concepts spring from there. The pitching process is very direct and simple. I normally contact Sofia Lucas, the Editor in Chief with the idea and it goes from there, or not. Sofia and Vogue Portugal have been wonderful supporters of my work and always allow me to be myself creatively, but at the same time, as Editor in Chief she knows exactly what she likes and what works for the magazine. So if something isn’t right it doesn’t make it in, which is a really nice dynamic. It inevitably makes me lift my game and brings out the best in me, which is wonderful.
You have an instantly recognizable style, everyone knows “the Nuno woman.” Do you have a muse or what do you think of as you create her?
That is something that I have been hearing since my early days in the business. I remember art directors remarking on my girls’ appearance when I first started all those years ago, about “the Nuno girl.’’ And, she was a girl back then. She is a woman now. I think she has grown and evolved along with me, as my tastes and interests have matured. I can still see a thread that connects them both though. It is quite funny but a few people have remarked that they can see me in my drawings, even though I am a man with a shaved head. I think it is a look in the eyes or an attitude. I don’t have a muse per se. I think I just love women. I love their strength, their fragility, their complexity, and most of all I love their power. I find every facet beautiful and want to do them justice.
With the success of your illustration style, do you still find room to experiment or surprise yourself?
Yes, definitely. In fact, I would say that experimenting is an integral part of my process. It never ends. I think having a style is important but I also think that artists confuse technique and style. To me, they are not the same thing. My style is an attitude, a point of view and I express that across different mediums, often within the same image. I am constantly introducing the new into my work, which keeps things fresh and stops people from becoming bored of me. Most importantly, it stops me from becoming bored of myself.
You have said, “Fashion illustration lets the viewer fill in the blanks and it is more participatory than photography.” What do you mean by that?
I say this as a huge admirer of fashion photography and the great masters. I think fashion photography, generally, lays everything on the table for the viewer to consume. It is what it is. Fashion illustration suggests something to the viewer’s eye and invites the viewer to fill in the blanks. It allows the viewer to see what they want to see, to create a dream. I think that dance between the artist and the viewer is where the magic lies.
The pandemic changed many industries, for better or worse. Do you think it has changed fashion illustration’s fortunes in any way?
In some ways, yes. I think the pandemic has shown the world how fragile systems are. How things that we have always relied upon and taken for granted can be upended and pulled out from under us. It has taught us the value of time and humanity. It has hopefully also taught us the value of artisans, including illustrators. That when systems and logistics failed or faltered, human beings and artisans were resilient and stepped up to fill the void in all kinds of ingenious and innovative ways. When you can’t ship clothes, models, and teams across the world because the environment, circumstances, or budgets don’t allow it, illustration offers a wonderful and creative solution.
In an ideal scenario where would you like to see fashion illustration going?
In an ideal scenario I would love to see fashion illustration continue to push the fashion conversation forward in new and ever more creative ways and directions. To see brands harness fashion illustration’s unique ability to communicate a designer’s vision, to communicate his or her dream through this magical suggestive art form. I think the world needs to dream, now more than ever.
All imagery Nuno Da Costa
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry