Illustrator Robert Passantino on How Fashion Hones His Eye

Sharp, defined lines boldly configured in creative layouts are among the traits that defined Robert Passantino’s fashion illustrations.

Though computers have largely replaced what has now become a collectible art form, there was a difference in what the artist brought to fashion.

“I always wanted to take the art to another level,” Passantino, a former staff illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily, said. WWD’s fast pace, combined with the lightning speed of changing fashions, created a fertile atmosphere for an artist to identify their style. Passantino’s style is most recognizable in the late Seventies into the Eighties when bold shoulders and bodycon were en mode, though it shifted throughout his time at the publication.

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“Hard Times” by Robert Passantino. Courtesy of Illustrator Robert Passantino

That friendly competition helped to inform WWD’s on-trend and up-to-the-minute daily reporting, complete with industry-leading illustrations.

And it was working on those daily assignments, none of which was ever the same, that Passantino said helped evolve his eye.

“When an art director hires you, he notices something in you. I developed my style on the job. It was a fashion art boot camp,” he said. Today, Passantino continues to rework art he conceptualized at WWD and is conscious that his early work is noticeably different from what he is doing today. “As an artist, the more you work on your art, the better you become.”

A 1974 WWD issue featuring “Italy Pre-Couture.” Drawing by Robert Passantino. Fairchild Archives/Drawing by Robert Passantino

He and three other staff members would meet once a week, hiring and paying a model to pose for them to improve their skills. There were times he worked into the night on seasonal supplements until they got it right. “Everyone was on board. We were like a family. Working with artists in such a variety of styles was so good for training your hand and eye…Assignments were not pre-planned. We all did everything.”

A look into the WWD archives proves this, though it’s easy to see whose style captured a specific category best. Catherine Clayton Purnell, for one, excelled in lingerie and children’s wear; Pedro Barrios in accessories, while Passantino’s graphic stylings were often singled out in swimwear features. “I loved swimwear, drawing the body and beauty; those were my specialties,” he said, noting that one of his favorite designers to work with at the time was Norma Kamali. Her swimwear was part of a cover featuring Passantino’s illustrations, and it’s now part of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Francis Neady Collection.

The WWD Swimwear 1982 issue, “The Midas Touch.” Fairchild Archives/Drawing by Robert Passantino

Today, Passantino said he constantly looks forward to seeing fashion illustrations recapture the industry’s evolution, magic, and allure. The joy of creating art daily was exhilarating, he said, and it still is. “Working with WWD gave me a worldwide showcase for my art,” he said. “It was an awesome time, in the real sense of the word. Fashion illustration challenges the eye, makes it think. The possibilities are endless.”

Although the pandemic put a hold on upcoming showings through Passantino’s representation with Gray M.C.A Galleries in London, he is looking forward to the future of fashion illustration as a featured fine art category — something long deserved for the art form.

A 1982 issue of WWD featuring French ready-to-wear: Thierry Mugler and Karl Lagerfeld for Chloe. Drawings by Robert Passantino. Fairchild Archives/Drawing by Robert Passantino

Passantino’s illustrations are also in the permanent collection at Drexel University and were featured earlier this year in the exhibition “Fashion Illustration: The Visionaries, A Century of Illustrations from the Frances Neady Collection” at the Society of American Illustrators in New York.

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