Artist in Residence: Megan Hess

The Oetker Collection has appointed the illustrious fashion illustrator to bring her eye, wit – and pen – to capture the spirit of its hotels around the world. Interview by Charlotte Hogarth-Jones.

She is the illustrator of choice for some of the world’s most prestigious fashion houses, including Dior, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Chanel – but for Megan Hess, life hasn’t always been so glamorous.

“I remember making over 10 rounds of changes on an illustration for a pizza company,” she recalls. “There were so many emails about making the mushrooms look more like mushrooms – and then there was the 365-page horse-riding book that never got published. That was awful.”

Moving on from a job as an art director at London’s Liberty department store, Hess had managed to pull in enough work to make ends meet, but for the most part it was “pretty uninspiring”.

Then, just when she was thinking of returning to her original career in graphic design, Candace Bushnell’s publisher saw Hess’s work in a copy of Italian Vogue and commissioned her to illustrate not just one, but all previous covers of the Sex and the City books, ahead of a big PR launch in New York. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I remember walking down to Times Square and a taxi with my illustrations on it stopped in front of me – it was unreal. They were just everywhere at that time: on cabs, buses, billboards… From then on, I became very optimistic.”

Optimistic or not, the work flooded in, from live-sketching couture shows (“a bit like the illustrational Olympics, – you wish they’d just stop walking!”) to doing portraits for Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and the magnificent Michelle Obama.

“I remember thinking, my God, she’s such a smart, accomplished, well-connected person, the thought of her not being happy with my work was dreadful,” she says.

Thankfully, the commission was well received and, among other projects, Megan has now created a series of illustrations for each Oetker Collection masterpiece hotel, in her role as the group’s artist in residence.

“For me the Oetker Collection illustrations are twofold,” Hess explains, “First, it’s about getting the location and the façade of each building right, and that’s not something I need or want to make up. Then it’s about staying at each hotel and observing the people. On my last night at The Lanesborough in London, for example, I saw this very tiny, cute woman coming in through the door with a very tall, skinny man behind her and a big stack of boxes – I just had to run up to my room and sketch her. Usually it’s about getting a feel for the kind of guests in each location as a starting point, but I couldn’t have made that up.”

Le Bristol Paris

 

For Hess, who has been conjuring up elegant ladies and the glamorous fantasy worlds they inhabit since she was a child, one of the biggest challenges of the job is remaining undetected. “It’s so important to be discreet,” she says. “It’s not like when I sit outside the Café de Flore in Paris eating cheese and drinking wine and people-watching all day – that’s my favourite spot.”

When it comes to inspiration, she is a big admirer of the Russian-born French artist Erté and has been collecting books on his work since she was a teenager.

“He created a style that was just so unique,” she says, “and it is still so timeless. Plus he was one of the first illustrators to make fashion illustration a viable career.”

Today, she explains, there is a greater demand than ever for illustration – brands are constantly on the lookout for more work to send out through their social-media channels, and in the age of the awless, digitally enhanced photograph, there is a certain value and cachet attached to “things that are hand-drawn, and a bit sketchy and scratchy – things that perhaps aren’t so perfect.”

When she is not travelling the world sketching, the majority of Hess’s work takes place in a light, airy studio in Port Melbourne. “It sounds cheesy but I have to listen to music that suits the mood of what I’m working on at that time,” she says, “I can’t be drawing Le Bristol when there’s New York, New York blaring on in the background.”

Currently she can only handle about 10 per cent of the work she is approached to do, and trying to guess which projects will be the most creative and rewarding is a permanent challenge. “You have to go with your gut instinct, but once you’ve committed to something, that’s it,” she says. “It can be so frustrating turning down a dream commission because you’ve taken on too much work; sometimes it almost brings me to tears.”

The Lanesborough London

 

The remainder of her time is spent flying around the globe for client meetings, fashion shows, premieres and projects, juggling time zones and deadlines in a dizzying schedule of appointments. Sometimes, Hess explains, life can feel quite surreal. “When I know I’m going to be in the studio I’ll just throw on some simple black separates, and if I have a Skype call with a client I’ll put on something presentable from the waist up and keep my pyjama pants and fluffy socks on underneath. Then, when I go to these events I love long, oaty dresses with lots of lace that are very romantic. At these premieres it’s like I’m playing dress-up and make-believe – it feels like a couple of separate lives. But it’s not something I could cope with 24/7.”

Although the travel can be draining – she once did a 48-hour London-Melbourne round-trip for Dior – there is a sense that Hess prefers to keep her life as a member of the fashion elite separate from life with her family back in Melbourne. Weekends are spent in their home, a vast church attic converted by her architect husband, seeing friends and walking on the beach with her daughter, aged 10, and son, aged six. And when the pressures of work start encroaching? “I just look at that pizza illustration in my drawer,” she says. “It’s a reminder of how lucky I am.”

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