Richard Haines was born in Panama into a respectable family, and has loved drawing for as long as he can remember. “My father was a commander in the U.S. Navy, and we generally moved once every three years, which is far from ideal for making friends at school,” he says. “I remember having a rather lonely childhood. My brother was six years older than me; we were very different and never spent much time together. I think that drawing quickly became a way for me to escape reality and find refuge in my very own world, far from the rules imposed by adults.” As art was not even a topic of conversation in his family, the young Richard’s love of fashion sketches – despite the fact that he was encouraged to draw cowboys and airplanes – was met with incomprehension. “During the summer when I was eleven, we were on the coast and I fell head over heels for the fashion pages in my grandfather’s copy of the New York Times. I remember there was a review of the Givenchy haute couture collection, with hats, gloves, knee-length dresses, and checked fabrics. I immediately saw that these sketches obeyed a sense of beauty and a sophistication that I wanted to be a part of in any way possible.”
However, allowing the teenager to become a fashion designer was unthinkable. In an effort to compromise, the Haines family instead nudged their youngest son towards graphic arts, in which he learned the ins and outs of visual communication. But Richard Haines secretly dreamed that his sketches would one day be published in the French edition of Vogue – to which he was subscribed – alongside articles by Françoise Sagan, photos by Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, and models dreamed up by Yves Saint Laurent, Courrèges, and Kenzo. France remained dear to his heart and was a regular part of his creative world. With this in mind, it was no surprise that his first trip alone took him to Paris, in May 1974. “As soon as I arrived, I made the Café de Flore my lookout post. I wanted to know everything about French style, completely understand the allure of the elegant men and women I had seen in the films of Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, grasp their mastery of accessories, and learn as much as I could about the lifestyles of dandies such as Jacques de Bascher and Tan Giudicelli. Paris quenched my thirst for beauty, humanity, and joie de vivre. It was a time when the French capital was far less adapted to tourists, and very few people spoke English. As a result, my trip was something of an apprenticeship.”
Learning the Ropes with Cathy Hardwick
On Christmas Day in 1975, the young man left Washington for New York, determined to carve out a niche as a fashion illustrator. Yet after an unfulfilling first experience as an illustrator for a company specialized in patterns, Richard Haines found himself unemployed. “I was in the right place, but at the wrong time. Photography had totally usurped fashion sketches, which were now seen as retro. I quickly had to forget my dream of making it as an artist. I put together a book of my sketches and went and knocked on the doors of all the fashion houses. That was when [the designer] Cathy Hardwick hired me. She taught me my craft and I started making regular trips between New York and Paris. Back then, Claude Montana, Thierry Mugler, and others were just starting out, and I was fascinated!” So ensued a career spanning more than thirty years as a fashion designer for a variety of prestigious American brands including Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Bill Blass, and Sean John. His material success made him forget the less enjoyable parts of the job, such as “making and remaking models to suit the tastes of the client, managing the whole production line, and dealing with delays and nasty, last-minute surprises.”
The United States was hit hard by the financial crisis in 2007. Every industry felt the effects – including fashion – and work dried up. Richard Haines, who was also in the middle of a divorce, moved from Manhattan to the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he began to consider retraining. While imagining what new direction his life could take, he spent a lot of time alone in coffee shops, his hand automatically scribbling on a notepad. Like a gigantic, open-air fashion show, the New York streets became a source of inspiration, offering up gaits, encounters, looks, and clothing styles. With broad pencil strokes brightened with a few splashes of color, he breathed life into the frenzy of the city on paper. His lines were fast and focused as much on shape as movement. But he had no purpose for these sketches until a friend suggested he start a blog and share them online. This is how What I Saw Today began, in 2008. The site was quickly spotted and soon went viral. “I think people were moved by the artisanal, human, spontaneous side to my work. I don’t use a computer, and I never make adjustments. As a matter of principle, my first line is always the right one. If I have to rework a sketch, it dies. My drawings reflect a vision or a fleeting emotion in real time. I am wary of any search for perfection or the illusory pursuit of pure aesthetics. My sketches offer nothing more than the vitality, diversity, and incredible creativity of humanity. So many people online left me really encouraging comments and messages, and I was soon contacted by professionals such as GQ and Vogue.”
Commissions began to flood in, and Richard Haines inaugurated his first solo exhibition in New York in July 2009, followed by group shows in Paris and Madrid. Two years later, his sketches were exhibited in Los Angeles. In 2012, he collaborated with Prada on Il Palazzo, an editorial project with 150 of the artists’ sketches inspired by the brand’s fall/winter 2012-2013 collection. Not long after, he was approached by Dries Van Noten. Ever since, Richard Haines has gone from one success to the next. Other projects are also in the pipeline, including collaborations with the New York Times, Tiffany & Co., GQ, Apple, J.Crew, and the Paris Fashion Week, all promising a range of beautiful creations from the artist, who confesses to having a passion for illustrators Christian Bérard (“a genius”), Antonio Lopez, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Vertès, and Francis Marshall.
The man who spent thirty years relaying his fashion vision to his peers truly came into his own through the knowing and spellbound observation of the diversity of street fashion and runway shows. After a long time spent trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to work with whom he saw as the most prestigious fashion houses throughout his career as a designer, it took mere months for the illustrator to win over demanding clients such as Prada. There is something reminiscent of a coming-of-age story in Richard Haines’ career. Something that appears to highlight the danger of pretense, the illusion of clothing through the way in which it can distort the soul, and the dishonesty of art when it falsely distances itself from nature. But isn’t the mark of greatness giving others food for thought through the prism of creativity?
Article published in the September 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.