Danielle Meder is something of a Canadian fashion treasure.
Whether it’s her meticulously detailed paper dolls, her kinetic live sketches, or the musings she puts up on her blog, Meder’s work is adored by fashion lovers across the world; in fact, even Scott Schuman is a fan. Her work has appeared in publications such as FLARE, Women’s Wear Daily and The New York Times. We spoke to Meder over the phone earlier this week. Here, she talks to us about how she got started as an illustrator, her favourite Toronto neighbourhood and the themes that unify her disparate work.
In four sentences or less, tell us who you are and what you do for a living?
I am a fashion illustrator and trend theorist. I help people express their fashion ideas when they either don’t have the time or skill to do so.
For the past six years, I’ve also done live sketching at fashion weeks around the world. I specialize in paper dolls, and I occasionally work on avatar projects as an artist or consultant. One of my passions is writing about fashion. I’ve also had the opportunity to perform as an illustrator.
How did you get started on the path to becoming a fashion illustrator?
I went to school for fashion design. When you’re in school for fashion design you take illustration classes that are really straightforward. It’s about drawing clothing so that people understand the idea.
I also started blogging while I was still in school against the advice of all my instructors. They told me that people would steal my artwork and that I would never get a job.
I guess they were right. I never did get a job (laughs) .
But I kept posting my work to my blog, and after a while people started to email me, asking me to draw for them. So, in a very unplanned and haphazard way I’ve been developing my career for the past six years.
The audience that follows my paper dolls and my live sketching are completely different; I don’t see a lot of overlap in terms of people that like both. The paper dolls are loved by paper doll aficionados, but the fashion people reading my blog are more like, “eh?” and don’t understand the appeal.
I’ve been drawing paper dolls since I was a kid, so when I draw them I’m reaching back to this joyful sense of fun I had as a kid. I’m not necessarily thinking about style or whether it’s going end up trashy, and there’s almost nothing analytical or intellectual about them. It’s about the joy of rendering specific fabrics, and the fun of experimenting with extremely complex layers to create paper dolls that have as much play in them as possible. It also makes it into a kind of creative and open-ended game for the person looking at them.
That said, is there a theme or preoccupation that unifies your work?
I definitely have an obsession with designed clothing. I’m not a professional fashion designer by any means, but I design and make a lot of my own clothing, and it’s because I enjoy fashion at both a large, contextual level, a gestural level, and a technical and practical level.
Live sketching is about constantly seeking the elegant line—which is the mark of a mature fashion illustrator, and something that can take decades to develop as a skill.
The live sketches force me to put myself in the moment, and ask me understand and capture gesture; it’s about treating illustration more like a dance that interprets the moment as it’s happening.
The paper dolls, on the other hand, are much more deeply rendered. When I create them, it’s about looking very closely at a subject. You never look at something as closely as when you’re trying to render it. When I creating one of my paper dolls, I’m in Photoshop zooming in at 300%, 500%, 800%, and constantly thinking about patterns and textures.
The conventional advice for illustrators is to pick one style and stick with, which I’ve totally failed to do (laughs).
What’s the most challenging part of your job? What’s the most rewarding?
The most challenging part of my job is the uncertainty of it.
As a freelancer, I have no way of knowing what’s going to happen. There’s also the fact that what you do is so closely tied to your ego that when you’ve had a bad month it can be existentially terrifying; when you’ve had a great month it’s the best feeling in the world. You have to figure out a way to not be swayed by how things are going.
The most rewarding part of my work is feeling like I am the best person for this job, because no one else is doing exactly what I do, and all of it comes from inside of me. It feels like a spontaneous showing of what I’m all about. I never feel like I’m putting on a professional face, or pretending to be someone that I’m not. It’s more like the point of my career is to become more and more like myself. and figuring out who that person is. I feel like I’m the star of the movie that’s all about my life.
Is there a local neighbourhood that you identify with? What is it about that neighbourhood that inspires you?
When I came back to Toronto I moved to the Bloor and Lansdowne area, and the reason I moved there is because it’s not gentrified yet. There are still all different kinds of people living there, and there are still laundromats and Internet cafes—I feel more comfortable in neighbourhoods where not everybody has their own appliances. There’s also such a great variety of people.
That’s the best thing about Toronto: it still has big jumbles of neighbourhoods that are full of wealthy people and poor people, artistic people and ordinary people, and families and old people.
Toronto is also a city that I feel healthy in.
I’ve spent time in New York, London and Paris. I love those cities, but the thing about Toronto is that—and this partly because I’m Canadian and I’m accustomed to all the customs and mannerisms here—I’m not completely baffled by the way people behave.
It’s also that, relative to other big cities, Toronto is not an expensive city to live. I’m able to afford a big studio here and a nice apartment, which was impossible when I lived in London.
It’s also a great cycling city. I ride my bike everywhere all the time.
Finally, I have lots of friends who aren’t into fashion, which has helped improved my outlook on life. They’ve helped me realize that the things that are taken so seriously in the fashion industry are, for most people, not that important.
What advice would you give someone trying to break into the industry?
I would say start working. Don’t go to school… I mean, the relevance and expense of a degree is questionable. If you’re thinking about investing in a fashion education, then you try working in the industry first and see if it’s something that you really want to do. Doing that will help save you a lot of of heartache and expense in the long run.
The other thing too is to try avoid crowded channels. The two things I’m always thinking about is what everyone else doing and what else I could be doing to differentiate myself.
If you’re a fashion designer and you’re putting on a show at the same time that several other fashion designers are, then you need to be doing something different. Find a way to challenge yourself and be different.
What inspires you and motivates you outside of work?
I’m obsessed with change; that’s the thing that drew me to fashion in the first place. I’m fascinated by how things have never stayed the same from year to year, from decade to decade, and from century to century. I’ve always been fascinated with why that is; the constant fluctuation and tension between what is either considered desirable or not desirable at any given moment and how it can flip 180 degrees at any moment. That’s the thing that fascinates me about fashion.
When people ask me who my favourite designers, I always say that I don’t really know. I don’t think it’s aesthetic that draws me to fashion; I don’t have a particular aesthetic that I feel particularly aligned with. It’s the volatility of fashion that really inspires me.
What’s next for you personally and professionally?
I don’t know. I’m not good at planning (laughs).
One of the things that I do when I don’t have a bunch of deadlines is that I try to work on personal projects. At the same time, I try to do something that I’ve never done before. I don’t know if they’re going to lead to anything.
At one point in my career I had no clients for my paper dolls or my runway sketches. I was working on them for months and months, and it seemed like a pointless exercise.
So, I feel like what’s next is whatever pointless endeavour I find myself spending my downtime on. These days, what I find myself spending my time is finding my appearance. I find that more and more often I’m called upon to perform as an illustrator rather than simply deliver as an illustrator, so my appearance has become more important than it has been in the past. The way that I’ve chosen to deal with that, because I find it difficult to find clothing that I identify with or feel like I’m myself in, is to design my own wardrobe. So, whenever I have time now, I’m making shirts, skirts, I’m thinking about fabric and I’m drafting patterns. I’m being drawn back to the design side of fashion, and it’s going to be interesting to see whether that’s turns into something; even if it doesn’t lead anywhere, at least I have clothes that finally represent me.
Photo of Danielle Meder courtesy of Sai Sivanesan.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Is there a creative Torontonian you would like to see profiled? Email Igor Bonifacic at igor[at]torontostandard[dot com] to suggest someone.
Igor Bonifacic is the managing editor of Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.