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From S. Philly to Christian Dior, a Q&A with Bil Donovan

Fashion illustrator Bil Donovan hails from South Philly and now holds a position as the first artist-in-residence for Christian Dior, where he creates illustrations for the company’s beauty, couture and promotion sectors.

As New York Fashion Week reaches its climax, the ubiquitous weeklong display of seasonal style has strong Philadelphia ties. Fashion illustrator Bil Donovan hails from South Philly and now holds a position as the first artist-in-residence for Christian Dior, where he creates illustrations for the company's beauty, couture and promotion sectors. With an associates degree from FIT and a bachelor of fine arts degree from New York's School of Visual Arts, Donovan believes "being an artist is a gift."

Sometimes things just seem to fall into place, as they did for Donovan when a series of quite fortunate events helped to land him in the Dior role. But for Donovan, now a professor who still takes classes at SVA, it's been all about that good ol' South Philly hard work and ingenuity.

Were you born and raised in South Philly?

I grew up on Colorado Street, a blue-collar working class Irish/Italian neighborhood anchored by our school and parish, Saint Monica. I was a paperboy during the week and an altar boy on weekends.

How do you feel your experience in Philly helped propel you to where you are now, if at all?

South Philly shaped my character and work ethic. I learned about respect and generosity of spirit, with a dash of wit and realness. My mother was strict in that we develop good manners, be polite to others, and respect the elderly. I strive to be a gentleman at all times and I am conscious of people's needs, which carry through to my professional relationships.

My father never missed a day of work and I never miss a deadline.

South Philly grounded me. I travel in many diverse and glamorous circles throughout the world and although I consider myself a New Yorker, I never forget my roots.

As a child, were you artistic? When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in the fashion industry?

I was artistic and creative, however in my environment at that time it was considered an effete occupation and not a viable path for a boy.

Every summer, the Broadway Movie Theater would donate free tickets for the children in the neighborhood to see matinee films. Most of the films were reruns ranging from comedies to horror. Occasionally, a fashion drama would play and during one matinee I saw "Sabrina" with Audrey Hepburn.

There is a moment in the film when Ms. Hepburn seems to glide across the ballroom in a Givenchy gown. I wanted to create that moment again, not through the lens of a camera or on a dress form, but though my passion, drawing.  That moment was my epiphany, and the genesis of my becoming a fashion illustrator.

What high school and college did you go to?

I attended Bishop Neumann High School where I met my best friend Kenneth Bonavitacola, who also loved drawing. We worked together at his grandparent's luncheonette flipping cheesesteaks while sharing our dreams of working in fashion by creating endless drawings on the wrapping paper used for the sandwiches.

After High School I worked at Fidelity Bank on the graveyard shift and, to occupy my time during the day, I began drawing more frequently and eventually enrolled in evening classes at The Philadelphia College of Art for two years.

Next up, [I went to] New York to pursue Fashion Illustration at the Fashion Institute of Technology. FIT instilled a thirst for learning and, to improve my draftsmanship and nurture my skills, I took evening classes for seven years at various schools, primarily at the School of Visual Arts.

During a class, someone asked the instructor (in regards to being a professional illustrator), "How do you know when you are doing it?" He replied, "Well, if you are in this class, then you are not doing it." That statement resonated with me. I left the class and New York for Europe to pursue work. I arrived in Milan on a Monday and had editorial work on Friday, and remained for six years.

How did you really get your foot in the door?

By literally taking that foot and walking it through the doors of various fashion houses in the Garment Center. I would show my portfolio and hope to land some work. I persevered and eventually landed a commission with WWD, Vogue and Bazaar, and my freelance work began to have a more consistent flow. Freelance was not easy. You lived from job to job, and persistence was my best ally.

Milan changed my life. My personal and artistic vision evolved and my work changed dramatically.

I never say no to an opportunity, as you never know where it will lead.

In 2008, the universe seemed aligned, and several unique opportunities presented me further possibilities. I illustrated a book on Edith Head for Harper Collins, wrote a textbook for Laurence King, and my work was prominently featured in a show at the Society of Illustrators on Fashion Illustration.

That December, I was approached by Vogue with an opportunity to create live fashion portraits at a special event with Christian Dior. Of course I said yes and four months later I was offered an exclusive contract with Dior as the first artist-in-residence.

Now that you're quite established, what's a day in the life of Bil Donovan like?

Exciting to say the least. I never know what will show up. I have a great agent, The Art Department, and I am usually working on five or more projects at once in my studio - recently, creating illustrations for BV Vineyards, a poster for Windsor Polo Charity to benefit Alzheimer's, St. Regis's new fragrance, and an eight-page spread of the Paris Couture Collections for Luxure magazine. I serve on several boards and teach part-time at my alma maters FIT and SVA, and facilitate special drawing events at my home away from home, the Society of Illustrators. Dior is a Dream and keeps me busy traveling around the country for personal appearances, creating fashion portraits in conjunction with Saks, Neiman's and Bergdorf Goodman.

In my quest to keep exploring, I am always looking for a new medium to incorporate into my work. I was approached by Winsor & Newton to experiment with the brand's new Pigment Markers. I was thrilled, as I only use Winsor & Newton brushes and gouache in my work so this was a wonderful coincidence. I am now working on images on site in NYC with the Pigment Markers for the Winsor & Newton Colour Your City campaign and world-touring exhibit. Next up, Times Square and the Flat Iron Building, so stay tuned.

During Fashion Week, what will you be doing? I'm sure your schedule is hectic.

My schedule is a bit hectic this season, but the one show I attempt to make is Rosie Assoulin's, an incredible designer who I met through documenting New York Fashion Week for New York magazine. Rosie invites me each season to come draw live at her presentation and her work is glamorous and inspiring and a highlight of my fashion week.

I read that you spent time in Paris and called it "a love affair." Can you explain what you were you doing over there?

After a year in Milan I wanted to experience Paris, so I moved there for six months to find work and get a taste of the Parisian lifestyle. Ironically, a month before arriving another opportunity showed up.

I had an interview with a shoe company to create an illustration for promotion, I made a suggestion to the manager about a particular shoe and he asked, " Have you ever designed shoes?" Never one to let an opportunity pass I said, "Of course."  I do love shoes, so I created a ton of designs, was hired as a shoe designer, and spent the six-month period traveling between Paris and Italy where the shoes were produced. It was an enlightening and surreal experience.

If you could give a short Philadelphian's guide to Paris, what are some must-see places and must-do things?

I am fortunate that I have quite a few friends in Paris; we usually stay with good friends in the Marais, an area we love that is convenient to everything.

My partner and I love art, so that is usually our number-one priority.

I love the intimacy of the Rodin Museum, it's a treasure and the D'Orsay, Impressionism never fails to inspire and fill the soul with beauty.

Walk, walk and walk… It's a magnificent city, breathtaking to behold. Just grab a map and explore the city; it is those unexpected turns that are memorable. Some must-see areas include Left Bank, Le Marais, walk the Champs-Élysées and the Eiffel Tower. Make it leisurely and stop in a café and have an apéritif. The Tuileries Garden is beautiful and leads to the Louvre; there is an entrance off the main thoroughfare to the museum to beat the crowd.

(For shopping) Rue St. Honoré, Le Bon Marché, Colette, Dior, Deyrolle, Taxidermy Store by the Seine and Les Puces de Saint-Ouen Flea Market

(For museums) Musee D'Orsay, Musee D'Art Moderne, Musee Rodin and Musee Gustave Morreau

(Dining favorites) La Petite Marche, Le Relais de l'Entrecôte and Chez Omar Moroccan

(For the scene) Le Comptoir Général, Mama Shelter and Nuba