Kenneth Paul Block

2011 Hall of Fame Inductee: Kenneth Paul Block

Kenneth Paul Block decided as a child what his profession would be and never wavered from his choice. Fashion illustration caught his imagination in the 1930s as he flipped through his mother’s copies of Harper’s Bazaar at the family home in Larchmont, New York. The stylish world depicted in the magazine and the “glamorous women in beautiful clothes” who inhabited it became his ideal, he said. Kenneth wanted to draw them and did. His single-minded focus resulted in a body of work generally considered the most influential fashion art of the postwar era.

Kenneth could be deliberate about more than art. When he and I collaborated on a monograph of his work, Drawing Fashion, I would sometimes go to him for help with specific words. For one description of a group of fashions worn by society women, I asked if I should call the garments chic or maybe something grander—magnificent? But no, said Kenneth, “the word you want is splendid.” Which of course was just right.

Kenneth’s enduring importance and renown is due in part to his extraordinary artistic abilities. Another factor is the publication that was his primary platform—Women’s Wear Daily, where he worked from the mid-1950s until the disbanding of the fashion art department in 1992. As chief features artist, he was also a major contributor to WWD’s sister publication, W, which launched in 1972.

Although Women’s Wear Daily, owned by Fairchild Publications, began in 1910 as a traditional trade paper, it expanded its reach in the early 1960s by altering its tone and outlook. The staid garment-industry publication suddenly became irreverent, newsworthy, and fun. Attention from WWD could make or break a designer. It could also launch, or derail, a socialite’s career. By the time John F. Kennedy and his fashionable wife, Jacqueline, had settled into the White House, WWD had become a must-read for anyone interested in society, celebrity, or fashion.

Through Kenneth’s incisive eye, mere dresses and coats became works of art, as did the women wearing them. Babe Paley, the Duchess of Windsor, and Gloria Vanderbilt were among those Kenneth drew, helping to define their status as 20th-century style icons. As Isaac Mizrahi has noted, many legends of New York’s fashionable society in the 1960s and ’70s grew into Kenneth’s vision of them.

Born in Larchmont, New York, on July 26, 1924, Kenneth Paul Block, the youngest of three boys, showed an early interest in the arts. His mother, Elizabeth, a gifted amateur pianist, and his father, Goodman, a lawyer, encouraged his interest. He regularly visited museums and attended dance and music concerts, all of which influenced his work. He was not especially encouraged in his career choice of fashion illustration, however. His aunt by marriage, Elsie Dick, an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, told his mother to keep him away from the field; she did not think fashion art an appropriate profession for a man. Though Kenneth admired his aunt a great deal, both for her intelligence and her sense of style, he ignored her advice and studied fashion art at Parsons School of Design.

After graduating from Parsons in the late 1940s, Kenneth paid his dues for several years as an artist for McCall’s Patterns, an experience he later described as tedious. Because the drawings had to be meticulous in their depiction of garment detail, Kenneth found little room for personal expression. He was far happier in his personal life; in the late 1940s, Kenneth met Morton Ribyat, also an artist and an accomplished textile designer, who remained his companion until Kenneth’s death in 2009.

Even during Kenneth’s first few years at Fairchild Publications, he drew what was expected of him—competent but somewhat sedate fashion illustrations. It was not until his personal style began to emerge, and he started to inject his drawings with movement and light, that his superiors took note. He still depicted detail in his drawings, as during his days at McCall’s, but instead of a seam or a buttonhole, his specialty became gesture—how a woman held her cigarette, looked over her shoulder, or picked up a cocktail glass. The women in his drawings—this being fashion illustration, he mostly drew women—had a distinctive posture, too, one that reflected both elegance and élan. He also gave his women a sense of command; they clearly could do as they pleased.

By the mid-1960s, Kenneth had become, and remained throughout his tenure with Fairchild Publications, the most prominent figure in the company’s art department, a considerable achievement given the many talented fashion artists who were his colleagues—Steven Stipelman, Anneliese Kapp, and Robert Melendez among them. His drawings regularly appeared on WWD’s front page, and he received the choice assignments, including coverage of the Paris couture and portrait sessions with well-known society women. He was so well regarded that he arranged to work at Fairchild only three days a week, using the other two days to fulfill contracts for freelance clients, including such major department stores as Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor, and Bonwit Teller.  

Fairchild was the last media company to employ an entire department of fashion artists. Even as Kenneth was beginning his career in the 1940s, photography was replacing illustration as the dominant means to convey the latest styles. Kenneth’s artistry, and his success, helped keep his profession alive. During more than forty years as an illustrator, he was able to capture the tumultuous changes in fashion without ever abandoning his vision; his art recognized trends without ever being trendy.

As prolific as he was in the field of fashion art—Kenneth created thousands of fashion drawings throughout his career, 2,000 of which are now part of the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston—he made another large group of drawings that was wholly invented. The figures in them appear to be from the 1920s or ’30s. They are often in evening clothes, and though always stylish, not necessarily attractive in the conventional sense. Kenneth said they might have been characters invented by Ronald Firbank, the eccentric British novelist who was one of Kenneth’s favorite writers. They also could have existed in an issue of Harper’s Bazaar from Kenneth’s childhood. Early on, Kenneth discovered a world that captivated him, and he never tired of re-creating it through his art.

Susan Mulcahy
Author, Drawing Fashion: The Art of Kenneth Paul Block