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Designers: He sang the '80s electric

In his short career, enfant terrible Tony Viramontes worked with the most celebrated names in fashion. His illustrations are again in the spotlight.

September 01, 2013|By Booth Moore, Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic
  • Valentino haute couture was drawn by Tony Viramontes for Italian Vogue and is offered on
Valentino haute couture was drawn by Tony Viramontes for Italian Vogue… ( )

Fashion illustrator Tony Viramontes captured the gender-bending electricity of the 1980s style scene like no one else.

He made a name for himself with his drawings of dominant women dressed in the theatrical haute couture of the day. In addition to putting pencil to paper, he was also a clothing stylist, makeup artist and hairdresser who collaborated with his subjects to create images with attitude.

Twenty-five years after his death from AIDS at age 31, Viramontes will once again be in the spotlight. Beginning Sept. 4, there will be a sale of 40 of his illustrations on, and in October the first book about his work is due out, "Bold Beautiful and Damned: The World of 1980s Fashion Illustrator Tony Viramontes" by British journalist Dean Rhys Morgan.

Viramontes worked with some of the most celebrated names in fashion during his short career, sketching haute couture collections, creating album cover art for Janet Jackson and Arcadia and drawing style icons such as Naomi Campbell, Tina Chow and Paloma Picasso. Working in pencil, charcoal, collage and occasionally even lipstick or eyebrow pencil, Viramontes revived the tradition of selling fashion through drawing, which had largely been sidelined by photography. When he died, he left behind a bounty of sketches, many of which remained untouched at the Viramontes family home in Woodland Hills until 2010, when Tony's brother, Ed, invited Morgan to visit.

"Tony was the enfant terrible of fashion illustration. His strong and direct drawing style was a marked contrast to the whispered, pastelly, WASPy visuals of the time," Morgan says. "There was an insolence about his women. They were very hard and aggressive. Casting was very important to him. The last thing he wanted was a pretty face and a standard set of measurements."

Growing up in a first-generation Mexican American family, L.A.-born Viramontes showed an early interest in art, drawing everything from his brothers' football games to Tijuana bullfights. "He was attracted to sequins and drama," the author says. "And by his teens, women started to dominate his drawings."

One of those women was the model-turned-actress Rene Russo, whom Viramontes approached after spotting her on the street in Westwood. The young illustrator won her over, and Russo became a friend and muse.

After high school, Viramontes attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, before moving to New York City to study fashion illustration. There he met two mentors, illustrators Antonio Lopez and Steven Meisel (now a renowned fashion photographer), who encouraged him to develop a looser style. While in New York, he also became influenced by the '80s club scene.

"He responded to what was around him, to what he saw every day. He was fascinated by drag queens and counterculture, the more terrifying the better. And the heavier the makeup, the more ridiculous the hat, the more he loved it. He had a very street sensibility — there was nothing prim about it," Morgan says.

Viramontes worked on a few small ad campaigns, but his career didn't really take off until he moved to Paris, where he quickly got commissions to draw the haute couture collections for Le Figaro, Marie Claire, Vogue and other publications. He was also tapped to collaborate with designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana and Hanae Mori.

Viramontes' editorial and commercial work took him to London, Tokyo, Rome and eventually, after he became ill, home to L.A., where he created the iconic artwork for Jackson's album "Control." By shooting photographs of her in a trim black jacket and drawing over them with bold lines to emphasize her powerful shoulder, he transformed Jackson from child star to fierce female with a single image. That was his genius.

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