Rene Gruau was born in 1909 as a Count into the Italian Aristocracy. At the age of three Gruau accompanied his French mother to Paris, when his mother separated from his Italian father. His artistic talent in fashion illustration merited him first publication already at the amazing age of 14, and by the time he reached 18, he was published internationally. During his lifetime, magazines like Marie-Claire, Femina, Elle, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Flair, L’Officiel, Madame Figaro, and L’Officiel de la Couture published his work. His unique style shaped fashion illustration for decades and he represented the last gold period of fashion illustration before fashion photography and then digital art became the main tool visual expression in fashion.
Gruau worked for many major designers like Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior, Jacques Fath, Balenciaga, Elsa Schiaparelli, Rochas, Lanvin, Elizabeth Arden, and Hubert de Givenchy to give life to their haute couture clothing. Before the time, when photography and television were not as well developed technologies they are today, his drawings not only added life to the clothing, but also glamour and luster. Gruau’s first position as artistic director for advertising was in 1947 with Christian Dior. The two together formed the “New Look” of the time, partially a result of Dior’s designs, and partially a result of Gruau’s combined interpretation and upgrading of old-style graphic illustration. Gruau formed a friendship with Dior that he described as, “I felt very close to the restless Christian Dior. He used to discuss his ideas with me and I would show him my sketches. There was a bond between us that I have never encountered since.” Perhaps, it is no accident that he is chiefly remembered for his work with Dior.
He was not to remain long with Dior, for a year later he relocated to the United States to work for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He remained with the magazines for only two years, and after that went to work as the sole illustrator for Flair. Between 1956 and 1963, he started to design by designing costumes for various theaters, and was even invited to design for Hollywood. However, he disliked the lack of elegance and declined . His list of clients included the poster for Fellini’s La Colce Vita (1959), Jean Renoir’s film French Cancan, the Les Ballets Roland Petit , and the Opera Comique. From about 1964 through 1970, he worked primarily in advertising.
The fashion sketching of Rene Gruau was not only an advertising tool, but also art, and his work is today hosted in many museums, alongside that of Toulouse-Lautrec. His trademark illustrations comprised long slender women, with red lips, and elegant clothing, and this was all done with the use of very few lines. It was Gruau who created the lady with the swan lake and the pearl necklace that accompanied the Dior perfumes, and it was Gruau who combined the sketch of the model with a background of a life of luxury, beauty, elegance, and ease. Each sketch could have sold as a piece of art on its own merits, and the advertisements he created for theaters like the Lido, Moulin Rouge and Bembergare today collector’s pieces.Perhaps a mark of his success is that his style is taught at universities and art colleges through out the world as a turning point for future fashion artists (I am at the moment studing his drawings and trying to copy his style, which is not at all as easy as the pictures may let you think). In the early 80s, the Bartsch and Chariau Gallery in Munich hosted his work, and since then, his works have been permanently exhibited at the Louvre in Paris. At the age of 95 he died as the Prince of fashion illustrations in Rome in 2004.
“It’s the history of 20th century fashion that dies,” Italian designer Laura Biagiotti, a longtime friend said about his death.