Wearing a silk leopard-print ascot and a black cotton shirt, Kenneth Paul Block nursed a teatime martini in his art- and book-filled Riverside Drive apartment on May 10. Mr. Block’s evocative and elegant fashion illustrations for Women’s Wear Daily and W –which have immortalized such style icons as the Duchess of Windsor, Babe Paley and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis since the 1950′s–are the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of American Illustration from June 3 to June 26.
“He’s a creator of fiction, more than an illustrator,” said Isaac Mizrahi, a friend of Mr. Block’s. “In its heyday, he gave New York fashion its sophistication more than any one designer ever did. He was the machine everyone was fed into and they came out looking beautiful. It is a case of life imitating art. He looked at Mrs. Kennedy and, because he drew her a certain way, she became that.”
Talking about the exhibition, it is never “Jackie this” or “Wallis that” from Mr. Block. Like his friend New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, Mr. Block is one of the fashion world’s last gentlemen. It’s “Mrs. Guinness,” as in Gloria Guinness, and “Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Paley” and, of course, “the Duchess.”
Mr. Block debated whether to talk on the record about a particular, long Saturday afternoon he spent drawing the Duchess of Windsor in her Waldorf-Astoria suite, while the Duke looked on. “There is no way I can explain how discomforted I was to have the King of England watch me,” he allowed, painting a picture of that day with a minimum of words. “Very, very kindly, and with great discipline, the Duchess held the pose. A wonderful subject. If I’d asked her to stand on her head she might have and, even at teatime, she would very slipperily take a little tea sandwich and gobble it down without causing any trouble.”
About the others: “Although I think she was very beautiful, I didn’t really understand the chic of Mrs. Kennedy. But Mrs. Paley? All the superlatives you hear are true. She rose above the best clothes.”
Mr. Block was never one to exalt a particular dress or dressmaker. Referring to the title of a memoir by the designer Elizabeth Hawes, Mr. Block said he long ago concluded that “fashion is spinach.” He didn’t even think his fashion drawings have much to do with fashion. “Not in the ordinary sense,” he explained. “I think there’s a kind of magic involved. When you see them, you’ll know why they are fashion but it is really how I imagined the people in the dresses I think that’s important about the work. The people one imagines in one’s mind are so much more entertaining. In that way, you escape the problem of the real way people live and dress.”
The exhibition will also include Mr. Block’s travel drawings, his interiors of the houses of Gloria Vanderbilt, Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass among others, and many of his “fantasy” drawings that are some of his favorites.
“The beauty of Kenneth’s work is his abstractions. They are the highest skill level,” said Prof. Karen Santry, assistant chairman of the illustration department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Professor Santry and Shirley Kennedy, author of the Pucci monograph, are curators for Mr. Block’s show. “He’s not from the school of the infinitely rendered, literal detail. He’s more about the abstract calligraphy of the brush, the pen and the magic marker that creates a sense of poetry.”
The exhibition resulted from the offhanded remark by Mr. Block during a talk at F.I.T. about three years ago that his work was not preserved. A volunteer committee, including Professor Santry and Ms. Kennedy, was formed. They started meeting one afternoon a week and carefully placing glassine paper between some 6,000 illustrations Mr. Block kept in a spare room. That was two years ago. “We would assemble 15 minutes early in his lobby,” Professor Santry said, “and made sure our beepers and cell phones were off before we went up as a group rather than straggle in.”
Working with the privileged visual information that came his way because of the access afforded by WWD , Mr. Block captured the essence of the fashion world, and then translated it through his own imaginative filter. “Kenneth Paul Block is the most elegant fashion illustrator of our time because he is not of our times. There’s not a brutal or harsh line in his work,” said WWD scion John Fairchild. Mr. Fairchild credited Mr. Block with having been instrumental in the transformation of the character of his family’s stodgy-looking newspaper in the 1950′s into the jet-set and fashion bible it had become by the 1960′s.
“I’m in a curious position,” Mr. Block said about his career as a fashion illustrator. “I started doing something at the end of its history. It’s a surprise to me that I’ve survived at all.”
By the 1960′s, illustration no longer was in Vogue , literally or figuratively. Diana Vreeland’s adoring sense of fashion fantasy was best served by photography, rather than the illustration that had historically run in the magazine.
“It’s like science fiction,” said Professor Santry. “You have to be brought into it by some definition of reality. The only way the public could believe Mrs. Vreeland’s fantastic feathers, birds and outfits was in a photograph.” Luckily for Mr. Block, back then, WWD wasn’t in the same financial position as Vogue ; it couldn’t quite afford, say, to pose two elephants and a model in front of photographer Richard Avedon.
Growing up the son of well-to-do lawyer in Larchmont, N.Y., Mr. Block always drew. First it was cars, then it was imaginary ladies in regal frocks and hats. “Nothing like the people one saw in Larchmont,” he laughed. Mr. Block’s family moved into Manhattan when he was in high school. He attended the Parsons School of Design. One of his first jobs was at Henri Bendel.
“It’s a very odd career for a man,” the head of Bendel’s illustration department told him. “Very unsuitable, actually. You’d better try and be the best.”
Only once did he consider taking up fashion photography. “When my father found an old Brownie camera in a taxi,” Mr. Block remembered. “But I thought it was ridiculous and gave it up after a couple of days.”
Billy’s List: Quiz time!
1. How did the British model Honor Fraser recently distinguish herself?
a. While a house guest of Annette and Oscar de la Renta in the Dominican Republic, she fell in love with their butler.
b. She made her acting debut in The Cookie Thief , nominated for an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
c. She declined to spend the weekend at Wind sor with the Royal Family.
2. “Beautiful Stranger” is:
a. A new unisex scent from Tony Melillo’s Nova U.S.A.
b. A psychedelic new single by Madonna.
c. Brad Gooch’s new book from Simon & Schuster.
3. To what was The Sunday Times of London referring when it wrote recently, “His narcissism is so total as to be utterly absorbing–like a black hole, only funnier”?
a. Tony Blair’s rather loud behavior at the opening of Ralph Lauren’s new London store.
b. Gore Vidal’s new interview show for the BBC.
c. Rupert Everett’s performance in An Ideal Husband .
Answers: (1) b; (2) b; (3) c.