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Ten questions for fashion illustrator Margot van Huijkelom

The Dutch designer and illustrator is very successful in France and has front row seats during PFW

After she graduated from the Academy Arnhem, Margot Huijkelom-Macé's first move was straight to France. She went right to work as a designer and illustrator, and since then she's more than earned her stripes in the French fashion world. She lives with her husband, Jerome Macé, in Barbizon, a traditional artists' village 30 kilometres south of Paris. Fashionweek.nl sat down with her in the City of Light to talk about her career, her Dutch roots and what it's like to be in the front row at Chanel and Valentino. 

1. What did you study at university?

"I studied fashion and design at the Academy Arnhem, and I was already specialising in illustration back then. After that, I did a post-academic master's in fashion and strategy under fashion journalist Henriette Verburg. My graduate project was called 'Ageing World', which I put together in collaboration with Helene van Raaij. At the heart of that project was the changing pattern of the pioneer, of older people. The central question was how will we behave in 20 years? We made a video from it and that got picked up. De Telegraaf devoted an entire page to it. And I took that article and came to Paris." 

2. Did you go straight to work in Paris?

"At that time, it was relatively easy to find work. But I think it did come across as pretty cool that I came from the Netherlands with my article. I started at Promostyl right away, working with trends; I illustrated for the trend and styling books. And I did that for a few years, for them and for other styling agencies. I always worked in two arenas, both illustrating and actually designing. For me, those two can't be separated. At one point I had the opportunity to become Emanuel Kahn's right-hand. But I decided to say no, because that meant I'd have to focus 100% on design, and that's not what I wanted to do. And beyond that, I didn’t want to isolate myself too much into a single brand. So I chose to be a freelancer. After that, I got connected with a Japanese company, where I became their first non-Japanese art director. I worked there for 15 years and I was responsible for their styling books. My work consisted of having meetings in Japan, then taking the ideas to the rest of the world – castings, photo shoots, building sets, I'd go from a castle in France to a glacier in Iceland to a coffee plantation in Hawaii. I was so lucky to be able to do it. Then one thing followed another, and I made the move to Vogue Japan, where I illustrated for a different category each month for four years. I still do some work for them, but on a more occasional basis. So my work is still pretty diverse, and those kinds of jobs automatically bring other offers. I made the campaign for the Escada perfume Cherry in the Air, along with a lot of other projects. Everything really snowballed for me."

 

Van Huijkelom is privileged to be seated front row at the biggest shows. © Jérôme Macé
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Van Huijkelom is privileged to be seated front row at the biggest shows. © Jérôme Macé

And now you're on the front row at haute couture shows.

"In the end, all these jobs brought me to my current position at Le Monde, where I illustrate the haute couture creations at fashion week. During the day, I go to the shows and I'm always backstage, getting a closer look at all the ensembles. Then in the evenings, I'm in my studio illustrating so that the drawings are ready for the editors the following morning, and I work like that day after day. It's a real feather in my cap, it gives me such an adrenaline rush. People ask me how I manage it, not sleeping for four days, but I just don't need it. I live on the energy I get from the work." 

4. Fashion Week is a really inspiring environment, but that's only two times a year. Where do you find your inspiration for the rest of the year?

"The big exhibitions, the city of Paris, what I see on the street. I really like looking at people and what they're projecting. Recently I saw a really beautiful older woman in a long gown with grey hair, and I thought, that's how I want to grow old. Or really young people, everyone has a certain energy, something that stirs up or creates emotion. But nature inspires me, as well – when I walk through my garden in the morning with a cup of coffee and dewdrops are hanging like pearls on the waxy leaves, or the magnolia with its smooth, almost plastic-like leaves, these kind of Georgia O'Keeffe nuances. I'd actually still like to do a gigantic nature painting. But the shows are indeed very inspiring. When I'm sketching at the shows, I try to let the emotions of the fabrics come out, and that's why I think haute couture is so amazing, because it's always so theatrical. You get this little 18-year-old girl taking on the model role, towering over everyone in this gorgeous dress. It's staging your own personality. I was at a Valentino show once where a dress came down the runway that was studded with thousands of gold sequins and I wanted to capture that exact atmosphere. I tried to replicate it with all these little dots, and of course it has to be done quickly, but after an hour I'd only done 30 dots."

Details of various sketches of the Haute Couture collections. © Jérôme Macé
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Details of various sketches of the Haute Couture collections. © Jérôme Macé

5. So if a designer has spent a lot of time on a creation, does it take you a lot of time to sketch it, as well?

"Yes, and that's because I really love details. So speed then has no meaning, because for me, my work is like meditation. Perhaps it's also thanks to everything I've been able to learn. My background at the academy and my previous projects that allowed me to see material production close up have given me a real passion for material. So I try to convey the different materials as well as I possibly can in my illustrations, particularly the contrasts, the softness as opposed to the crisp. Getting that across is an Olympic challenge. And that's difficult, because you have to have such deep knowledge of illustration techniques and all the interesting little accidents that can happen as you work. After so many years of experience, you know exactly how much ink you need on the pen to get the desired effect." 

6. What does an average day look like for you?

"No day is like any other. In the past, I was travelling to Japan a lot, but it's become extremely expensive since the catastrophe there, so I do that less and less often. But that means that I can work in my studio more. I get up quite early, and the first thing I do is head down to my vegetable garden to water my courgettes. Then I spend a few hours painting in my studio, and in between I get on social media; that's the best way to communicate with the outside world. And I've noticed that a lot comes from it. I work quite a lot, actually, but it doesn't feel that way. It's relaxation, just like walking in the forest and swimming. Plus I have client meetings twice a week in Paris, so I go straight to the museums and have a wander round in Paris. I'm also constantly finding new boutiques, I like staying up to date. Keeping up with the trends is important." 

"I really love details", van Huijkelom explains as she describes her style. © Jérôme Macé
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"I really love details", van Huijkelom explains as she describes her style. © Jérôme Macé

7. Has the French perspective on work influenced you?

"No, that doesn't have an influence on me, I am and remain Dutch. But it took some getting used to in the beginning. When I first got here, I was definitely quite shocked by the fact that everyone in the company always seemed to be outraged. My colleagues always seemed to be thinking, how dare you say that to me? Everyone in France has that kind of attitude, as if they're always offended. In the beginning, I didn’t really understand what was going on, and I still couldn't understand them very well. All these French women speak so quickly and with a mouthful of air. And they were super skinny and perfectly dressed, except my friends from Ireland, luckily. It made me so insecure and I didn’t really know how I should behave. But at a certain point, I thought, fuck it. And then I found my own way of dealing with it. Meanwhile, I was still having an inner conflict, was I a designer or an illustrator? And I never really resolved it, because I'm really both. But it was definitely a difficult period. And now I'm really happy that I was able to adopt this mindset. I've learned a lot from the French identity and taste, certainly in the culinary sphere. I think the Netherlands falls a bit short there. The Dutch are quite proud, and on the one hand, I think that's really lovely, because the French just gripe about their culture. But I've had a taste of French refinement, and that's had a positive influence on my down-to-earth personality." 

8. Have you had to adapt as well, then?

"The work environment in France, and definitely in Japan, is completely different than in the Netherlands. I've really learned from that. My Dutch candour has gotten me into trouble at times. Once I brought my work to a Japanese boss who thought my attitude was too confident. He put me in a museum, with all these cameras pointed at me, at a beautiful white wooden table with an inkpot on it, and then we had to do everything again. And it was true that it did get better, but it was a test. I didn’t understand why; I wanted to take my crushed Dutch soul home. I learned then that I could learn through the experience and that I had to put my ego to one side. The result probably wasn’t as beautiful because I was stressed, but that was exactly the point. And I remembered that. So I've learned so much more by travelling and having international experiences, and I'm not through learning." 

9. After Le Monde, is there another challenge?

"Japanese Vogue and Le Monde are great clients with a lot of cultural capital, in contrast to the fashion magazines that have a tendency to write about fashion somewhat superficially. But then I'm also at home in my studio, wildly painting away for my next exhibition in Luxembourg. Those pieces are fashion related, as well, particularly with regard to the seduction of the fashion world and the dark side that you find backstage. Because you're from Le Monde, you're allowed in everywhere – before, after and during and after the shows. No one says 'non'. And you see everything. Young Dutch models and their vulnerability, for instance. Because on the runway, what you see is tall, proud models, and backstage you see these cowering girls. That's interesting and I'd really like to capture that. But also the couturier in his white jacket, the dressers lined up in the shadows, this hierarchy where there's the constant question of who's important and who counts. It's interesting to encapsulate that sensitivity in a painting." 

"I work a lot, but it doesn't really feel like working. It's relaxing." © Jérôme Macé
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"I work a lot, but it doesn't really feel like working. It's relaxing." © Jérôme Macé

10. Do you consider yourself a true French artist now?

"I'm perhaps a bit too level-headed for that. And I'm also still in full swing and looking forward to a time that's yet to come. I'm not settled yet. But I also don't have the need to belong somewhere. I still feel like a student, because I still don't know where I want to go. I'm really happy with what I'm doing now, I've still got enough to do." 

This September onwards, van Huijkelom's work is presented at the Sofronis Arts Gallery in Luxemburg.

Foto credits: Jérôme Macé

Van Huijkelom's work is not online suitable for magazines. She also works on larger projects for her exposition in Luxemburg. © Jerome Macé
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Van Huijkelom's work is not online suitable for magazines. She also works on larger projects for her exposition in Luxemburg. © Jerome Macé
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