Richard Haines: Larger Than Life

Artist and illustrator Richard Haines discusses art’s importance in Trump’s America, how Dries Van Noten has inspired him and why you should create for yourself

Richard Haines is living life his way. After the end of a career in fashion design, a divorce and a coming-out, Haines found himself starting anew as an illustrator living in Brooklyn’s then yet-to-be trendy Bushwick neighbourhood.

After posting sketches of the intriguing people he saw around him on his blog ‘What I Saw Today’, he caught the attention of some of fashion’s key players and the rest is history. But it doesn’t quite end there. As a man rediscovered, Haines has once again rewritten his story, by establishing himself as an artist in his own right. Here, we talk to him during his new exhibition in New York.


The rise of editorial photography in the ’70s meant that you instead pursued a career as a designer instead of as an illustrator, do you look back on this time as a detour of-sorts, or as an experience that has bolstered your artistic ability?

I’d say it was a detour and something that bolstered my knowledge. I think because I worked as a designer for so many years I have a complete understanding of clothing and the process that goes into making them. When I draw I know exactly where the pocket goes or where the lapel falls because I spent so many years working with pattern makers, being in fittings, and drawing ‘flats’—technical garment drawings.

I think that experience just informs the work I do. Because of that background, I’m super aware of the manufacturing process, which I think has also helped in my collaborations with companies such as Prada, Dries Van Noten, and Orlebar Brown.

Your new exhibition ‘Larger Than Life’ centres around the Bushwick drag scene. What is your connection to the area, and why has the process of documenting the area and its people been so captivating for you?

I moved to Bushwick about eight years ago (after 30 years in Manhattan) as a kind of refuge from the economic crisis and a divorce. It was also the start of my life as an artist, and I feel like I landed in the perfect place. There’s a rule of thumb in NYC that where there is space and cheap rent there will be artists… and ideas—and that’s Bushwick.

There are people here who are being brave — pushing boundaries of art, beauty, gender and sex. Bushwick is fearless, I love witnessing it!

What does this exhibit say about where you are in your life right now?

Exhibits are great ways to evaluate progress, and I ask myself ‘Where am I this time versus last?’ I’m just starting to get some distance and perspective. I was so happy with the first show, it consisted only of drawings on paper. This time round I felt like I needed to ‘push it’, so I began painting on canvas and also installed two large drawings. Painting is a real challenge. There were so many time when I said to myself, ‘Why the fuck did I take this on? Everyone likes the drawings, why fuck up the momentum?’, but I’m so happy I did.

There are surprises in the show and ultimately that’s what a show is for — to push, risk and then present. I feel like all art is a diary of sorts, at least it is for me. It’s a journal of my thoughts on gender, beauty, sexuality, fashion and more.


You are well known for the immediacy of your charcoal and watercolour responses, but your new work focusses on your use of acrylic. What has drawn you to the medium?

I haven’t used watercolours in a long time – they remind me of being a kid, when all I could get were the ones that come as little compressed cakes. The colour was never vibrant enough and dried so quickly. Watercolours are also hard to work with…once they’re on the paper, that’s it!

I’ve been using acrylic paints for most of this ‘new’ career as an artist. You can push them around the page, layer them and there’s still room to rework. The colours are also much more vibrant. So it’s a win-win for me!

What do you look for in a subject when you’re out exploring the streets of New York?

I’m reading about the Flaneur — the observer, the urban walker and how it relates to what I do. I’m much more interested in a person who carries himself a certain way, who puts themselves together in an interesting or unusual manner. People think I’m attracted to ‘fashion’ but that’s not the case. It’s more about attitude, swagger, grace and self-possession.


What’s the most unusual or memorable situation in which you’ve met an inspirational subject?

There are so many! I love to go to clubs, after-hour clubs, bars, etc, and kind of disappear and observe. I’ve met amazing people that way, but conversely I also see incredible people on Instagram, or meet friends through networks — there are people everywhere who are compelling and pushing the envelope.

How do you feel illustration affects the senses of viewers who are now so used to seeing photographic representations in the media?

I always think illustration is a ‘palate cleanser’ to photography. And I think that explains the recent resurgence of interest. There’s so much photography, so many images now; drawing lets the eye relax and engage in a different way. It brings the viewer into the piece differently.

I find people crave the human touch – the smudges and drops of paint that are human and say ‘I was here’. When I draw, I edit as I go along, removing and eliminating parts of the drawing. It’s a way of bringing the viewer into the piece and lets them interact in a different way. Photography has its own magic, but this to me is unique to drawing.

What role do you think art plays in our culture today?

In the context of what just happened in this country with the election of Trump, art has a new purpose and urgency. I’ve felt a shift in what I’m posting on Instagram — images and words that are healing and uniting. They’re healing not just for me but hopefully for the viewer too.

I think art is crucial in telling storytelling, uniting, provoking and expressing. I have a 19-year-old daughter who’s studying photography and I told her the best thing she can do now is make art — good thoughtful art to heal and unite. Art that says ‘Yes’ and art that says ‘NO!’

You started your blog ‘What I Saw Today’ back in 2008, and it has since caught the eye of some of fashion’s most influential personalities. How has social media been instrumental to your later success?

Social media basically changed my life. When I started my blog I was an unemployed fashion designer who couldn’t get a job – there were no jobs to be had. The idea of posting my own drawings in an unedited way — sharing my vision with like-minded people – was, and still is, incredibly powerful. I’m grateful for the technology that made this possible, and for the amazing people I’ve come in contact with because of it.


How has your style evolved through your life, and how have you refined it?

When I first moved to NYC many years ago, my style wasn’t great. I have drawn my entire life but by the time I moved here it was just very tight and not interesting. Then, over time, it improved because I just didn’t care what people thought of it. I drew only for myself and it got much more emotional and free.

It was a great lesson in learning to not seek approval from others, and to be real and authentic. I think that’s what people respond to: realness.

Which designers are striking a chord with you right now?

I have always had an enormous amount of respect for Dries Van Noten. There is so much integrity and beauty in his clothes and of course it was thrilling collaborating with him. I feel the same way about Prada; Mrs. Prada designs to her own instinct, and takes an idea and executes it beautifully. I also think Comme des Garçons is wonderful for many reasons — I love CDG’s vision of execution and distribution as well as Rei Kawakubo’s ideas.

Because my focus is menswear those names come to mind first, but Raf Simons shows are great, as are those by AMI and Officine Generale. They all have different points of view but are all 100 per cent behind their design and know who they are designing for.

What does the near-future hold for you?

The older I get, the more I realise that we have very little control over much. That said, of course I plan on continuing to draw, explore painting and have more gallery shows that give more context to my work. I also want to see my daughter graduate from college, spend more time in Paris and get exciting commissioned work.

In early 2017, I am spending a week at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, talking about art and drawing. I’m super excited about that, and look forward to the experience of interacting on that level in London. Oh, and I of course hope that I can get through the next four years of a Trump administration without losing my mind…

‘Larger than Life’ runs until 22 Dec at Daniel Cooney Fine Art, New York

Photography Jerry Buttles