Styling the stars: Q&A with Helen Green

September 21, 2018

This time last year, Daisy de Villeneuve‘s Fashion Mash-Up landed on my desk. At first, it looked like a typical kids book with lots of pictures and plenty of bite-size facts. But as I flicked through pages of pop-out dolls and stickers, centuries of dress unfurled, ranging from Mary, Queen of Scots to Mary Quant, from Tudor gowns to teeny-tiny skirts. It was an incredible, accessible design repository that required just a little time and attention to unlock. Sure, it looked like it was for kids, but – I reasoned – we adults could enjoy it too.

That weekend I spent several hours cutting and folding, totally transfixed. Like adult colouring books, this seemingly childish exercise required concentration, imagination, and was so undeniably joyful that, well, you guessed it… everyone got a copy for Christmas.

So inevitably, I was stoked to discover that a follow-up had been commissioned, and this time  by the exceedingly talented illustrator Helen Green. I was on tenterhooks to see which outfits and accessories she’d select (not to mention the team of stars she’d put together).

Since 2012, Helen’s carved a niche for herself as the illustrator of famous faces, ranging from David Bowie to Prince (both of whom are a focus in Star Style Mash Up). With my excitement palpable, I decided to get in touch with Helen and ask her a few questions about her work, her technique, and her most famous fan – Lady Gaga.

Lady Gaga sporting a Philip Treacy hat © Helen Green

Helen, we’re big fans of your work. Tell us how you got into illustration.

I’ve loved drawing for as long as I can remember, thanks partly to my Granddad who always encouraged me to keep at it. Illustrators like David DowntonDanny Roberts and Jason Brooks were early inspirations, too. A lot of my motivation comes from observing and admiring the work of established illustrators. I attended talks with illustrators in university who shared their stories, experience and successes, and these were extremely valuable for me; I wanted to follow in their footsteps.

Detail of Star Style Mash Up illustrated by Helen Green © Penguin Books Limited

What is it that attracted you to performance illustration?

It’s a fun, personal way for me to express my admiration for my favourite musicians. I also love drawing artists while listening to their music. I’m particularly interested in performers and musicians with a distinct visual style; I feel that always translates well into illustration.
Elements of their appearance can be enhanced to magnify characteristics of their persona.

What medium do you work in to achieve such vibrant illustrations?

Mostly pencil and watercolour, but occasionally I reach for bolder mediums such as markers and gouache. I usually scan my work and enhance the colours in Photoshop, which makes the work even more vibrant. Sometimes I colour my pieces digitally on the iPad or in Photoshop.

Detail of Star Style Mash Up illustrated by Helen Green © Penguin Books Limited

And we have to ask…you count Lady Gaga as a fan! How did that happen?

In 2012, she stumbled across two of my Lady Gaga illustrations online and liked them enough to reach out to her followers and track me down! I didn’t really expect much else to happen after that. I was just happy that she appreciated my work and knew my name.

Later that year, I had the chance to meet Gaga backstage after her brilliant Born This Way concert in London. I brought one of my sketchbooks with me and she had a flick through it, remarking on the drawings she liked and recognised. Sometime before the concert, I had given her a new drawing as a gift, which to my surprise she later plastered all over her  Twitter profile along with an announcement welcoming me as a new addition to her Haus of Gaga collective (meaning I would work on projects for her and the Born This Way Foundation)! 

When I look back, the standard of my work then was far from perfect but I’ll always be grateful that an artist I admired saw something in me and gave me a shot! 

The most recent thing I worked on for Gaga was a print design for the Born This Way Foundation’s fashion line collaboration with the Elton John AIDS Foundation (summer 2016).

Lady Gaga illustration © Helen Green

What’s your favourite piece in the V&A (and did it make it into Star Style Mash Up)?

As a fan of Roxy Music, the first piece that springs to mind is the stage costume worn by Brian Eno and created by Carol McNicoll. I attended a talk by McNicoll at my university a few years ago, where she explained the background behind it along with some of her pottery pieces.

I just think it’s such a gorgeous, eye-catching look, and Eno had the flair to really pull it off. Both the feather-rayon jacket and trousers made it into Star Style. 

Stage costume worn by Brian Eno, designed by Carol McNicoll, c. 1972

Were there any unusual or surprising facts you discovered while working on this book?

I felt inspired by the clever use of materials for a couple of the headpieces featured in the book. One in particular was the Inca mask by Michael Annals for the premiere of Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun by the National Theatre Company in 1964.

On appearance, you could assume the mask is beaten copper but it’s actually constructed from fibre board covered in gold-painted leatherette and decorated with upholstery studs to create that effect.

Inca mask, designed by Michael Annals for Peter Shaffer’s play, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, National Theatre Company, Chichester Festival Theatre and Old Vic, 1964; ANTA Theatre, New York, 1965.

And if you could acquire one performer’s wardrobe for the V&A, whose would it be and why?

Even though the V&A already gave us David Bowie is (an exhibition I will never forget), Bowie would be my number one choice. There are just so many iconic and varied Bowie pieces. I remember how surreal it was to be in the presence of the outfits I’d seen in music videos and on record sleeves; I would love to see these return to the V&A. The Freddie Burretti quilted jumpsuit that appeared in the 1972 Top Of The Pops Starman performance was my absolute favourite piece in the exhibition. 

Otherwise, maybe The Beatles, Leigh Bowery or Lady Gaga (she’s worn so many outfits and accessories that would look great on display. I’d especially love to see her gorgeous Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy pieces).

And lastly, what advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator?

It’s a tough industry to be successful in – but passion, hard work and determination will ultimately pay off. Aim to create a strong online presence by having multiple profiles on different social and creative platforms, as well as a main website containing a portfolio of your best work. It’s good to study and observe other illustrators’ portfolios to get a feel for the current trends and styles. This will give you a good indicator on how you may be able to set yourself apart. 

Don’t get too caught up in trying to create a unique style – try to keep a handle on what you enjoy about the process of image making. As long as you stay creative and keep experimenting, a style will eventually emerge.

To see more work by Helen Green visit her website:

Detail of Star Style Mash Up illustrated by Helen Green © Penguin Books Limited

Star Style Mash up – £14.99

Buy now in the V&A SHOP ▸

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