On an ordinary morning of 1966 Le Figaro readers opened their newspapers and discovered a rather shocking image for those times, an advert showing a pair of naked hairy legs occupying an entire page. This image (View this photo), René Gruau's first advertising illustration for Dior's Eau Sauvage cologne, caused indeed a lot of controversy as the artist had suddenly dared to show a man in an intimate moment of his life and in a rather unusual (until then...) location for an advert, his bathroom.
This is just one of the many images featured in the volume Gruau - Portraits of Men (Assouline) by Réjane Bargiel and Sylvie Nissen that explores men's fashion and style through the eyes of an artist who reinvented male iconography in his illustrations and adverts.
Born in Rimini, Italy, in 1909, Renato Zavagli Ricciardelli delle Caminate first started working as an illustrator in Milan where he mainly focused on womenswear fashion, and began signing his drawings as René Gruau from the mid-'20s.
Dior may have invented the New Look, but Gruau helped through his drawings to create a new female identity: his drawings were indeed populated by beautiful and glamorous women as elegant as swans, clad in sophisticated Haute Couture gowns.
Yet Gruau wasn't only a womenswear illustrator: in the late '30s London-based fashion house Olaf commissioned him to draw their highly successful men's collection; in 1948 he became a contributor to men's fashion magazine Club. Rassegna informativa sulla moda maschile (View this photo and continued his collaboration with them until 1975), and, roughly a decade afterwards, in 1957, he moved onto Dutch magazine Sir: Men's International Fashion Journal.
He also created iconic advertising campaigns for textile companies such as Bemberg, Trasformazioni Tessili (owned by Giorgio Piacenza, Club magazine's editor from 1957 - the company launched some innovative menswear designs such as the TitiClub, a shirt with no front buttoning but with a single horizontal opening running from one sleeve to the other, often featured in Gruau's drawings View this photo), Dormeuil and Boussac, becoming the official illustrator for Ermenegildo Zegna, Sidinec and Barbisio.
Some of his most famous adverts remain the ones he created for Dior's Jules fragrance and Eau Sauvage cologne.
Gruau - Portraits of Men follows all these developments in the illustrator's career, pointing out how his style was a mix of 1900s illustration and poster art, a sort of unique collage of Toulouse-Lautrec, Dudovich, the Impressionists and Japanese calligraphy.
One of the most interesting things about Gruau's illustrations of men is that in some ways they could not exist without his elegant women. His men - all drawn using real models to make sure his illustrations looked more alive and retained a sense of movement and dynamic - may be sun-bathing, driving a sportscar, walking in the street or portrayed in the middle of real events such as the Winter Olympics - but women are always there in the background, sometimes appearing as a hat, a shoe, a leg or an arm, to highlight how Gruau's man and woman complement each other, they are indeed the perfect match.
The volume includes quotes by Roland Barthes, Honoré de Balzac, Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy and features quite a few striking illustrations from Club and Sir plus unpublished works from Gruau's sketchbooks, yet it lacks in-depth research on Gruau and doesn't really emphasise how the illustrator's merit stands in the fact that he helped the rebirth of menswear.
Early menswear magazines such as Club weren't indeed destined to a wider readership of fashion and style fans, but they were considered as specialised products aimed at textile or yarn manufacturers and at buyers working in the retailer sector.
Gruau designed all the magazine covers from the first issue, launching a new type of elegance for men and also starting his own columns entitled “Carnet de Gruau” that, from 1956 on, explained to the magazine readers Gruau's opinions and rules about menswear. From his columns and through his sketches, Gruau also suggested new items for the male wardrobe, such as a lighter and less formal dinner jacket.
Today there are what we call street style photographers, cool hunters and trend setters, but Gruau was an early pioneer of these "professions", moving from Milan to Paris and Cannes, from New York to Beverly Hills, but with a main difference: rather than simply spotting, suggesting, reporting and drawing, he actively contributed to the evolution of notions of masculinity and did so through his special style, a mix of sobriety, elegance, freshness and sexiness peppered with humour (think about the 1978 Dior's Eau Sauvage ad in which he turned around the traditional 'man in an armchair holding a whisky glass' image to show a naked men holding a bottle of perfume View this photo), constantly projected into the future yet deeply rooted into the past.
Image credits: Image 2 (Drawing from Gruau’s sketchbooks for Club magazine, circa 1950s) and 3 (Drawing for Dior’s Eau Sauvage cologne, 1978) Courtesy of SARL Rene GruauMember of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos
Member of the Boxxet Network of Blogs, Videos and Photos