Reinventing Old Hollywood through modern couture: George V. Antoniou’s new ways of storytelling

All works and photographs © George V. Antoniou

In my one-hour chat with fashion illustrator and film aficionado George V. Antoniou, I found myself taking multiple mental notes on films to watch, books to read, designers and fashion moments to look into. He talks with ease about his inspirations and the work of his favourite artists but feels less comfortable talking and explaining his own work. There’s hardly a need for it though; the work speaks for itself. His endless points of reference come to materialise in his art, celebrating his passions while simultaneously creating new narratives, where the mythological becomes personal, to be recognised at least by those who’ll pay close attention. 

George is a Larnaca-based, self-taught digital illustrator. When his Fine Art studies didn’t turn out as expected, a film and media course struck the right chord at the right time. After all, his work up until that moment was no stranger to the glitz and glamour of Old Hollywood. Titans of the silver screen like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn often grace his work, wearing the most breathtaking couture gowns from contemporary collections or from times past. His muses transcend their own material existence, and alongside creatures of the sea, birds, and flowers they become modern retellings of classical myths.  

Throughout his course, George found ways to incorporate his extensive fashion knowledge in new ways of thinking about film, such as focusing on how costume design can serve and drive a narrative. For his dissertation, he tells me, he submitted a script which he wrote after he had first selected the costumes from haute couture collections. 

Aside from his refreshing approach to scriptwriting, we talked about all the ways film influences and informs his work, constructing new narratives from his inspirations, his future plans combining film and illustration, and lastly, about his thoughts about how audiences can best connect with and discover local artists. 

How did you first start developing an interest in film? Did your interest in art come first, or was it film?

After years of doing art, I decided to study Fine Art but it didn’t work out for me. I started an art foundation in Brighton but then dropped out, and a fine art degree in Greece from which I dropped out again after a couple of months, as I didn’t feel like it was the right path for me. After that, I won a scholarship at the University of Nicosia so I decided to give that a go. I did a semester on interior architecture which I loved, and the course included a film class. It had never crossed my mind that I could study film, even though I loved the concept of it. 

I was like, okay, interior architecture wouldn’t be as useful to me as a degree, so I had to find something else. And that was when I found out they offered the fantastic course on Mass Media and Digital Communications based on Cinema. While I always respected scriptwriting, I had an affinity with costume design and the way it’s used to narrate the story itself. I’ve been doing fashion illustration for years, drawing collections from all decades, so my fashion history knowledge was very developed at that point. I saw that quite often people involved in filmmaking don’t realise the power of fashion in film. They’ll prioritise script, location, and cast. But when fashion is seamlessly put into the mix, that’s when you have cinema at its best. Sometimes, it goes over people’s heads what makes a film iconic, and they don’t understand that styling can play such a big part in it. It fluffs the character, makes them more real, and from actor’s interviews I’ve seen, I noticed how much it helps them deliver the character as well. I graduated finally with a degree that gave me so many new skills.  Like scriptwriting! When I’m writing, I’m always considering what the characters are wearing, and how this will reflect on the mood of the character, how to capture someone’s idiosyncrasy and how this reflects on what they’re wearing. Every one of us thinks about what they’ll wear every day, and what we choose is based on what we’re feeling and what we have to do each day. 

I was obsessed with film even before my degree, with Metropolis, Alfred Hitchcock’s work, costume designer Edith Head, I always loved everything about cinema. But I realised just how much influence fashion had in the films that stayed with me. In Metropolis, the protagonist becomes a robot, and the costume design, in turn, inspired Thierry Mugler’s robot suit in his 1997 collection, which then inspired my work (and the work of so many other designers, photogaphers, etc). You can see how these things reverberate. An iconic moment in cinema can have so many waves, change and evolve and affect so many other branches of media and the creative arts. It’s crazy to think that this can start from a movie, in which I’m sure the costumes themselves were not the main concern of the film anyway, but they still made something that 50 years later still pulsates in the current zeitgeist. 

Bloom (2020) 

How do you usually go about finding references for your work? Do you usually get inspired by something and start working on it or do you start with research? How important are references to your work, and creating original narratives through it?

I have a list of my favourite muses, a list of dresses I want to sketch, and a list of films I want to reference, so I try to connect the dots between these. For example, The Birds, a series I did in 2014, was based on Alfred Hitchcock’s film. I interpreted the birds as a visual representation of depression and the character’s emotional turmoil, and I wanted the protagonist to wear couture from that season. I would essentially take a dress out of context and put it in context. I would pick these amazing, glamorous clothes, to essentially dress a person who was going through a deep inner turmoil, and these coming together would make a powerful, moving image. Although it was referencing cinema, it was a still image, so it had to jump the fence of fashion photography. The narrative was there but not as clear as the visual of the still image. 

Pages from Assouline’s Athens Riviera book with George V. Antoniou’s work

The most recent I did was with Mary Katrantzou’s SS20 collection – presented at the Temple of Poseidon, at Cape Sounio – an incredible concept inspired by ideas from ancient Greece. The illustration I did (which was then featured in Vogue Greece and ASSOULINE’S book Athens Riviera) was more theatrical. Apart from cinema, I am also interested in theatre, so I tend to read a lot about theatre and staging. Sometimes I might take the narrative from cinema, my visual staging from theatre, and my content of the illustration from fashion. It’s a conglomeration of all three. Another work I’ve been working on right now is a tribute to Alexander McQueen. I picked Kate Moss as my muse and the visual will be a David Fincher/Fightclub-inspired setting. I want to play a bit more with scale in my work, the way some of the scenes in Wings of Desire do. They are filmed on the Victory Column in Berlin, and you have this huge head of this massive statue, with a tiny human standing right next to it. That image made my mind explode. So inspired by that, my work will be on Kate Moss standing next to an immense portrait of Jesus wearing McQueen – you’ll see it soon.

Movie poster of “A Star and an Astronaut” and concept visuals by George V. Antoniou

Throughout my degree, I felt like I grew a deeper adoration for words, and not just images. It felt like something in my mind had switched; up until that moment I would so easily fall in love with images, shapes, colours, composition. Now it’s more about stories, dialogue, this that have been unsaid and narratives. My dissertation was a short film for which I used fashion collections to narrate it. It was about an astronaut that falls in love with a Hollywood actress. For example at one point the protagonist is broken, psychologically, so to articulate that, I looked for collections that were themed around broken glasses, shattered mirrors.

Icarus (2020)

Once I started creating more stories myself, another work I did was with Icarus. I thought of my own version of the story, what if Icarus had survived the fall? I thought of his wing structure, made of feathers and wax, and considered what the remains would be after the fall? A spine immediately sprung to mind, which I connected to a piece created for Alexander McQueen 1998 collection by Shaun Leane. I used this as my first reference, and another painting by Jean Hippolyte Flandrin, that was a very homoerotic visual of a beautiful boy sitting on a rock, looking thoughtful but at the same time, sad. I read a lot of stuff into it from my own perspective, such as the sadness possibly stemming from his coming to terms that his life might not be as easy now that he knows he is a homosexual. Those were my influences, and in the end, a whole new narrative came out in the work. Sometimes a lot of thought goes into an art work, and other times a lot of artworks put thought into me. 

 That being said, I might also be influenced by something I see that will make me want to paint it right away. Like recently, I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn Monroe and I was shocked with how amazing Marilyn looked and how inspiring the whole thing was. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I love showgirls! I love them. Like when Eleni Fourreira sang at the ESC wearing Swarovski and ostrich feathers, I felt like she was the best version of the modern showgirl that we have, and I couldn’t not paint her!

Which films or directors have influenced your work the most? Do you have muses from cinema?

Audrey Hepburn has been a tremendous inspiration, especially her work with Hubert de Givenchy. Seeing her in Breakfast at Tiffany’s with the iconic hot pink Givenchy cocktail dress with the matching crown, was just amazing. The costumes brought out so much of the character, they gave Hepburn the ‘fluff’ that Holly Golightly had as a character written by Truman Capote. A queer author wrote this incredibly queer story (that was a re-telling of his actual life and his supermodel friends at the time), that made it to the cinema and through other queer people it became this story trapped forever in celluloid amber. The same thing is true about Funny Face, in which Fred Astaire is a fashion photographer largely based on Richard Avedon (who was also the film’s visual consultant) and they created these amazing sequences where film and  fashion photography collide, something that might seem easy to do now but was ground-breaking back then. They just inspire me tremendously. And to jump in the digital age I must say I love Kendall Jenner and that sort of genre of saturated beauty, but swan-like Hollywood actresses like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and a more modern one like Tilda Swinton, are not just incredibly talented, but also gorgeous. 

Details from "Passion Flowers" (2020)

Since film has influenced some of your work, do you aim to combine the two in other ways in the future?

I want to continue working with fashion and cinema references in my illustrations for the rest of my life, I can’t even imagine existing without doing it. Regardless of whether people see, buy or care about my work I will keep doing it because it comes from a deeply personal need to create. I want to continue scriptwriting and research non-stop. I have a short script I want to finish and progress it into a project which will be fashion-based as well, and two more stories that are less fashion-focused. Fashion illustration gives you space for incredible whimsicalness and escapism, and fantasy, colour, glamour.  Cinema is more about plot, documenting emotions and words said and unsaid. The things that I’m writing are not so much about introducing people to fashion but more about introducing them to a greater awareness of their emotions, how to navigate these certain emotional war zones that everyone has. Of course, it will look fantastic and there’s going to be glamour in it, but it’s more about how ideas bounce off of two people and where it takes them. I feel like that’s a part of myself that I want to express through a different medium that’s not fashion illustration.

I’m hoping to do some more exhibitions, mostly for my personal satisfaction, as I feel that I get to express myself more through my work. I see them as small windows to a big world, that’s full of references from cinema and fashion. 

So more art, more exhibitions, and a lot of scriptwriting! 

Veronica Lake in Armani Privé Couture Fall 2018

What do you think of the response to your work in general? How do you think things could change locally so that more people would get involved and stay connected to the local artists?

I’m afraid I don’t have a very optimistic answer to this. There is the need for art by people who support it, and love it, and look for it. The intention is there for new initiatives and that’s fantastic, but it can’t expand everywhere and to everyone because there are people who simply don’t have the time, space and need for art in their lives. When it comes to artists showing their work, the bottom line is, even if you are in the most secluded place in the world, the internet is global. When I first started, I knew that I wouldn’t have a future as an artist if I didn’t utilise the internet. There are definitely galleries in Cyprus that are doing amazing work supporting local artists, and we have amazing talent in Cyprus. I think the fact that we are a small community can sometimes work in our favour as artists, as you don’t need to compete with thousands of other artists as you would in big cities like London. 

I think it would be wonderful if we had these spaces that could expose people to more alternative media and art. Like a cinema that showed movies that are not in the Netflix top 10, or mainstream. You really don’t know how what you show to a young and fresh mind can influence them, and what this could develop into. It would be very charming. It’s hard for these spaces to exist for an industry that doesn’t sell or there’s not so much demand for it. This applies to cinema, but also to art as well. In cities like London, where people feel the need for escapism more intensely because of their living conditions, of course, galleries and museums thrive because of it. The truth is here, our lifestyle is so different and there are so many alternative things you can do for enjoyment, that it hardly leaves any space for gallery going.

Find George V. Antoniou’s works on iCanvas.


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