Richard Haines—Love Yourself

Photographs by
Karl & Kristof

Richard Haines is a legend. His artistic legacy ratifies him as an innovator who upended the worlds of fashion and art. As these categories revolutionized over time, so did Haines. He’s lived in and between moments—undergoing transformations parallel to the cultural narratives of New York City. His story can only be described as sui generis, completely in a class of its own.

Before the days of hashtags and Insta-stories, the premier documenter was illustration. It was the art medium used for ads in The New York Times and the covers of Vogue. Growing up, Haines connected to this kind of imagery. It was emotive, sometimes even more colorful than photography. He aspired to become an illustrator one day, teaching himself how to draw by copying fashion photos and department store ads. However, by the time he moved to New York City in the mid-1970s, the talents of fashion sketchers were no longer of vested interest. 

Photography had taken over in a big way. Under these prevailing conditions, Haines made the shift to fashion design, where he spent decades working for renowned labels including Calvin Klein and Perry Ellis. While Haines enjoyed a successful career working for major fashion houses, he wasn’t exempt from the economy’s temperament. In 2008, he was no longer able to find work. Equal parts total fluke and an act of serendipity, Haines turned back to his love of illustration. He decided to start a blog called, What I Saw Today, a platform where he detailed New York City street fashion like an anthropologist.

Haines’ loosely sketched figures pose as the perfect foundation. Not only do they showcase his genius for fashion and function, but the images also provide a cultural context. He invests in the conversations around him. At first, it seems like Haines is merely acting as a spectator, observing and documenting the world around him.

However, with a little more scrutiny, we recognize that he is a storyteller. Haines takes us with him, witnessing the world through strokes of color and form. His sketches are the only ones that can cut through the noise of social media. In a world of digital, this analog representation is almost an act of rebellion. And no one could illustrate this the same way Richard Haines can.

Tell us a little bit about your childhood. What did becoming an artist mean to you?

Becoming an artist at an early age was a way of escaping and ‘checking out’ from the reality around me. My father was very ill and in the hospital for about six months when I was five or six. I think that’s when my art practice really began.
I would draw gardens—it was a way of creating an alternative, happier universe. Escape and survival…

In the mid-1970s, before the days of Twitter and Instagram, you created a visual archive of what you saw on the runway. What was that experience like for you as an artist?

In the 70s I moved to New York to ‘become’ an illustrator. Because I don’t have formal training as a fashion illustrator I put that dream aside and became a fashion designer, working for companies such as Bill Blass, Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein. Nonetheless, it was an incredibly exciting time—the beginning of the idea of American sportswear, and I was right in the middle of that era. I loved it and it as informed who I am today.

“I’m very grateful that the difficult times lead me to
where I am now, which is living my life as an artist—I’ve never
been happier or more content.”

That was an exceptionally unique time in New York City. What was it like living in the “front row” of fashion?

My first job designing was with a woman named Cathy Hardwick. She had a small, self-owned company of women sportswear, and she taught me everything about fashion design. She’d send me to Paris twice a year to go to the fabric shows, and while there I started going to the shows of designers like Claude Montana, Jean Paul Gautier and Thierry Muegler. Amazing, powerful shows of models in huge shouldered outfits—an incredible time!

You must have some fantastic stories from those days. Can you share with us one of your favorite memories?

I randomly met John Duka—he went on to become the fashion editor of New York Magazine, the fashion editor for the New York Times, and one of the co-founders of the PR powerhouse KCD. John was working on his first story and wanted something memorable, so I arranged for us to meet with the couturier Charles James. I believe it was the last year of James’ life, he was living in the Chelsea Hotel in less than optimal circumstances, but to meet him, and to be in rooms filled with the most beautiful gowns was a true New York moment!

Shortly after, the fashion industry experienced a seismic shift. You found yourself transforming your craft by designing in-house for major New York labels. What was it about menswear that you loved the most?

I love the ease of menswear. And of course, being a man, it’s something I can easily relate to. Also in the 70s and 80s, there was a huge change in the way men shopped and put themselves together. This was the beginning of ‘Designer Labels’ such as Perry Ellis and Calvin Klein, so there was an excitement about being at the vanguard of that.

You’ve encountered a lot of successes in your life. Do you credit that to talent or hard work? Perhaps a little bit of both?

Hmmmm. I think both. But I do realize that talent is only part of the reason for one’s success. I’ve learned over the years to be grateful and willing. I also am genuinely happy to work and have people pay me to draw, to do the work. I think that kind of attitude creates more work. I also think one has to be willing to share their work, use social media, etc. I know a lot of people who are very talented, but without knowing how to share work and work with people, the talent can only go so far.

In the years surrounding 2008, you faced a number of downfalls that ultimately brought you back to your first love: illustrations. What was that like for you?

I’m very grateful that the difficult times lead me to where I am now, which is living my life as an artist—I’ve never been happier or more content. I do believe that hard times are unavoidable, and it’s what we learn from them that determines the next part of our lives. It certainly was very difficult at the time to walk through each day facing a lot of loss, but drawing and my daughter gave me the strength to keep moving forward. And because of the difficult times, the good ones are all the sweeter and more appreciated.

How was it different from the first time around?

I realize now that I wasn’t completely honest about who I was, even in my 30s and 40s. I felt like I needed to do things to impress people, so I was never really in touch with my ‘authentic’ self. It wasn’t until I lost so much materially after the financial crash of 2008 that I could really become aware of what really matters to me, which is my art and raising my daughter. I certainly didn’t have that kind of awareness in my 20s. The maturity has allowed me to be more accepting of myself and others, and to live honestly, which I think is one of the true gifts in life.

If you could go back in time and give the 10-year-old version of yourself a piece of advice, what would it be?

My advice: To love and respect myself. It’s taken a long time to get to these qualities. I think if I’d had the tools to do this sooner, my life would have been easier!

With the advent of the smartphone and consequently social media, the need for art and content never stops. What are your thoughts on this?

Social media and the smartphone have changed the playing field dramatically, but I do think overall for the better. I find I am able to connect with clients in a new, more intimate way, which is great. As for the relentless need to ‘refresh’, I think that’s up to the artist to determine how much they want to post, and why. There are no rules, and sometimes (still) less is still more!

Your blog, What I Saw Today, provides so much more than illustrations of fashion trends. We find it to also provide perspective or social commentary. Is that intentional?

My intention was to draw what I saw around me. When I moved to Bushwick, I was incredibly excited by what was happening, and I wanted to draw it. And it really was a mix of fashion and a kind of cultural shift; all rolled up into one community. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but later people pointed it out. I love artists like Honore Daumier, who’s drawing were records of their era. If I am considered to be in that tradition, then I am honored.

If you never became an artist, what do you imagine yourself doing?

Being an artist is so much I part of who I am, I don’t know who I would be without that! At one point when I was very young, I wanted to be an archeologist, which in a way makes sense—it’s trying to make sense of humanity, which I think is what art does.

In your personal life, you were married a few times to women, what was that experience like for you?

I’ve been fortunate to have been married to two dynamic, smart women. And my second wife and I adopted my daughter Jitan, so for that, I am grateful every day. I don’t live in regret, the mistakes we make inform who we are. All the steps along the way got me to where I am now, which is great!

Where are you on your path now?

Good question! My mother passed last October, and my daughter just turned 21, so I feel like I am entering another part of my life. With all change comes an element of discomfort, and right now I am adjusting to having less responsibility to others in my family. There’s a sense of loss and a sense of freedom. I want to get a studio, make large paintings, experiment, challenge myself. So hopefully I am entering a new phase of my work.

When it comes to personal style, where do you draw the line?

Ha! Good question! I really love fashion, but at 66 I need to know where to draw the line, so I don’t look foolish. I, of course, avoid trendy stuff, but I love to know what’s happening, so it’s a balancing act. I don’t buy a lot, and right now I buy most of my clothes at Acne Studios. They update classic pieces like jean jackets and have a wonderful sense of color and proportion, which I love. Also as an artist, comfort and function are essential, so I love pieces that are almost like a uniform, that way I can keep my eye on another generation wearing the amazing stuff!

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