Published September 06, 2012
The aristocratic elegance of Mario Testino’s shoot, inspired in part by Downton Abbey, is matched in portraits by illustrator David Downton—no relation—for the Best-Dressed List Hall of Fame.
“She doesn’t really seem like she’s quite of this era,” says contributing editor Evgenia Peretz of Jessica Chastain. Indeed, Chastain—an actress most viewers will recognize as the star of such box-office hits as last year’s The Help and The Debt—radiates a 1950s feminine demureness in person, as well as on-screen, inspiring Peretz to call her “the most sensitive and empathetic actor I’ve ever interviewed.”
Mario Testino, who photographed Chastain for our seventh annual Style Issue on a beautiful June day in England’s Hampshire countryside, also saw something remarkable in her. “More and more, I am attracted to mixing the beauty of actresses with their talent to transform themselves into other characters, bringing out something hidden within them,” says Testino of the 35-year-old actress. “For this shoot, I wanted to use Jessica’s acting talent by giving her the role of an English lady—an eccentric—living a detached life in her rural home with her birds, dogs, and horses. But all while maintaining a high level of style. Very inspired by the paintings of [Giovanni] Boldini, [John Singer] Sargent, and [Thomas] Gainsborough.”
Chastain’s impressive lineup of forthcoming projects includes Tar, a meditation on the life of American poet C. K. Williams, in which she appears alongside James Franco, Henry Hopper, and Mila Kunis. She will also be seen in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a period drama, co-starring James McAvoy, and on Broadway in The Heiress, based on Henry James’s Washington Square. According to Peretz, Chastain is not afraid to turn down higher-paying jobs (Iron Man 3) in favor of such unconventional projects.
Others who have met Chastain echo Peretz’s sentiments regarding her yesteryear appeal. “Jessica has a timeless elegance that’s almost incongruous for the current times. [The shoot] was this return to an aristocratic, almost mysterious past,” says V.F.’s fashion and style director, Jessica Diehl. It involved a flurry of wardrobe changes (Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga) and a blizzard of popping flashbulbs, all set on the grounds of a grand country house. The styling was inspired by the Edwardian influence evident in so many of the fall fashion collections, and the recent popularity of the P.B.S. television series Downton Abbey also played a part.
Having witnessed firsthand what she describes as the “instant camaraderie” between Testino and his subject, who had met earlier this year on the set of V.F.’s Hollywood Issue cover shoot, Diehl adds, “Jessica instantly understood the mood we were going for. And having worked with some amazing directors over the years had brought her to a place where she can control her body and her angles with exquisite precision.”
Starting on page 294 of this issue, readers will find portraits by renowned fashion illustrator David Downton, featuring five members of the International Best-Dressed List’s Hall of Fame—fashion designer Carolina Herrera, model Iman, director Sofia Coppola, heiress Daphne Guinness, and the Countess Jacqueline de Ribes. Overseeing the list, now in its 73rd year, its directors—Graydon Carter, Reinaldo Herrera, Amy Fine Collins, and Aimée Bell, who this year had the invaluable help of editorial researcher Theresa Grill—are delighted with Downton’s illustrations, which were done in watercolor, ink, and gouache.
“Each of the sitters was iconic in her own way,” Downton says of the women he depicted. “Each a total individual, which is helpful to me.” In particular, the artist was impressed by the way his subjects styled themselves, in high-fashion clothing ensembles, which, he says, made the creative process easier. Jacqueline de Ribes, Downton says, “is a living brushstroke—a long, attenuated line.” Daphne Guinness made her extreme makeup, evocative of a fairy-tale villainess, “look as natural as soap and water.” And Iman, who wore an Azzedine Alaïa dress for her sitting, was “a goddess.”
Downton, who works most of the time from a studio in Brighton, on the southern coast of England, traveled extensively for the project. Herrera met him on a sweltering June day at her home in New York City. Coppola posed in the Duke of Windsor Suite at the Ritz Paris. (“I’ve never wanted to steal a bathrobe so much,” Downton says of the hotel visit.) The models also brought with them to the sittings no shortage of occupational injuries. Herrera had a broken nose, Iman a fractured ankle, and de Ribes a broken arm. But “none of them skipped a beat,” says Downton.
“David is one of the great illustrators of our times,” says Reinaldo Herrera, Carolina’s husband. “Like all great masters of the drawing board, he is fast to catch the auras of his subjects—and that is exactly what we wanted.”
Photography producer Ron Beinner—who facilitated the sittings, and served as a liaison among the editors, the art department, Downton, and his subjects—found the experience inspiring: “Everyone involved had such perfect manners—they were all the very models of diplomacy and dignity, while being fun and witty at the same time.” Musing on his efforts, Downton concludes, “My work is supposed to look effortless, as though it ‘just happened’ . . . But it never does.”