Avenue Magazine — Bold Stroke at Henri Bendel: An Artist-in-Residence

Traffic Creative Management
4 min readDec 26, 2017

Bold Stroke at Henri Bendel: An Artist-in-Residence by ELLA ALEXANDER Photographed by BOWEN FERNIE

Izak Zenou greeted a visitor to his studio with the torn-up remnants of a watercolor portrait he’d done of a style blogger the night before. As he waved the scraps, a mischievous smile spread across his face. “Izak!” said his agent, Michelle Edelman, “You’ve ruined it!”

“It was terrible,” he replied, triumphantly. “People were taking pictures, saying it was nice and everything, but I know when my work is good and this was not good at all.” The blogger, Christine Bibbo Herr of NYC Pretty, would come back later to collect the portrait, and Izak would have to explain the situation. His artistic integrity was at stake. He couldn’t put work out into the world that he wasn’t proud of. Izak has easy, intimate manners and a magnetic natural optimism, but along with this comes all the volatility of an artistic temperament, and very strong opinions about his own art.

For this month only, Izak’s studio is in Henri Bendel’s 5th Avenue flagship store. An illustrator, Izak’s been creating art for Henri Bendel for over 20 years. If you’ve ever been inside a Bendel store, you’ve seen his work, even if you’re not familiar with his name. This month, the artist and the brand are stepping their relationship up a level. Izak has moved his into a glass-walled room on the second floor of the iconic New York accessories store, where he’ll work daily in full view of Bendel shoppers until December 22nd.

The studio itself looks more like a stylish uptown loft than a workspace. A drafting table stands against the natural light–this is where Izak works–but the porcelain-potted ferns, Grecian busts, velvet furniture, and artfully scattered art books that fill the rest of the space speak more to fashion than function. At the event’s launch party the night before, romantically lit and staffed with caterers holding platters of macarons and champagne flutes, it looked like a set from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Even as the first guests arrived at the party, Izak was at his table, working on his portrait of Christine, who couldn’t stay for the party. He painted rapidly with a bamboo reed dipped in India ink, only glancing up occasionally at the blogger yet using lines so confident that it seemed he must have been tracing some imperceptibly faint under-drawing–he was not. The guests began to trickle in. Izak spotted a friend in his peripheral vision and his uncanny concentration broke. He set down his pen and greeted her warmly in French.

Like Izak’s illustrations, the party had a bubbly, carefree atmosphere, and was attended by such fashion luminaries as Catherine Malandrino, RJ Graziano, Fern Mallis, and Michelle Stein. From the refreshments–champagne and quarter-sized cookies–to the color palette to the conversation, everything about the night felt light. The pinnacle of lightness was the artist himself, laughing and chatting with friends in a fluid mixture of English and French. A photographer commented later that she had trouble finding a good photo of him at the party, because he was so constantly in motion.

The next day, all evidence of the lively party had been wiped away by fastidious Bendel staff and the atmosphere in the studio more closely resembled an 18th century Parisian salon. People drifted in and out: Edelman and Bendel staff and a pair of friendly southerners who had a long series of questions about the artistic process, and the discourse often took a philosophical turn. Izak ran off on tangents about art in the age of social media, or the excitement of his early career, but when asked what inspired him, he replied with just one word, “Beauty.”

He and Michelle argued over a piece he’d done for Bendel earlier that year of a girl leaning over a flamingo. She loved it; he hated it. “If it was up to me, I’d have done an ostrich. An ostrich looks like a girl–long legs, big eyelashes–it has attitude. A flamingo has no attitude. It’s just pink.”

Izak is restless with the commercial restrictions of his field, and determined to push the boundaries. “In 2018,” he said, “I’m making things bold. Bold lines, bold colors, no more cute.”

Shortly afterwards, a couple–a magazine editor and a designer–stopped by, and Izak offered to draw them. Discussing politics and old acquaintances with Michelle, the designer sat with perfect posture on a stool while the editor melted into an armchair beside her, and Izak Zenou drew silently. While the process looked much the same as it had when he painted Christine, the artist’s reaction to his final product could not have been more different.

“This is good!” he announced, face lit up with pride. “This is what I can do when I’m in the right mindset.” The photographer took a picture of Izak standing with the couple, holding the drawing, then Izak took his own picture of it to post on Instagram.

While his portrait of Christine had, contrary to the artist’s own opinion, actually been quite pretty, the difference between that painting and his new drawing was undeniable. He’d captured not just the look of the couple, but something of their essence, the way they existed in physical space. And, of course, it was timelessly stylish. Any doubts about the artistic merits of fashion illustration had vanished in the 30 minutes it took Izak to finish the double portrait.

Izak will be at work in the Bendel flagship store on 712 5th Avenue until December 22nd, with a special event celebrating Catherine Malandrino’s new book Une Femme Française on December 12th and two live drawing events on the 6th and the 15th. For a fee, you can even commission a portrait. The studio doors are always open–metaphorically, at least. Izak doesn’t like the store’s top 40 playlist so he soundproofs his workspace as much as possible.

Source: https://goo.gl/1JLKUt



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