When you interview someone you’re not meant to interrupt every five minutes with “ME TOO! YES! I FEEL THE EXACT SAME WAY!” but Jo Ratcliffe – a fashion illustrator who looks like a hybrid of model and rock star, with pixyish features, long pale-pink hair, black clothing and multi-coloured sneakers – makes it impossible to resist. She’s soft-spoken and petite, and when I switch on a voice recorder at her Dalston studio she says she feels awkward being taped. But as soon as she starts talking about the things she’s passionate about, like the way that art can conjure up intense feelings and whole imaginative worlds, she lights up, and I start enthusiastically chipping in about my writing ambitions as though we’re friends from way back.
It’s almost two hours later that the tape runs out, but by then she’s on a roll, and I scribble notes on scraps of paper as she tells me about the way it feels cycling along an abandoned railway line at twilight in the mist, with no one else around, and how her favourite way of clearing her mind after a deadline is wandering around a gigantic shopping mall to soak up the “euphoric” atmosphere. “It sounds bizarre,” she says of the mall fixation. “I’m slightly obsessed.”
As a kid from a working-class family, Jo would draw constantly, and ended up going to the iconic Camden art school Central St Martins, but she never imagined she could make a living from her talent – until a flatmate, then art director at Dazed & Confused, persuaded her to add some illustrations to a fashion spread. She took out a loan to buy a computer, taught herself Photoshop and Illustrator, got offered more magazine work, and was snapped up by an agency.
Since then, she’s worked with some of the most famous names in fashion and pop. Remember the shimmering, neon-glowing cover for Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”? That was Jo, and her Twitter account got a boost last summer when the pop star tweeted in caps-lock about how “INCREDIBLE” she is. Now, Jo says with a smile, “I’ve got a lot of followers who like One Direction.”
For that project, Jo drew inspiration from the “trippy” Alice in Wonderland cartoon movie and the hyper-real photos of David LaChappelle, but her style mutates with each new piece of work. On a windowsill in her studio there’s a witchy record cover she drew for a metal band; nearby are gorgeous collages of models and flowers that she made for a Nina Ricci ad campaign. She has turned Lily Cole into a wild, mythological creature for the cover of Dazed, added animated creepy-crawlies to a video of Kate Moss for the French fashion house Balmain and painted a dead mouse into the mouth of Sofia Coppola for the ultra-exclusive magazine Visionaire. (You can buy the issue online for a mere $195.) More recently, she came up with a strange, funny video for Jimmy Choo called “Angel Panda, Devil Panda,” a kind of mashup of fashion promo, 1980s video game and surreal Japanese cartoon.
It’s a portfolio as vibrant and contradictory as the artist herself, but what ties it all together is Jo’s swooping, elegant drawing style and her tendency to subvert prettiness with a dash of something unsettling. It makes sense that she’d “kill to work on a Tim Burton movie”, and that she’s a huge fan of the graphic novelist Chris Ware, who mixes crisp, beautiful art with pitch-black humour. She’d like to follow them, one day, into a more narrative art form. “I’m interested in creating characters at the moment,” she says. “I’d really love to make art that touches people emotionally, to tell a story. Hopefully that’s what all this will get me to.”