Interview with Joana Avillez: the illustrator behind the gomelsky collection

BY Taylor Rebhan

Shinola’s new Gomelsky Collection is best described as sophisticated, feminine, and timeless. In order to achieve watch designs that will remain wearable for generations to come, our creative approach was a little different this time around. We hired NYC-based illustrator Joana Avillez to design a fictional woman, Gomelsky, who encapsulates all the characteristics of the women who inspired this new collection.

Learn more about Gomelsky and the illustrator behind this concept below.


Meet Gomelsky, designed by Joana Avillez.

Before we had designed any of the watches in the Gomelsky Collection, your illustrations were used to help us conceptualize the entire line and bring the concept to life. What were your initial inspiration points that helped you come up with the first set of drawings?

To think about Gomelsky, I had to think about this particular kind of lady who I have always adored. I was thinking about Ms. Hannigan from Annie, and Bianca Castafiore from Tintin and the heroines of many, many Helmut Newton photographs.

Every woman in Helmut Newton’s book Portraits was an inspiration. To be honest, even June Newton, Helmut’s wife, had the haircut I gave Gomelsky. The character I had in mind is like if Kiki de Montparnasse was from Scarsdale, NY — robust and wild, but family oriented.  


Joana Avillez (pictured), the illustrator behind the Gomelsky collection. Photograph by Niklas Adrian Vindelev

This year you contributed to Lenny, describing your “Grandma Mike”. Was she inspiration for the fictional woman, Gomelsky, depicted in your illustrations? What other women in your life do you look up to?

I think everyone has a “Grandma Mike” — some boisterous, brash, stole-wearing ancient relative who is often remembered both fondly and with some slight fear. I think Grandma Mike was indeed a Gomelsky. In my own life I look up to my mom, and my best friend Isabel who contains the multitudes necessary to be a very young Gomelsky.


Have you ever created illustrations that pair with a brand’s new products like this? What was it like to be challenged in this way?

I have not! I loved it because it was exciting to imagine the drawings as a home or a world for the pieces — whenever I wear something, I am imagining it contributing to some sense of fantasy I have about myself, so this was rendering that fantasy.


You typically use a ballpoint pen as the starting point for many of your illustrations, why is this your drawing utensil of choice? What happens next in your process?

I use a ballpoint pen because it is easy and gives drawing the feeling of writing. If I am doing a more “polished” piece I may lay down some lines in pencil so I have some sense of placement, then pen, then watercolor. My methods are very simple and accessible, which lets me draw anywhere and make things when I’m traveling. The actual drawing itself is never digital but always given a Photoshop bath before it’s finished.

Can you share a bit about your background — how did you get into illustration in the first place?

As a kid I was always drawing and writing and creating fake newspapers with fashion reports and stories about weird ladies and animals for my parents. Eventually I went to art school, not because I had in mind to be an artist, but because liberal arts school sounded so bleak and meandering. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design which was a sensational decision — I loved every bit of my time in Providence. I considered going into illustration but ended up as a painting major. Later, I moved back to New York (where I grew up) and knew that my work had nothing to do with galleries or dealers, but everything to do with books and print and stories.  


Joana Avillez and her dog (pictured). Photograph by Laurel Golio

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a book with the cryptic title D C-T with co-author Molly Young. It is based on William Steig’s classic book C D B, which uses drawing and writing to create an unusual puzzle — the illustration helps solve a code. It sounds complicated, but is really fun, especially if you enjoy struggling to find meaning (in books or life!). It will be published by Penguin Press in Fall 2017.


What is the best part about being an illustrator? What is the hardest part about being an illustrator? 

The best part of being an illustrator is that I get to do what I have truly always loved. I can write and draw and wear the same hat. I get to actively look at the world like a very wise five-year-old.

The hardest part is probably the same for any creative medium; you are always learning about what works and doesn’t work, and the times when you’re unsure can be painful.

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