LACMA brings the first Alexander McQueen exhibit to the West Coast

Dubbed “Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse,” the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new exhibit brought the works of legendary designer Alexander McQueen to the West Coast for the first time. Juxtaposed with artwork, textiles and historical costumes from the museum’s own collection, the exhibit (on view till Oct. 9) gives insight into McQueen’s techniques, storytelling and artistic process. Here’s what it was like.

There’s nothing to say about Lee Alexander McQueen that hasn’t been said before. No descriptor that hasn’t been used — genius, mastermind, innovator, legend. Some even call him a showman. From documentaries like McQueen to incredible exhibits like The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Savage Beauty, the legendary designer’s work has been captured and showcased to the masses through many, many mediums. But now and again, the interest is refreshed. In fashion, just like in art, we make frequent attempts to better understand the maker, to dive into the inner workings of their mind and bring it to new light. 

That’s exactly what the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new exhibit, Lee Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse, tries to do. When I arrive at the exhibit, I find that it follows a very specific path, an order that’s meant to bring a fresh perspective by juxtaposing McQueen’s opuses alongside artwork plucked from the museum’s own collections. Every piece next to its inspiration source. Every ensemble next to its story of origin. In doing this, it gives us a visual reference, submerging us into the maze of his brain — every possible twist, turn, dead-end, branch. 

There are many religious and cultural references; three Hieronymus Borsch paintings digitally composited and hand-loomed into a knee-grazing jacquard dress. At the exhibit, you can peruse the dress, set next to an engraving after Pieter Bruegel the Elder — a fantastical, if not tense, scene depicting the seven deadly sins. The collection this dress belonged in, dubbed Angels and Demons, was McQueen’s last (finished by now creative director Sarah Burton.) Could this be a reflection of the darkness that encroached McQueen’s final days? Was it a meditation on death, a celebration of medieval beauty, the romanticism of it?

As I keep walking down the exhibit hall, more discoveries unfold. McQueen’s effort to trace back his ancestry. When he learned that his distant relative, Elizabeth How, was accused of witchcraft and hanged during the notorious Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692, he focused his collection on the subject. At LACMA’s exhibit, you’ll see two gowns, encrusted glass beads cascading like long strands of hair; shearing off a woman’s locks was akin to severing her powers. Nearby, I find the reference. German artist Ernst Barlack’s woodblock prints depict scenes of witchcraft — one shows a witch straddling a broomstick, crying in horror as another woman tugs at her hair. 

McQueen relies on his Scottish ancestry in another collection, pulling cues from his clan tartan and the country’s lush landscape. Another leans on the Spanish practice of bullfighting, drawing influences from the costumes of male matadors and female flamenco dancers. Down the same alley, I find frocks from the designer’s Fall 2009 collection Horn of Plenty, which spotlighted McQueen’s attention to the state of commercial fashion and mass consumerism, and pulled references from his own former collections inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds. With McQueen, I realize, everything comes full circle. 

Wending my way back to the top of the room, something else catches my attention. A projected video plays a notable scene from Sydney Pollack’s Depression-era film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They: frenzied couples competing in a dance marathon in exchange for food and money. Next to it, we see McQueen’s reenactment of that moment — models clad in chiffon gowns, cha-cha dresses and tulle tutus dash around this untraditional runway. If you’ve never seen the collection, dubbed Deliverance, a few terrific pieces are on view. 

I walk past fantastical costumes from the designer’s science-fiction-inspired collection (completely otherworldly!), and into a separate section that showcases other elements of McQueen’s mastery. A sharply constructed wool jacket showcases the faultless judgment and precise geometry of his tailoring. A black-and-red taffeta dress stands behind a 1700-era silk dress, likely where McQueen pulled its DNA. Historic silhouettes, fabrics and trims are brought to life in the designer’s work. You can feel his love for storytelling. His artistry simply stuns me. 

Even though I scan, love and admire every piece in this exhibit, I know I’m not going to see nearly all of it. Seeing every detail here, and understanding it, needs you for more than a few hours. Because observing McQueen’s indelible masterpieces is like studying art. Come a million times, gaze a million times; you’ll find mesmerizing power in something new and unexpected.

LA-based journalist and blogger sharing her deep-seated, honest love for fashion and travel. Check in every week for new stories of exploration and roundups!

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