On the trail of the real Alexander McQueen, designer extraordinaire

“Regina has always been drawn to designers who told stories with strong narratives,” says Esguerra. “Obviously, McQueen fits that bill. We discovered that McQueen’s gift was the most extensive in North America. We felt we should honour that gesture.”

Michaela Hansen, left, curatorial assistant, costume and textiles at LACMA and Clarissa Esguerra, associate curator, costumes and textiles, with installations from ‘Lee Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse’ at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Rebecca Aranda

With much of LACMA’s permanent galleries closed for renovations, Esguerra and co-curator Michaela Hansen, curatorial assistant, costume and textiles, were able to trawl the entire collection to find artworks that reflected McQueen’s work.

A dress from the 2009 ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gift of Regina J. Drucker © Alexander McQueen

Museum-goers looking for pure escapism might be disappointed here – this is not an exhibition that elevates the richness of technique or the sumptuousness of design. But those wanting to engage deeply with McQueen’s work will be rewarded with a hearty dialogue that presents the enfant terrible Designer as a trailblazing artist, whose medium, textiles was just one part of his message along with his legendary runway shows.

“Historically, in museums, fashion is not seen as art,” says Hansen. “This process allowed us to really show that McQueen was an artist, and that fashion belongs in an art museum. His medium was fashion.”

At a meeting with Esguerra and Hansen at the LACMA in September – to tour the exhibition before its Melbourne season – their excitement is palpable and infectious. It was a two-hour conversation that saw them go from being subdued, to being giddy.

“In ‘Angels and Demons’,” says Esguerra, referring to McQueen’s 2010 collection (and also his last), “he’s looking at the Italian Renaissance.” She points to a jacket. “Here, you see the motifs of the wings and the angel’s faces.”

A shoe that is displayed with the jacket features a heel decorated with an angel. “This is from a different collection, but you see the through-line, right? These motifs were touchstones for McQueen throughout his career.”

On it goes, each garment offering a rare and distinct insight into McQueen’s vast, hungry mind, and the ways he drew upon influences high (art history) and low (pop culture) to create his work.

Pieces from the spring 2000 show ‘The Eye’, McQueen’s first in New York City, borrow heavily from Islamic textile traditions, cut with a turn-of-the-millennium swing. (You might remember the show, presented on an oil-slicked runway, for the moment at the very end when McQueen took a bow – and dropped his trousers to reveal stars-and-stripes boxer shorts).

It’s genius… It’s genius.

Clarissa Esguerra

Climate change was the influence for the spring 2010 collection ‘Plato’s Atlantis’, in which McQueen envisaged how survivors of rising water levels would dress themselves and move in a new world. The show is even “more relevant now” than it was at the time, says Esguerra.

Model Ana Mihajlovic in an ensemble from ‘The Widows of Culloden’ collection, Autumn / Winter 2006. © Robert Fairer

The Widows of Culloden’ (autumn 2006) was shaped by McQueen’s Scottish ancestry and the history of Scotland. It honors the widows who were left behind by the Battle of Culloden, 1746. In that battle, more than 1000 Scotsmen were killed in under an hour. The collection, which uses the McQueen tartan, also recalls Britain’s Dress Act of the same year, which banned “Highlands dress”.

Hansen and Esguerra both know that it is not uncommon for fashion analysts to try to find explanations for the clothes. Sometimes designers are not able to speak clearly about the direct influences. There They are a joy to behold.

McQueen’s 2003 collection ‘Scanners’, which traced a journey from Siberia through Tibet and into Japan, offers one such happy ending.

“This is the dress that showed us we could stage this exhibit,” says Esguerra, pointing to a monochromatic dress, printed with a floral pattern inside a tile formation. “Once we saw it, and realised what it was … it showed us that we were right, that McQueen borrowed liberally from art, and art history. And then we could keep going.”

It is stunning to the untutored eyes, and has a McQueen-esque fit and flare silhouette that will be familiar. It is the black-and-white print that makes this dress so special.

“In Tibet this pattern is known as kati rimo, or brocade,” says Esguerra. “It often shows up in Buddhist iconography in Tibet – but also in Japan, where it is known as shokkō.” In using this pattern, McQueen is taking the viewer on a journey from one country to another, without saying a word.

“When someone bought this dress, would they know the centuries-long history of this documented pattern, and context of all of this? No,” says Esguerra. “And isn’t that the beauty of it? It’s genius.

“There are a lot of designers who look at patterns and textiles from other cultures, and they put it on a skirt without any context. This isn’t what it means. This is looking at the world, absorbing it and translating it through clothing.”

A look from ‘Horn of Plenty’ runway show, for autumn/winter 2009 Reuters

The exhibition, which also features a section venerating McQueen’s unrivalled tailoring, is completed by headpieces from the renowned costume designer Michael Schmidt.

One of Regina Drucker’s caveats for staging the McQueen exhibition was “no bald mannequins”, Schmidt says, showing me around the Los Angeles studio where he and his team have made 12 headpieces for the LA show and another 44 pieces for the NGV exhibition. “Being a long-time McQueen fan, I jumped at the chance.”

Schmidt is a former nightclub owner – McQueen was a frequent visitor to his New York venue in the 1990s – who has created some of pop culture’s wildest costumes. Lady Gaga’s bubble dress? Schmidt. Fergie’s LEGO dress? Schmidt. Lizzo’s gold disco ball jumpsuit? Schmidt.

Cher saw a gown he designed in New York City in a window display and demanded to know the maker.

Schmidt, who describes himself as “part designer, part engineer”, is often Hollywood and the fashion industry’s first port of call for challenging garments (he has also worked with Tom Ford and Moschino’s Jeremy Scott).

Grace Jones calls us as we talk. He has made Grace Jones a chainmail headpiece for the concert she will be giving at Hollywood Bowl next week. “I have to take this,” he says apologetically. “It’s Grace.”

With his pop-punk sensibility, Schmidt seems the perfect designer to accessorise McQueen’s work. The idea, he says, was to “reference” McQueen’s garments in order to celebrate them.

“I didn’t want to make copies of pieces he had done, I wanted to reference them,” he says. “This isn’t ‘The Michael Schmidt Show’. To honour the work, I wanted to be careful about the silhouettes. The idea is to exalt these pieces and make the show entertaining.”

That said, he adds, “it’s hard to overwhelm a McQueen piece”.

Given “basically free rein”, he created headpieces that borrow from – and build on – McQueen’s design language, giving the exhibition further depth. There is a piece that looks like a sabre tooth tiger’s skull, a witchy black swashbuckler, and a giant silver mesh bow. Swarovski crystals are used in hats as well as chain mail, which is a McQueen staple and Schmidt signature, and tree branches.

The tree branches adorn a headpiece for a dress from McQueen’s autumn/winter 2008 show ‘The Girl Who Lived in the Tree’, said to be inspired by the death of his great friend and benefactor Isabella Blow.

Michael Schmidt and his team created 12 headpieces in LA and 44 for NGV. 

Esguerra said that this headpiece moved the curators to their knees.

“We worked on this show during the height of COVID-19,” she says. “And so we did a lot of the work remotely. This was one the final pieces that we photographed and staged due to material delays. And Michael came in and said, ‘It’s missing something,’ and he put this tiny little green leaf in there – and we all burst into tears. He was right. We needed light and hope. And that is very McQueen.”

“I like to think that he would be amused by these pieces we are making,” says Schmidt. These are not copies of work that was created by Philip Treacy and Shaun Leane for their shows. “It’s about telling the story of McQueen, and the story of McQueen is the story of pop culture, art, history and society. There is so much to talk about here.”

Schmidt’s favourite McQueen show was ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ – for its “dumbfounding, gasp-inducing shock”. To complement the ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ garments in the exhibition, he has made replicas of its famed Armadillo shoes (which were only ever produced for the show itself, so just a handful exist).

‘Plato’s Atlantis’ represented McQueen’s fearlessness like no other show.

McQueen, fresh from LACMA’s exhibition, will exhibit at the NGV his love for art and as an artist. 

“He was not in any way engaged with other designers, he stood alone,” says Schmidt. “Because he came from a highly sophisticated tailoring background, he had the foundation on which to experiment. A lot of designers don’t know how to sew. But it’s more than fabric. The subtext of his work goes so deep; he told so many stories in his shows that you didn’t even realise what you were seeing until you looked back and noticed that he was trying to teach you something.”

Back in the LACMA, Esguerra smiles as I recount Schmidt’s words. “That’s all so true,” she says. “It’s like McQueen used to say, ‘If you want to know anything about me, just look at my clothes.’ ”

As a guest of NGV the writer visited Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

You need to be informed

Alexander McQueen: Mind, Mythos, Muse On December 11, the National Gallery of Victoria will open its doors.

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