On paper, fashion illustration should be a simple thing: a piece of work that represents the look and feel of fashion in two-dimensional form. But like all things, the actuality is a little more complex. This is what the illustrator Lara Mackenzie Lee found when she embarked on her studies at London’s Central Saint Martins, an experience that radically redefined for her what the medium could be.
‘My point of view then was that fashion illustration today has to do something more than just depict a garment,’ she explains. ‘It needs to convey emotion, and give a bit more than the literal. It’s a lot more interesting to do something conceptual and abstract.’ Her new work – impressionistic renderings of runway looks in vivid colour – is now part of this year’s Drawing on Style, the annual exhibition of fashion illustration at Gray MCA in London.
Mackenzie Lee’s distinctive style did not come about by accident. In her final year at Central Saint Martins, she worked in collaboration with a design student who was producing a collection inspired by dance. ‘Because it was through dance, you had to convey movement, and I started to think: how do you convey garments on top of all that?’ The result was a series of illustrations that echo the painterly strokes and dynamism of abstract expressionism, while still giving a sense of the mood of a particular garment or look.
‘I work with tracing paper, drawing out the forms, and so it becomes a sort of collage of different mediums.’ The lines, she says, come at the very end, to give the body a little definition and to hold the shape’s mass together. ‘I think the basic rule of my work is something a tutor told me a long time ago: the body isn’t made out of lines, it’s made out of mass. So illustration is about balancing those masses. And that’s the same rule for fashion design: you work with proportions.’
Originally from Montreal, Mackenzie Lee is now embarking on moving to Australia. London, in the meantime, has been fruitful for her: In the years since graduating, she has juggled her illustration with working in PR and licensing for Stella McCartney and Issey Miyake. She has illustrated men’s collections for SHOWstudio and is now represented by Gray MCA, positioning her work in its latest exhibition in a continuum alongside the likes of Antonio Lopez, Kenneth Paul Block, René Gruau and Jason Brooks.
‘It’s a huge privilege,’ she says. ‘[At Gray MCA] you can see a really nice balance between new work – three contemporary artists – and then a lot of classic illustrators from the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a nice contrast between now and then.’§