With one crown for a pop music queen, Lauren Machen ’07 has built a design career.
BY ELIZABETH FOY LARSEN | PHOTO BY BONNIE HOLLAND
Last October, Lauren Machen ’07 was stopped at Los Angeles International Airport for trying to put a crown through security. That the black spiky coronet looked more like a futuristic candleholder than something from the collection of Prince Charles was only part of the challenge. The headpiece also had disappeared into the X-ray machine after its glass display case broke apart on the conveyor belt. That’s when a frantic Machen explained that she had designed and created the crown and that Lady Gaga had worn it in her “Bad Romance” video. In fact, Machen was en route to Paris so it could be displayed in a special exhibit celebrating the pop singer’s avant-garde fashion. Could they please do everything they could to find it?
Gaga! the security guards announced as travelers craned their necks to see what was happening. As the crown was fished out of the X-ray machine, people nodded in recognition. All the attention felt surreal for the Twin Cities native, now a fashion stylist and accessories designer in Los Angeles. “It’s this iconic piece that I made at four in the morning in the bathroom of my tiny apartment,” says Machen.
Perhaps just as surreal is the fact that the iconic piece was the first commissioned work of Machen’s career. The opportunity came about when a friend of hers was working on the “Bad Romance” video. Machen had no idea who Lady Gaga was, but offered to make something for the video and ended up constructing four black crowns to be worn by backup dancers. At some point during production, the wardrobe stylist decided the concept would work better atop Gaga’s platinum locks.
That serendipitous choice was a high-profile breakthrough for Machen. “Because Gaga is such a fashion icon for a strange, wild aesthetic, it’s an automatic stamp of validation,” she says. That crown has paved the way for a successful freelance career in which Machen has taken on a wide range of commissions, from a custom motorcycle seat to a dance tutu fabricated from garbage bags. “The unifying concept is my aesthetic, which is dark and edgy,” she says of her work, which combines natural objects such as twigs and feathers with bondage references to create a kind of Mad Max-meets-Vogue effect. “They’re dark but beautiful at the same time.”
Though her shingle has only been out a short time, Machen has already designed pieces for other celebrities as well, including singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart and White Stripes guitarist Jack White. “All the work I’ve gotten has come from word of mouth,” she says. “I must be doing something right.” Because making accessories is not yet a full-time gig, Machen also does wardrobe styling for music videos and magazine editorial spreads.
Macalester helped her discover her artistic sensibility, says Machen, who studied drawing and painting while majoring in art at Mac. She also designed costumes in the theater department—an experience that taught her she didn’t enjoy the technical aspects of following patterns. “Accessories agree with me because they’re sculptural and very free,” she says. But Machen’s education wasn’t limited to the art department. She originally focused on studying psychology and graduated just a few credits shy of a double major. “Psychology is so useful in my career,” she says. “What I do is cater to people’s personalities and beings, so having an understanding of them has helped a lot.”
The connection between her fields of study impressed her advisor, Psychology Department director Jaine Strauss. “She had a real knack for merging her interests in psychology and art, including fabricating an enormous model of a neuron that still adorns our walls and designing our department T-shirts—and elevating the fashion quotient of the department exponentially in doing so,” says Strauss. “The most remarkable synthesis of art and psychology was Lauren’s directed research project, in which she examined the benefits of an artistic activity—finger painting—on students’ well-being. The study was impeccable in its research design. In essence, she affirmed the restorative power of even rudimentary artistic expression.” Switching majors from psychology to art was difficult for her, says Strauss, but “Lauren was so wise and mature in doing so—following her heart and her passion—and the whole department supported her decision, even as we appreciated the challenges of an arts career. Seeing her success now is inspiring. I’m excited to see where she goes next.”
Machen is unsure about that next step herself. For now she’s content to scavenge her neighborhood and local Home Depot for unconventional materials to use in her creations. “Every day I look around and see things,” she says. “I get really inspired by the materials themselves and learning how to work with them in a different way than they are traditionally worked with.”
She takes with her the lessons about self-knowledge that she learned in college. “The journey of establishing an aesthetic takes time,” she says. “Now I feel like I can make something in any discipline and it will look like it’s mine.”
Minneapolis freelancer ELIZABETH LARSEN is a regular contributor to Macalester Today.