If you want to know me, just look at my work.
I can understand the ubiquity of a name like Alexander McQueen because I remember knowing it when he tragically committed suicide back in 2010. Recognition only took one mention despite it being all over the news—even if I wasn’t wholly sure who he was removed from it. The fashion scene has never been something I paid attention to and yet some designers become a part of the pop culture lexicon regardless. That turned out to be true with this phenom from London and yet the celebrity and mystique allowing for it doesn’t delve deeper into the why. That’s where documentaries like Ian Bonhôte and writer Peter Ettedgui‘s McQueen come in to add the necessary context to describe his ascent towards stardom and the circumstances surrounding his demise.
They’ve constructed it as a series of chapters titled after his most (in)famous shows. So we meet him as a young adult via 1990s-era home video footage and learn about his work ethic and infinite promise thanks to interviews with the mentors who helped guide his dream into reality. But they’re all quick to admit they had nothing to do with his talent—it was his own. They merely sought to facilitate the transfer of his vision onto fabric and open the doors he’d need to walk through for the success they knew he’d earn. They provided him the practical tools that his unique sensibility would then be able to wield and warp to his singular whims. All great artists must learn their craft before completely reinventing it.
And as this film proves, that’s exactly what McQueen did. He quite literally bared his soul through his art, displacing the utility of fashion for the aesthetic experimentations it supplied as a canvas instead. He exorcized the demons from his past by creating clothing to represent their darkness. Some labeled his “Jack the Ripper” and “Rape” collections as misogynistic, but those closest knew there was more to it than that. They saw him giving form to memories of domestic abuse that he witnessed and in turn provided the models with the strength to survive it. To them these staggering women were a representation of their refusing defeat. They stumbled down the catwalk to prove their might with a mix of beauty and metaphorical armor. The controversy only helped.
What he created is gorgeous to behold. The film doesn’t talk about it, but McQueen designed wardrobe for David Bowie and Björk’s outfit from the cover of Homogenic (an interesting tidbit considering she would eventually date Matthew Barney, an artist whose style feels very similar). Besides the mention of two British Designer of the Year awards, his mid-90s work is relegated to those aforementioned two collections since it would ultimately vault him towards his unprecedented post in Paris with Givenchy. This jump is more important to his trajectory because it starts him on the path that would inevitably become a downward spiral of drugs, money, loss of identity, and isolation. Transitioning from British “bad boy” operating on unemployment wages to millionaire icon before thirty could never be smooth.
This devolution and metamorphosis is the true subject of the documentary because his genius cannot be fully displayed without the volatility that came along for the ride. We’re watching the step-by-step process that took McQueen from wide-eyed artist to a brand responsible for employees and products all while struggling to find a balance between personal and professional lives—if there ever was room for both. We hear about friendships being destroyed and repaired, the devastation of loss, and his self-reinvention in the image of conformity despite that word seemingly not being in his vocabulary for the majority of his career. Bonhôte and Ettedgui reveal a world that took more than it gave this man because he loved it at the cost of his own mental and physical health.
That journey is shown via candid, talking head interviews from those closest to McQueen throughout his life including sister Janet, nephew Gary James, team members including Sebastian Pons, and the husband of his late friend and champion Isabella Blow. Interspersed with those is footage from the shows of varying resolution to really get a sense of the atmosphere he cultivated with models acting in parts rather than simply walking with a spin. It’s pretty fantastic to see his catwalks literally flowing with electricity as robot arms spray paint dresses and two-way mirrors create a performance that’s as important to the art as the clothing itself. The spectacle was part of the allure and surely the success that surrounded him. But the more elaborate things got, the more stress appeared.
The filmmakers mimic his ornate sense of the macabre with computer-generated skulls masked to represent the appearance of the central collection each chapter holds. They really highlight the darkness within their subject and make certain the audience is fully aware of what McQueen’s story will ultimately bring. You don’t have to look much further than each new segment’s depiction of him whether his changing body type or demeanor. To see his infectious smile and sense of humor at the start make way towards stories from those who loved him that describe how the fun simply disappeared is tragic. We watch as the fashion machine eats him up until the art itself stops being enough to prevent one more genius from being crushed underneath fame’s destructive weight.
[1-3] Photographer: Ann Ray Courtesy of Bleecker Street