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Depending on how you look at it, the release of the empathetic, sometimes exquisite bio-doc McQueen has come along at either just the right time or at the most inopportune moment. Most coming into the film will be aware that it’s subject—the enigmatic, inscrutable bad boy of 90s Fashion Alexander McQueen—took his own life in 2010. It’s unfortunate that the film dropped so soon after another iconic figure in the industry, the designer and brand behemoth Kate Spade, died by suicide.
Fashion fans may not be eager to see a documentary that features the tragic self-inflicted death of one of their most beloved when the grief of such a similar case is so fresh in their minds. On the other hand, this is precisely why they should see it. So often when it comes to suicide, the manner in which the person dies comes to define the way they live but if nothing else, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s film is a reminder that those who suffer in silence aren’t living in darkness every day that preceded it. McQueen is a conventional work. Yet it offers a complex, deftly devastating portrait of a man branded a genius who in the end was just as human as the rest of us.
Like Senna, Amy, Montage of Heck and so many other recent entries in this sub-genre, this is another cradle-to-the-grave retelling which relies not on cultural commentators but on the friends and family who knew McQueen. Archived interviews and the voice of the man himself are peppered throughout, giving colour to his mindset at various periods of his life, whether they be deeply distressing or dream-realising. A working class gay man from Stratford who left school at 16 with only an O Level in Art, McQueen’s origins are far from typical for man who ended up as one of the most infamous and controversial designers of his age. A £4,000 loan from his auntie allowed him to attend a masters course at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design.
His talent, dedication and degree of outsider’s perspective helped him standout in early years of education at the likes of Saville Row and elsewhere. Contrary to his bad-boy image, those who taught him only saw a deeply committed tailor and designer, one who’s bright future seemed apparent early on. We hear endearing stories from designer John McKittrick of a determined “Lee”—his real first name—listening to Sinead O’Connor on repeat while stitching his clothes to perfection. It’s his relatively unconventional and sometimes difficult upbringing that separated him from the pack and contributed to the uncompromising vitality of his output. “I was that east end yob who uses a needle” he said of himself.
As for the shows, they were shocking and salacious, helping define the raunchier aspects of Cool Britannia in the 1990s. He wasn’t afraid to bring the darkest aspect of his past to surface for the sake of his art. He admits that one of his most controversial, 1993’s Highland Rape collection—which featured tartan clad models stumbling up the catwalk after being visibly forced upon—was his way of dealing with the abuse he suffered when he was a boy at the hands of his brother in law. It’s this troubling contradiction that features throughout the documentary. McQueen had to draw on his demons to create his successes and it was something that would take its toll.
More headline grabbing, polarising shows followed as McQueen would go on win “British designer of the year” two times in a row that decade but it was his surprising appointment as creative director of Givenchy that really made him a part of the global fashion elite. The footage of these early years is sweet and essential. Clips of Lee and his innocently young team fanning around the opulent fashion house make them look like wide eyed children playing in well-kept drawing room they weren’t supposed to be in.
The pressures of the job began to tell as McQueen could be impetuously callous under the strain and growing realisation of the fakery of the industry. The documentary confirms rumours that when McQueen hit it big in Paris, he all but abandoned his former mentor and close friend Isabella Blow. The fashion editor and proto-influencer’s eventual suicide would have a deep impact on Lee. The passionate, youthful man of the 90s became a meticulous perfectionist dogged by paranoia and drug abuse. Still though, the designs and shows still very much spoke for themselves.
The death of his mother, his most tangible connection to his pre designer days, would prove the final straw as Lee hung himself in 2010.
McQueen is one of the strongest efforts when it comes to the bio-doc formula. It’s lead is a more enigmatic personality than most who have a film made about them. Bonhôte and Ettedgui’s strength is that never try to find the ‘rosebud’ in McQueen’s life. His elusive nature was part of what made him fascinating and they were wise to keep it that way.