Normally, nothing will bring a snore from me faster than a reference to fashion. And that’s from someone who used to live in one of the fashion capitals of the world (New York City), where even schoolkids wearing uniforms know how to project a unique sense of style. But when it comes to a documentary about the world of fashion, I’m generally all over it, because when done right a documentary can capture the unique blend of art, commerce, show biz, and pure chutzpah that makes high fashion what it is.
Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’sMcQueen is fashion documentary done right, and will appeal even to people (like me) who normally don’t care in the slightest about who’s hot and who’s not. It captures the humanity of its subject, British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, while also vividly capturing the beauty and transgressiveness of his designs. Watching it is like having a front row seat at many, many openings that consist entirely of highlights (with the boring bits cut out, in other words), along with backstage access to see how the work that created the fashions is actually done.
Nothing in Lee Alexander McQueen’s early life suggested that he would become one of the most famous designers of his era. Born to a working class family in London, he was an indifferent student who later found his vocation courtesy of an apprenticeship in a Savile Row tailor shop. His talent quickly became apparent, and he attracted the attention of the influential magazine editor Isabella Blow, who bought his entire portfolio from his MA course at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. She also convinced him to use “Alexander McQueen” as his professional name, although friends and family continued to refer to him as Lee.
McQueen’s collections were known for their theatricality and frequently betrayed an obsession with the darker side of life: one of his early collections was titled “McQueen’s Theatre of Cruelty,” another “Highland Rape,” and it’s no accident that the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled its posthumous show of his work “Savage Beauty.” No respecter of boundaries, McQueen also designed clothes for David Bowie, directed a music video for BJörk, and designed theatrical costumes. While his work was often controversial, it was also successful, and he became the head designer at Givenchy before he was 30. Success followed on success: he won British Designer of the Year four times, and was chosen International Designer of the Year in 2003 by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Then it was all over, as McQueen, age 40, took his own life at his home in Mayfair.
McQueen is divided almost exactly in half, chronicling first McQueen’s meteoric rise in the fashion world, then his subsequent physical and mental decline and eventual death. It’s almost too neat a story, as if McQueen were some kind of modern-day Icarus who flew too close to the sun and had to be punished for it, but that seems to be how things actually played out. The many people interviewed in this documentary have no lack of theories about what led to his decline—early trauma that could no longer be suppressed, confusion at having achieved everything he dreamed of, and too much drug use fueled by finally having money among them—but the truth is that we should never assume that we know why another human being does anything, let alone take his own life.
Despite being traditionally constructed out of interviews and archival materials, McQueen feels anything but conventional. The interviews are frank, the visuals fascinating, and there’s not a boring minute in it. The genius of this documentary is that it can appeal to both people who already know all about the designer, and those who never though that fashion would hold the least interest for them. | Sarah Boslaugh