The deluge of high fashion documentaries continues with Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s stylish, intense profile of the British designer whose talent and showmanship unsettled and amazed the world of design until his suicide in 2010. Even if you have never heard of Alexander McQueen and have no great interest in haute couture, you’re likely to find it an incisive, breathless portrait of a fascinating, troubled and troubling man.
McQueen hardly came from the British upper crust: born in 1969, he was a middle-class East London kid who was encouraged by his loving mother Joyce to apply for a job on Savile Row. Getting it, he quickly impressed colleagues with his innate tailoring ability, and after that apprenticeship went to Italy and a stint as an assistant to designer Romeo Gigli. Then he returned to London to study at Central Saint Martins with the encouragement of Bobby Hillson (and tuition aid from his aunt), and his 1992 graduation collection caught the eye of Isabella Blow, the flamboyant fashion writer who became a mentor to him. In the same year he created his own label.
His rise in the field was meteoric, not merely because of Blow’s invaluable support and advice, but by reason of his undisputed brilliance in combining innovative design with a theatrical form of runway drama that often utilized themes that were unsettling, even macabre: his 1992 show was called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” and his 1995 one “Highland Rape.” Though such presentations brought charges of misogyny and cruelty, they certainly also gained him fame (or perhaps notoriety), though not necessarily wealth. That came with his 1996 hiring by Givenchy, an arrangement that lasted until 2001.
Among the most notable achievements of McQueen’s final decade were the celebrated “VOSS” show of 2001, which seemed a provocative affront to the whole world of high fashion, “La Dame Bleue” of 2008, and his 2009 Paris show, “Plato’s Atlantis.” But this period was also marked by McQueen’s increasing volatility and drug use, by his surgery to reduce his weight, and by the deterioration of his relationship with Blow, who committed suicide in 2007. Shortly after his mother died, McQueen hanged himself a bit over a month before his forty-first birthday. A friend, Sebastian Pons, recalls with horror that the designer had earlier mused about ending a show with his own death, and in a way he did precisely that.
Bonhôte and Ettedgui cover all this dexterously, collaborating with editor Cinzia Baldessari to present the collage of found footage (including ample coverage of the major shows, which are employed as windows into their creator’s personality, along with brief excerpts of Joyce McQueen talking about her son) and newly-shot interviews energetically while refusing to indulge in simplistic psychological explanation.
Among the most notable interviewees are Hillson, McQueen’s older sister Janet (who reveals some truly awful circumstances in his childhood) and his nephew Gary, and Blow’s incredibly eccentric widower Detmar, whose recollections of the gay life of the coterie that surrounded McQueen are both hilarious and depressing. Michael Nyman’s typically insistent score adds to the sense of drive and growing darkness inherent in the visuals, which add as transitional devices animated sequences of the skull that was the motif of the McQueen brand.
There are a few significant omissions in “McQueen,” as well as a couple of instances in which the makers seem to downplay explicit details (as about Blow’s death). Overall, however, this is one of the better haute couture documentaries of recent years, both reveling in McQueen’s artistic accomplishment and revealing the tormented soul that lay behind it.