How becoming the designer of his generation helped kill Alexander McQueen

by James Robins / 10 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - McQueen documentary

A provocative new documentary grapples with the deeper workings of Alexander McQueen's talented mind.

Some say that Alexander McQueen’s eyes turned black when he worked. Thread and scissors in hand, the fashion designer’s focus would be so precise, his vision so intense, that all colour would drain away. At one point in McQueen, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s racy and provocative documentary about the British rag trade’s enfant terrible, we see him wearing oily contact lenses, pupils obscured, staring blankly into the camera. He looks like a zombie. But that’s what the fashion world made him.

Early in his career, McQueen was plump, toothy and happy. He was the London cabbie’s son from the East End who learnt his trade padding jackets for Savile Row tailors Anderson & Sheppard before embracing the avant-garde at St Martin’s School of Art.

Catapulted into Givenchy as chief designer, the pressure of such a prestigious environment began to pile on, seemingly inspiring him all the more, even as it cracked his brain. Could there be a more obvious metaphor than when he sent a model down a wind tunnel in nothing but an ornate jacket and safety goggles, battling against the bluster?

There was always darkness. McQueen’s first solo show in 1992 was called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims”, the second, “Theatre of Cruelty”, and a shocking breakthrough, which still offends the more delicate doyens of haute couture and draws accusations of misogyny, “The Highland Rape”. They were not mere strutting advertisements, but highly theatrical displays of sinister performance. McQueen wanted you to feel either “repulsed or exhilarated”.

Bonhôte and Ettedgui litter the usual talking-head interviews with startling imagery. Echoing a motif in McQueen’s designs, they feature a skull emblazoned with gold flake, snake scales or bloodied, decaying tartan. It only adds to the film’s other-worldliness.

McQueen becomes a descent into despair, heading inexorably towards the man’s suicide in 2010. The film unearths the roots of his anguish: a potent mixture of childhood trauma, drug addiction, recurring depression, an HIV diagnosis and the final blow – the death of his beloved mother.

Even those who consider McQueen’s world – indeed, the fashion world as a whole – overinflated, camp or ridiculous will find the strength of this documentary is that it makes his death feel unutterably tragic. It does what good biography should do: grapple with the deeper workings of a talented mind.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

Video: Bleecker Street

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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