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.



Video: Bleecker Street

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


The death of Radio Live
99147 2018-11-16 06:54:48Z Radio

The death of Radio Live

by Colin Peacock

14 years after launching “the new voice of talk radio”, MediaWorks will silence Radio Live. Mediawatch looks at what could replace it.

Read more
Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?
99103 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?

by The Listener

For every safety warning, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment. It's about finding the right balance.

Read more
Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating lack of clarity
98992 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating…

by James Robins

Academic and film-maker Dorthe Scheffmann has had a hand in some of New Zealand cinema’s most beloved movies. So what went wrong?

Read more
Win the 100 Best Books of 2018
99119 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Win

Win the 100 Best Books of 2018

by The Listener

Each year, the Listener offers one lucky subscriber the chance to win all 100 of our Best Books.

Read more
Full of light and art, Forestry Cafe is south-east Auckland's newest coffee spot
99142 2018-11-15 16:49:34Z Auckland Eats

Full of light and art, Forestry Cafe is south-east…

by Alex Blackwood

New opening Forestry Cafe brings a city vibe to Flat Bush.

Read more
Turning a corner: Why this wayward Auckland teen stayed in school
99114 2018-11-15 10:34:07Z Social issues

Turning a corner: Why this wayward Auckland teen s…

by Vomle Springford

When Acer Ah Chee-Wilson was 14, he wanted to be in a gang.

Read more
What Kate Sheppard said that changed the course of New Zealand politics forever
99084 2018-11-15 00:00:00Z Politics

What Kate Sheppard said that changed the course of…

by Noted

Helen Clark and even Meghan Markle have quoted Kate Sheppard – what did she say that was so powerful?

Read more
Why Bret McKenzie is going straight with a new band
99026 2018-11-15 00:00:00Z Profiles

Why Bret McKenzie is going straight with a new ban…

by Russell Baillie

After a year of stadium comedy and Muppet shows, Bret McKenzie talks about returning to his music roots in a band whose songs are no laughing matter.

Read more