How becoming the designer of his generation helped kill Alexander McQueenby James Robins
A provocative new documentary grapples with the deeper workings of Alexander McQueen's talented mind.
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.
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Video: Bleecker Street
This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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