Culture

Film & Television

‘McQueen’: a vivid portrayal of a galvanising personality

By Anwen Crawford
The first feature documentary on fashion designer Alexander McQueen is unlikely to be the last

Lee Alexander McQueen was the son of a London cabbie, which made his arrival in the world of high fashion about as likely as the appearance of a pig with wings. Some of his colleagues and most of the press treated him as such – as if he were a crude freak. The documentary McQueen isn’t 10 minutes in before the former head of fashion at Central Saint Martins, the London art school where McQueen once studied, is recalling how “unattractive” McQueen was when he first turned up – a judgement that seems, in the telling, indivisible from the fact that he was broke. At this point I got angry on McQueen’s behalf, which made me think about how angry he might have been, while he lived, to have experienced such gratuitous snobbery. It’s no wonder that he turned assumptions about himself to his own ends; in his words, “I really worked that East End yob”.

The “yob” became one of the most celebrated fashion designers of the past quarter-century, and one of the most famous. From the mid ’90s onwards, McQueen’s collections made headlines – in newspapers, not just in Vogue. His clothes could be extreme and his runway shows confronting, though it is just as true to say that his clothes were also exquisite, and his shows magnificent coups de théâtre. The mood of McQueen’s designs was often gothic, but the underlying logic (or illogic) was surrealist: a plastic corset filled with worms; a dress made from razor clam shells; a lace mantilla speared by antlers. These are clothes that invite you to imagine weirder, bolder worlds. They’re not so much about what you might wear as what you might become, if you dared. Because of this, McQueen commanded a popular following – I would go so far as to call it a kind of love – and it has only grown since his untimely death in 2010. McQueen is the first feature documentary about McQueen; it is unlikely to be the last.

The strength of McQueen is that it gives us a vivid sense of its subject’s personality. McQueen himself, who was “Lee” to his friends and “Alexander” to the public, comes across in the film’s archival footage – much of which is taken from home video – as funny, driven, irreverent and sincere, in equal amounts. It is plain to see why his collaborators – including hair stylist Mira Chai Hyde and assistant Sebastian Pons, interviewed here – were so loyal to his personal vision, as well as to Alexander McQueen, the fashion house that McQueen founded in 1992 almost literally on the smell of an oily rag. (Early designs included garments run over with an ink-dipped car tyre.) Nearly everyone who worked with McQueen marvels at the galvanising effect of his personality. He was someone who could get other people to work insane hours for no money in pursuit of impossible goals, because he made anything seem possible. Wolves on the runway? Sure. A coat sewn from human hair? Coming right up.

McQueen’s primary weakness is its lack of deep context. Little is done to examine the things that fed McQueen’s singular, sometimes morbid aesthetic, beyond frequent reminders to the viewer that the man was personally troubled. Obviously so: he committed suicide. This doesn’t help to explain the breadth of his influences, from 15th-century Flemish painting to taxidermy to the films of Alfred Hitchcock to fetish wear, or how these things made their way into his designs. Nor does the film really try to place McQueen in the 1990s, when anxieties about the human body’s relationship to technology – anxieties that were very evident in McQueen’s work – became heightened by the rapid spread of personal computing and the internet. Several of McQueen’s runway shows, for instance, featured prosthetics, robotics, and surveillance devices. His interest in transgression also chimed with the mood at large in British popular culture and visual arts of the 1990s – a post-Thatcher wave of energy labelled at the time as “Cool Britannia”.

Most of this goes unmentioned in McQueen, and viewers familiar with the designer’s work will notice a few missing voices, not least of which is Sarah Burton, one of McQueen’s long-term collaborators and the person who succeeded him as creative head of the Alexander McQueen company, upon his death. But if it’s an introductory view to McQueen’s work that you’re after, then the film does the job serviceably well.

McQueen is divided into chapters named for the designer’s collections, and this structure allows the directors – first-time documentary makers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui – to tell the story of McQueen’s life entirely through the prism of his work. There’s no prelude of childhood photographs or family reminiscences. There hardly needs to be, for one of McQueen’s defining qualities was youth: he was 16 years old when he began working on Savile Row as an apprentice bespoke tailor, and only 27 when he was appointed chief designer of womenswear at French haute couture house Givenchy, in 1996. Sebastian Pons recalls here how McQueen broke with the rigid hierarchy of the Givenchy atelier by allowing the seamstresses into his workroom, and by dining with them in the company’s cafeteria. He maintained a lifelong appreciation for the skill of specialist craftspeople, which began with his apprenticeship on Savile Row. McQueen was a master cutter who broke the rules of dressmaking by knowing the rules inside out, and he duly paid respect to those who understood, like he did, the importance of “a physical relationship to what you produce”.

The money that McQueen received for his work at Givenchy was funnelled straight back into his own fashion house, and the increased budgets there enabled his runway presentations to grow ever more spectacular. The footage included in McQueen from shows including Voss (2001) and La Dame Bleue (2008) is, well, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – also the title of one of McQueen’s runway collections. There’s the staging, firstly: glass boxes, revolving platforms, carousels, burning cars, reflective catwalks. But what’s more extraordinary is to see the clothes in motion, and to sense the combination of steeliness and fragility that went into them. McQueen’s silhouettes were strict – he favoured sharp cutaways, rigid torsos, and military-style shoulder lines. He often spoke of his desire to provide a type of “armour” to the women who wore his designs. And yet the clothes somehow floated, as if imbued with magic.

McQueen’s concluding chapters are, inevitably, filled with sadness. McQueen’s early champion, fashion editor Isabella Blow, committed suicide in 2007 – La Dame Blue was dedicated to her memory. The pressure of what had become a multimillion dollar company clearly got to McQueen: he felt unable to step away from his relentless workload, in part because so many other people depended upon him for their livelihoods. And then his mother, Joyce, whom by all accounts he idolised, died of cancer. He took his own life on the eve of her funeral, aged just 40. An archival news interview with Joyce is perhaps the most poignant element in McQueen. She never liked it, she says, when the press characterised her youngest child as a hooligan, a brute with scissors. He was a “sweet boy” from a family that happened to be ordinary, not deprived. It was his gift that was extraordinary.

 

McQueen is in cinemas from September 6.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

© Salons Galahad Ltd 2018

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