McQueen (2018) documents the extraordinary life and career of the fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. Born to a working-class family in 1970’s London, McQueen would go on to become one of the most influential and globally recognised fashion designers of modern times. McQueen, co-directed by Ian Bohôte and Peter Ettedgui, charts a meteoric rise to fashion stardom. From his start working as an apprentice tailor on Saville Row, we follow McQueen as he becomes the creative director of Haute Couture fashion house Givenchy, and establishes his own iconic company Alexander McQueen. McQueen is at once a celebration of genius and a study of the mind behind the clothes. We glimpse in McQueen a man of singular magnetism struggling with the darkness that would lead to his untimely death, when at the age of 40 McQueen took his own life. It is through Bohôte and Ettedgui’s holistic and supremely sensitive approach, that this documentary comes to act as a mode of reckoning with the profound loss of McQueen’s death, both to those who loved him most and to British cultural life.
McQueen’s co-director Peter Ettedgui describes Documentary as a process of collage, the purposeful collection of various materials to craft a larger picture. This is certainly true of McQueen as a comprehensive portrait of the designer is constructed through the skilful balance of never-been-seen archive footage, interview, and his own work. The centrality of archive footage in McQueen is particularly effective as it creates the impression that Lee’s story is being told in his own words, in conversation with the contributions of friends and family. The figure that emerges from these elements is fully formed -a man of striking light and dark.
As the son of a cab driver from London’s east end, by simply being himself McQueen broke with fashion’s status quo. Straight talking, mischievous, funny and sensitive Lee’s character is felt in every inch of this film and yet it escapes final definition. In this preservation of the complexity in Lee’s character I locate one of McQueen’s real strengths. It avoids the temptation to define McQueen, preferring to allow definitions of the designer to remain as mutable as the unpredictable creative energy that seemed to swirl around him.
McQueen is most successful in its portrayal of Lee’s talent. The moments of archive that see McQueen at work in the studio are mesmerising. Wielding scissors fiercely whilst cutting and tearing fabric he appears to balance a raw instinctual talent with skill, seeming more like a sculptor than a fashion designer. But it is McQueen’s shows that are the film’s centrepiece. They were, and are, totally visionary. The highly concept driven collections and elaborate set design where models are transformed into actors allowed McQueen’s clothes to become stories and the catwalk the stage for revolutionary performance art.
Bohôte and Ettedgui’s focus on McQueen’s creations not only showcase his skill but also become an essential part of the documentary’s exploration of McQueen’s identity. The autobiographical quality found in McQueen’s work is structurally signalled by the use of his catwalk shows as a means of separating the film, and thereby Lee’s life, into five acts. We are encouraged to understand McQueen’s work in this light by the designer himself as he states ‘if you want to get to know me look at my clothes.’
But to ‘get to know’ McQueen is to enter into dialogue with his demons. Famously troubled, McQueen drew heavily on a tortured psyche in his work, understanding his creations as ‘the horrors of his soul.’ For example, Lee’s experience of childhood trauma in the shape of violence against women finds expression in the language of fetish and violence in his ‘Highland Rape’ show. McQueen’s willingness to use his clothes to explore dark subject matter combined with an almost anarchistic desire to challenge fashion’s conventions would forge a seductive ‘bad boy’ persona in the press. Accordingly McQueen’s struggles with drug addiction, body image, depression and ill health have all been covered extensively in the headlines. Bohôte and Ettegui do not shy away from these difficult issues but what is so brilliant about McQueen is that it peels back the hard exterior of persona and reveals the romantic, flawed and sensitive soul beneath. And so encouraged as we are by Bohôte and Ettedgui to see McQueen’s clothes as an extension of self they become vested with real emotional power, an element that makes for a truly unique viewing experience.
The late designer’s life has recently been described as ‘fashion’s dark fairytale’ and this sense is certainly present in McQueen. His life is in some ways a ‘rags to riches’ tale; a young man who once upon a time used unemployment benefit to buy his fabric is suddenly catapulted to the very top of the fashion world. Fitting for the designer that would come to adopt the emblem of a skull we find in this tale more than a shade of the sinister. McQueen is cast as the tragic Gothic protagonist haunted by an inescapable darkness while he creates at night when ‘his eyes turned black.’ With its decidedly unhappy ending however I begin to think that if McQueen’s life is to be a fairytale it is certainly one akin to those of The Brothers Grimm.
I don’t confess to be particularly engaged with the world of fashion and yet this film played on my mind for days. I was left thinking about the nature of talent and fashion’s relationship to art, but most of all I kept thinking about Lee.
An interest in fashion is by no means necessary to enjoy this documentary, an interest in people is more than enough.
Where can you find it?
You can rent it on Amazon.
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