Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of sexual assault, suicide, and drug use.
“No one discovered Alexander McQueen,” an off-screen voice declares in the first few minutes of the new documentary on the late British designer. “He discovered himself.”
Thus began a self-mythologized career that by turns empowered a man, and left him with a perpetual chip on his shoulder. McQueen, directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, reveals the life of an enigmatic genius who tragically took his own life at the age of 40. Though it is threaded by a chronological reel of fashion shows, the film is not about fashion with a capital F. Unlike 2009’s The September Issue or 2013’s The First Monday in May, both produced under the watchful eye of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, this documentary has little interest in depicting fashion as an escapist fairy tale. As the ultimate channel for his creativity, fashion, for McQueen the man, was always relentlessly personal. As such, McQueen the film smartly deploys a cast of close confidantes rather than recognizable stars, from the designer’s relatives to his creative team, who lived and traveled everywhere with him.
Raw, unfiltered interviews and home video footage paint the portrait of a creative force who dared to provoke, whether by invoking great repulsion or great exhilaration. In both his personal and professional lives, Alexander McQueen—“Lee” to his friends and family—was full of contradictions. He had a wicked sense of humor, but was deeply insecure about occupying a space in which he could never shake his outsider status. He felt that his upbringing and physical appearance were handicaps in the fashion world, given its infatuation with the superficial, and he harbored a deep paranoia that the very people praising his singular vision could turn on him at any moment. How much of this victimization was self-wrought we will never know, but no matter—the higher McQueen climbed in the ranks of the fashion, the more he felt torn between ego and vulnerability. The same year he was tapped by storied French house Givenchy to take over as creative director, he was stuffed into a tiny Paris apartment with the rest of his team and shunned by the press for his off-kilter, British sensibilities. (Never mind that these instincts were what had caught the brand’s eye in the first place.) The fashion industry seemed determined to cherry-pick the aspects of McQueen’s persona that suited their needs, like his flair for the theatrical, while shunning the young man from working-class southeast London with the overbite and baggy jeans.
McQueen had always possessed boundless talent and passion for his craft—this much is clear. Early mentors attest to his impeccable skills in the atelier; it is as if the very fabric flowed from his fingertips, and molded itself according to his whims. Clips of McQueen in the studio draping his garments, dispersed throughout the film, are nothing short of mesmerizing. At the height of the 90s, just as global conglomerations like LVMH were rapidly acquiring luxury fashion brands, McQueen was differentiating himself from the pack with equal fervor. His designs defied conformity, often distorting and reshaping the body in grotesque but spectacular ways. Many of his runway creations, cobbled together impromptu from plastic wrap, curtains, and discarded accessories, couldn’t even be replicated by manufacturers. His was business-minded only insofar as he felt a responsibility to guarantee the paychecks of those working under him. He gave little thought to which clothes would sell or not sell, and this lack of reservation gave him the freedom to probe the darkest, most twisted corners of his imagination.
McQueen courted controversy at every turn, and his fashion shows frequently prompted accusations of misogyny. The film suggests that McQueen cared deeply for the women in his life, from his sister, Janet, to his first high-profile benefactor, the stylist and editor Isabella Blow—but he simply did not know how to convey his love in a conventional manner. His Fall/Winter 1995 show, titled Highland Rape, featured models stumbling down the runway in slashed clothing, many with their hands covering their exposed breasts and expressions of agony on their faces, as if they had just endured unspeakable acts of violence. McQueen explained that the show had been inspired by his Scottish heritage, using rape as a somewhat crude metaphor for genocide. What he did not reveal was that he had also been haunted by the abuse endured by his sister and himself at the hand of his brother-in-law, making the collection something of a cathartic reckoning.
A recurring theme begins to unfurl itself in the film: McQueen was more than comfortable using his clothes to reflect mankind’s most despicable inflictions, but he never divulged his own private suffering. He was plagued late in his life by bouts of depression and cocaine abuse, especially as the financial pressure mounted after the sale of a 50% stake in his label to the Gucci Group. One cannot deny that some of his most troubled periods also produced his greatest work, grappling with themes like fetishism and post-humanism. But to cast aside McQueen’s pain in favor of admiring his genius in a sanitized context would be to do a disservice to his legacy, as well as the plight of all people today living with mental illness. Thankfully, McQueen the film seems to recognize that no art form exists in a vacuum.
There is an undercurrent of sorrow that runs through Bonhôte and Ettedgui’s direction, which is only accentuated by Michael Nyman’s haunting score. It is the implicit acknowledgement that McQueen’s blaze of glory, so emotionally charged but so draining on the individual level, could not have lasted. There are plenty of factors that no doubt contributed to McQueen’s suicide, but the most heartbreaking realization is always something like this—in retrospect, the signs seem to have been there the whole time, in his creations and in his interactions with loved ones, but of course we could not see them until it was too late.
McQueen memorializes the man behind the myth, reminding us that it is imperative we take better care of the very figures we hold up as once-in-a-lifetime visionaries. Would McQueen have been half the legend he was, if he had not been so tormented in his personal life? We may never know, but more importantly, we do know that his death was preventable in every sense. The idea that artists must suffer to create great art begs re-evaluation, lest we lose the people we admire most in service of a contrived maxim.
By Kathy Li
Kathy Li is an undergraduate student in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. She is a voracious reader, writer, and occasional artist, who loves all things fashion. Her favorite films include Ratatouille (Remy is her “Frankenstein is the name of the man, not the monster!!!”), Bend It Like Beckham, and Lady Bird, but she’s always looking to add to the list. You can find her on Twitter at @StylishDreaming.