Lee Alexander McQueen was just 40 when he hanged himself at his London home in 2010, on the eve of his mother’s funeral. His suicide made headlines. But it was the revolution he started in fashion that is still being felt and fiercely debated – you don’t escape censure when you tag your early 1990’s collections with names like, “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” and “Highland Rape.” The designer insisted his work reflected the brutality of the world without colluding with it. The argument about that still rages.
In their unmissable documentary McQueen, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui don’t just pay tribute to the groundbreaking couture rebel and his fervent desire to rip down old forms and create new ones; they also celebrate the damn-the-torpedos, full-speed-ahead ecstasy of the creative process. What made this man tick? How did an overweight, gay misfit from London’s mean streets ever manage to kick his way into the posh ranks of the fashion establishment? And how did he so consistently leave its gatekeepers both revolted and riveted by the savage beauty of his work? It’s a work with as many questions as answers.
McQueen believed it was his duty to shock audiences into consciousness, not just about fashion but the world it reflects. The doc takes the same approach in their film, using archived footage of the maverick at work and play, along with interviews with those who knew him best. It seems odd that McQueen’s longtime stylist Katy England isn’t featured and nothing is said about George Forsyth, his deceased, “unofficial” husband. And yet a full portrait emerges, including the facts that the designer had been sexually abused as a child by his sister’s husband and that cocaine helped squash his demons.
But as the man himself said, “If you want to know me, look at the work.” The filmmakers took their subject at his word, filling their documentary with shock sequences from runway shows that tell a story more thrillingly alive than any biographical detail. If you’re new to McQueen’s extraordinary conceptual collections and torn-up tartan outfits, prepare to be rocked. The film is divided into five chapters, called “tapes,” using animation of the skull motif of the McQueen design house to suggest the jolting transformations happening inside.
The son of a Scottish cabby and a beloved mother, Joyce, who taught social science and encouraged ambition, Lee – the youngest of six siblings – dropped out of high school with a still unearned self confidence. Talking himself into an apprenticeship with Saville Row tailors, he quickly learned the rules of the rag trade, mostly so he could break them later – the kind of cheeky talent, say, who thought nothing of sewing indecent words into the lining of suit meant for Prince Charles. It was Isabella Blow, a style influencer, who took the youngster under her wing and suggested he use his middle name, Alexander, to take the edge off his reputation as “the hooligan of English fashion.” McQueen did a stint working at upper levels with Givenchy – he labeled the fashion house “irrelevant” – and toned down his wild side. But that only fueled his flirtations with transgression in his non-work for hire, which led to a 1998 show featured Aimee Mullins, a double amputee model walking the runaway on wooden legs.
What the film does so movingly as a portrait is show the isolation that comes with creative success. There was strain on his relationship with Isabella, who killed herself by swallowing weedkiller in 2007. McQueen’s shows grew more disturbingly creative: VOSS, his 2001 Spring/Summer collection, included a glass box which featured mirrors that reflected a stunned audience and inside a naked model wearing a gas mask as moths flitted about. He was an artist who didn’t follow trends or sacrifice craft to commercialism, translating his own psyche into avant-garde forms of expression that took fashion to the next level. And McQueen is an empathetic, ravishing and scorchingly outspoken look at why, eight years after his death, he still leaves us transfixed.