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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

McQueen ****

Directors: Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui

In 2010, the suicide of iconic fashion designer Alexander McQueen shocked the world. At the height of his fame and his cultural weight, people could not understand what would drive this artistic genius to take his own life. In this new documentary released this weekend in cinemas, the directors seek to lift the lid on the rise and fall of this tragic figure whose death has just added to the enigmatic legend of his life and work.

McQueen was born Lee Alexander McQueen and grew up in the East End of London. Training with a Savile Row tailor, the unassuming unattractive boy quickly began his ascent up the fashion ladder, charming his way into fashion labels, onto an esteemed design course and into staging his own shows during London Fashion Week, all while claiming unemployment benefit. His Highland Rape collection earned him a controversial reputation and while condemned by many for the dark message of his work, it provoked enough reaction to keep him in business and establish his line. Before long, McQueen had established himself as one of the major London fashion designers and was snapped up by Givenchy as their new creative director.

One of the most interesting aspects to this filmic portrait is the depiction of his relationship with magazine editor and fashion icon, Isabella Blow. The disinherited society heiress was credited with the discovery of multiple designers and models, but there were none that she respected and adored more than McQueen. Initially, their relationship is depicted as frivolous, creative and mutually beneficial, but in time it began to turn sour. Resentment grew between the pair that would eventually seriously contribute to both their downfalls. In giving the effervescent and wildly extravagant Blow a generous portion of the film’s screen-time, we begin to see just how important this eminent figure was for McQueen. If ever his story is turned into a Drama, it will be the actress playing Blow who you’ll see on the Oscar podium, accepting her Academy Award.

McQueen’s time with Givenchy (and later Gucci) is when we start to see the stumbling blocks thrown in the British wunderkind’s path. Initially arriving at the French fashion house with a legion of colleagues like the British Invasion; brash, ballsy and impertinent, they light an invigorating fuse that causes haute couture to make itself over. But the pressure on McQueen to maintain the level of output expected of him is enormous. Not speaking any French, watching him working in the French ateliers is at times hilarious as he throws in the handful of words they have in common, but as he turns the archaic rules about designers distancing themselves from the workers on their head, it’s clear why they like him on a personal level, as well professionally. But it’s when he starts to lose a sense of himself that the playful joy of his early years begins to retreat. He breaks up with his boyfriend, estranges himself from Blow and has liposuction in a vain attempt to resemble the community he represents.

The first two acts of the film adeptly depict the energetic and revolutionary nature of both McQueen’s work and character, fizzing with the same momentum that catapulted the cockney star to the top of his field. We get a glorious snapshot of 90s fashion, music and style, but when we get to that inevitable third act, the film isn’t as successful in placing McQueen within the context in which he was working. Admittedly the final years of his life are a more personal affair, but in establishing the legend McQueen had created for himself, it’s almost as though the directors had decided that his public face lost its importance as soon as he was at the top. Of course this is his personal story, but the two strands are inexorably linked, which doesn’t come across in the latter stage. But even then, his personal story isn’t quite as developed as it should have been. With the influence of his mother inescapably linked to his suicide, this element of the story is nowhere near as developed as it should have been.

As documentaries go, this is a very strong offering that gets under the skin of a figure whose star is still continuing to ascend even eight years after his death. The film’s opening shot is of a grainy and rudimentary home video that has no indication of the glamour, tragedy or creativity elsewhere in McQueen’s life. As we start to see the darkness of his creative output portrayed alongside vignettes of bejewelled skulls that signify different stages in McQueen’s work, the early footage of his life is a real juxtaposition, showing a chubby boy in loose jeans and trainers as the face behind some of the 90s’ and 00s’ most exciting moments in fashion. But as the gap begins to close and McQueen begins to look more and more like the work he’s creating, we see the fire beginning to burn out. The filmic quality of this journey is striking, making for a documentary as engaging as any dramatic biopic.


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