Following on from the recent documentary about Vivienne Westwood, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s film allows the opportunity to see beyond the grandeur associated with the Alexander McQueen name to understand a designer who has proved to be equally, if not more, influential to modern day culture.
To his friends he was simply known as Lee (he was convinced by muse Isabella Blow to use his middle name Alexander to glamourise his brand), a regular boy from Stratford whose unconventional route into the world of fashion defied everything expected of a working class East Londoner with little to no formal education.
McQueen traces his humble beginnings through to the ground-breaking designs and collections for Givenchy, Gucci and, of course, his own label. He tragically took his own life at the age of 40 in 2010 and the film also reflects on a troubled mind that served as a foundation for a deeply rooted sense of unhappiness while also driving a wildly inventive creative process.
Bonhôte and Ettedgui divide the documentary into four chapters named after some of McQueen’s most famous collections, starting with ‘Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims’, a set of designs made for his degree at the renowned Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, one which instantly made the fashion world sit up and take notice of his innovative style.
It also includes the infamous 1995 'Highland Rape' show which saw models stagger down the runway wearing shredded clothing, a range inspired by the domestic abuse he witnessed as a child growing up, for which he was heavily criticised for misogyny at the time – an accusation he vehemently refused to accept given his childhood experience.
The cinematic nature of his catwalk shows were of the kind never seen before, with McQueen eager to provoke a reaction from those who saw his clothes. Whether you loved or hated his work, there was little worse than indifference and his idea of seeing “beauty in the grotesque” enabled him to push his creative talents to the limit.
Members of McQueen’s family talk about the childhood demons he struggled to overcome, including his older sister Janet and younger nephew Gary who spent some time working alongside him. Faded home video footage from the early stages of his career sees McQueen dub them “The McQueen Tapes” with a playful smirk, while also recalling his once close-knit production team as they embarked on an adventure in Paris to revolutionise the House of Givenchy.
The film follows a traditional documentary arc tracing his career from start to finish, ending on his tragic suicide which occurred the day before his mother’s funeral – a death which those close to him say was the final straw after the death of Isabella Blow in 2007 and his Aunt Dolly only 12 months previous.
As insightful as it at times, what appears to be missing is a placement of his craft into a wider context outside of the fashion industry. A common misconception about the haute couture designs seen parading on catwalks is they have nothing to do with the clothes seen in regular high street stores. Except, the complete opposite is true (rather than explain it here watch Meryl Streep do so to perfection).
A broader understanding of how McQueen’s daring genius redefined womenswear and inspired creatives – not only those working in fashion but in all forms of culture – to push the design envelope would allow viewers to see the correlation between the boundaries he broke through in his work and the impact on our everyday lives.
Juggling up to 16 new collections between his time spent as Creative Director at Givenchy, Gucci and growing his own brand, the pressure began to take its toll as McQueen morphed into a stylised version of himself he no longer recognised. Even though the industry started to consume his identity it never affected the potency of his work and McQueen provides a fitting epitaph for a designer the likes of which will probably never be seen again.