New Documentary 'McQueen' Explores The Designer's Complex Life & Legacy

The new Alexander McQueen film provides no easy answers

Alexander McQueen walks the runway during the Alexander McQueen Fall/Winter 2008/2009 collection during Paris Fashion Week. Photo / Getty Images

One day, early in Alexander McQueen’s career, the call came. Richard Avedon wanted to shoot an outfit from the enfant terrible’s most recent show, a cellophane dress that, in material if not skill, had cost about $8 to make. The dress was duly flown from London to New York on Concorde (it was for Sharon Stone).

“Meanwhile,” the designer recalls in McQueen, the absorbing and latest oeuvre in a burgeoning genre of fashion bio-docs, “I’m wondering, where am I going to get my next meal from?” He wasn’t exaggerating. When he accidentally dropped a McDonald’s meal, “I literally had to pick it up off the floor and eat it ’cause there was no money to buy any more”.

Watching that early grainy footage fosters an intimacy with Alexander — Lee — McQueen that has hitherto been missing from the public picture. In the years since his suicide, aged 40, in 2010, there has, understandably, been a focus on his dark side. His sense of mischief tends to be eclipsed.

I’m not sure I completely buy the film’s narrative — that he was essentially a cheeky, chirpie chappie until wealth, isolation and drugs turned him into a paranoiac who tormented those around him as much as he tormented himself.

As anyone who came into his orbit would probably agree, it was always a bit more complicated than that. Even in the early days when there was no money and everyone was working for nothing, (“he kind of got us paying him,” says a former flatmate), it wasn’t all fun and laughter.

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“I don’t want you to leave my shows feeling like you’ve just had Sunday lunch,” (he could engineer a good phrase as deftly as he could a pair of bumsters). If they didn’t provoke extreme emotion he didn’t feel he was doing his job.

The monumental talent was apparent early on. There’s a striking observation — in a film teeming with them — from a colleague who recounted how McQueen could sketch and cut from sight a garment that fitted perfectly without taking any measurements.

But — memo to aspiring McQueens — he also worked his socks off. “He gave no attitude, he was always on time,” says John McKittrick, for whom McQueen did work experience.

The McQueen family knew they had someone special in their midst long before American Vogue endorsed him. Auntie Renee, who’d worked in the rag trade, stumped up the fees for her nephew to attend St Martins.

This wasn’t the family of working class philistines commonly portrayed in the media. His adored mother — whose death was shortly before his own — loved history and encouraged her six children to read voraciously. “My husband was a London black-taxi driver,” she points out in the film, with finely tuned socioeconomic precision.

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“We were not poor. Our children never went without.” There was domestic violence though, from McQueen’s sister Janet’s husband. Watching — and experiencing it first-hand — profoundly affected McQueen, but also fascinated him, becoming the match to his creativity, and sometimes his behaviour.

“There were a few punches that night,” says a former boyfriend of the evening after the lukewarm reviews of McQueen’s first Givenchy show.

Sebastian Pons, another devoted employee, recalls McQueen phoning him before Plato’s Atlantis, his final show, to tell him he was contemplating shooting himself on the catwalk after he took his bow.

What? This is profoundly shocking. McQueen’s shows were generally at the end of a month on the catwalk trail. Normally you’d just want to get home and go cold turkey on fashion for several weeks, but Atlantis was so powerful, strange and beautiful, all I wanted to do was re-watch it.

Was this flirtation with public suicide a deluded form of sacrificial art, or the ultimate revenge on an industry he increasingly imagined was against him? At another show, one of the props (a car they’d forgotten to siphon the petrol out of) caught fire. Even McQueen’s most diligent staff wanted to stop and evacuate the audience, but McQueen wouldn’t hear of it.

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He was an erratic friend, who was ultimately haunted by his neglect of his mentor, the stylist Isabella Blow, who discovered him at St Martins, subsequently mentored him, and killed herself in 2007 . . . by his late 30s, he had seen a lot of death.

Did he glamorise morbidity? Perhaps, as did the Victorians, with their memento mori, which were an endless source of inspiration to him. Why shouldn’t death be beautified?

One of the film’s treasures is its footage of those stupendous shows. It’s not clear why the McQueen team shot so much in a pre-social-media age, but we should be grateful they did.

Grateful too, that the producers, aware this could so easily be the playbook of every cliche about the tortured artist, sought out dignified, intelligent contributors who knew him well. It doesn’t provide easy answers about the nature of genius, or why it didn’t inoculate McQueen from what he called “the evilest side of fashion” (he was referring to his doomed liposuction and endless dissatisfaction with his looks). That’s probably as it should be.

  • McQueen is in cinemas from Thursday September 6. 

— The Daily Telegraph

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