McQueen review: A grim portrait of a maverick fashion genius

The filmmakers celebrate his prodigious achievements but the sadness is that he never managed to escape the hothouse world of the fashion industry

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 06 June 2018 16:19
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McQueen- teaser trailer

Dirs, Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui, 111 mins, featuring: Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow, Sebastian Pons, Detmar Blow

Alexander McQueen was a towering figure not just in fashion but in British popular culture generally. This documentary portrait of the designer convinces us of his maverick genius. It also has a very grim and melodramatic undertow.

The sombre, hypnotic Michael Nyman musical score heard on the soundtrack throughout, even during many of the talking head interviews, gives the film an elegiac feel as it takes us through its troubled subject’s life towards his untimely death.

McQueen’s story is told in chronological fashion, illustrated by plentiful home movie clips of the fashion designer and of those closest to him. He was a taxi driver’s son who grew up in Stratford, London. His career began in earnest when his beloved mother sent him off to Savile Row to ask for a job. His ascent thereafter was rapid.

His aunt paid for him to attend Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, where he was a star pupil. Everyone who encountered him in these early years immediately noticed his precocity. Isabella Blow saw his graduation collection and became his most fervent champion. They made an unlikely double act – the aristocratic fashion muse and the pudgy East Ender – but had a very obvious and intimate rapport.

All those interviewed testify to McQueen’s irreverence, his scatological sense of humour, his “sweet” nature and his relentless drive during these early years. Former employers talk of the way he’d be sitting working in the corner, listening to Sinead O’Connor on his Walkman. McQueen didn’t worry about money.

He could improvise a garment out of any material, even cling film. Thanks to the Savile Row training, he could use scissors to cut material with near wizardry. His approach to fashion may have seemed scattershot but he was just as much of a perfectionist as Daniel Day-Lewis’s character Reynolds Woodcock in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent Phantom Thread.

McQueen enjoyed provoking outrage, wanting audiences to emerge from his shows feeling disgust or exhilaration but never indifference. Unlike other figures in the world of haute couture, he remained resolutely down to earth. When he took over at French fashion house Givenchy, he would eat with the other workers in the staff canteen and would always treat the dressmakers themselves with respect.

The tone of the film gradually changes. We learn that McQueen was abused as a child by his brother-in-law and that he witnessed acts of horrendous domestic violence. Early in his career, he was accused of misogyny – little wonder given that his collections referenced Jack the Ripper or Highland rape in the Jacobite era and that his models would appear on the catwalk in ripped and revealing clothes.

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McQueen and his collaborators, including some of his models, refute the idea that he demeaned women. The darkness, though, was in his work all along, reflecting the traumas from his childhood.

With a grim inevitability, the story of his rags to riches rise turns into a cautionary tale about the corrupting effect of wealth and celebrity. The richer and more famous he became, the more seriously McQueen started to take himself.

His collaborators, who had stayed with him through the toughest times, began to grumble that it was no longer “fun” to work with him. He started taking drugs and became increasingly narcissistic.

Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui often film their interviews with the designer’s old colleagues in huge and oppressive closeups. The faces of figures like his old assistant Sebastian Pons or of Isabella Blow’s husband Detmar Blow dominate the screen as they share increasingly grim stories about McQueen’s excesses and erratic behaviour.

He had liposuction, consumed far too much cocaine and began to behave in the same high-handed way as fashion world grandees he once used to despise.

Again and again, the interviewees make it clear that McQueen used fashion as a means of artistic self-expression. His work was always autobiographical. Some liken him to a sculptor. One of the frustrations about his early death (he took his own life aged only 40 shortly before his mother’s funeral) was that he didn’t have the chance to work in other fields.

We briefly see Tom Ford (who took McQueen to Gucci) on camera, talking about the way that McQueen balanced the wildness of his catwalk collections with a hard-headed commercial pragmatism. Ford has gone on to become a successful filmmaker. McQueen could surely have done likewise. He drew heavily on cinema anyway.

His famous hologram of Kate Moss in a white, flowing dress in his “Widows of Culloden” show is an example of the visual effect he achieved in his work. Kubrick and Hitchcock were obvious influences on him.

The Nyman music helps make the film a far more emotionally engaging (and draining) experience than the typical talking head-style documentary portrait of an artist. McQueen emerges here as an erratic and infuriating personality but one touched with an obvious genius. The filmmakers celebrate his prodigious achievements but the sadness is that he never managed to escape the hothouse world of the fashion industry.

‘McQueen’ hits UK cinemas on 8 June

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