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‘McQueen’ Review: Fashion Luminary Alexander McQueen Gets a Polished and Intimate Film

The rise and fall of Alexander McQueen, fashion's favorite enfant terrible, makes for a visually striking film, though it doesn't approach what the man himself might have made.

Alexander McQueen

Alexander McQueen

Ann Ray

There are few stories more compelling — or tragic — than that of the tortured artist who rises from obscurity only to be crushed under the weight of success. Equally as rare are designers so influential they need only one name: Versace, Dior, Galliano, McQueen. Alexander McQueen is the closest thing to fashion royalty we’ve had in this century, a true visionary who transcended the fashion world to become an internationally recognized artist. His garments teetered between the gorgeous and the grotesque, his runway shows could pass as performance art, and his collections were often chic and shocking all at once. His posthumous 2011 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Savage Beauty,” was the eighth most popular show in the museum’s history, and the most visited for the Met’s Costume Institute.

The polished new documentary, “McQueen,” charts the late designer’s rise from English country boy to fashion’s enfant terrible, but the filmmaking lacks the artistic vision of its subject. That proves to be quite all right, as McQueen’s talent was enough to light up the screen sans frills, (though a distracting score threatens to overpower its some of the movie’s best interviews). Directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (“Listen to Me Marlon”), the film follows McQueen’s life and work chronologically, relying mostly on archival footage and intimate interviews with his closest friends and family. The film remains firmly focused on his work and evolution as an artist, neither skipping over nor wallowing in the childhood trauma that inspired his darker side.

"McQueen"

“McQueen”

Ann Ray

Born Lee Alexander McQueen, it was his first mentor, Isabella Blow, who made him drop his first name for his label. He remained Lee to his friends, all talented designers in their own right, who appear in the film as talking heads. A magazine editor and muse to hat designer Phillip Treacy, Blow is often credited with discovering McQueen, and their unique bond proved fruitful yet fraught. That tension is summed up nicely by one friend, who observes: “No one discovered Alexander McQueen; Alexander McQueen discovered himself.”

Though often described as funny by his friends, we don’t see much of McQueen’s lighter side. The film offers little in the way of specific anecdotes that bring a larger-than-life subject into focus, although we do learn that he loved listening to Sinead O’Connor, and could draw a perfectly fitted piece freehand, without taking a measurement. His mother and sister were in charge of feeding the models (sausage rolls, his sister presumes) during an early DIY runway show. That laissez-faire spirit persisted later in life; when a set-piece car caught fire, McQueen insisted the show go on without extinguishing the flames.

Almost entirely self-made, McQueen knocked on doors on Savile Row for his first tailoring apprenticeship, before securing a spot at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The school was founded by designer Bobby Hillson, who appreciated the perspective that stemmed from McQueen’s lack of traditional education. “He reinterpreted things in his way, it wasn’t filtered,” she says in the film.

“McQueen”

Ann Ray

“You don’t move forward if you play it safe,” McQueen says in one archival interview, and he certainly took a risk when he became head designer of Givenchy in 1997 at just 27 years old. His first show was considered a failure, though it’s hard to see why from the exquisite runway footage. McQueen was unmotivated by reviews: “I want you to come out [of a fashion show] feeling either repulsed or exhilarated, as long as it’s an emotion.”

McQueen took his own life in 2010, three years after Blow committed suicide and on the eve of his mother’s funeral. He had been battling drug addiction and severe depression. As one friend observed: “The more money he had, he seemed to be more unhappy.” Like all geniuses, McQueen could be insensitive to the feelings of those around him. Though many a longtime friend or collaborator (most had to be both) had to walk away, none regretted their time with him. 

McQueen remains a visionary shrouded in mystery — was he the sweet Mama’s boy from Stratford, a raging perfectionist and workaholic, or a brilliant, once-in-a-generation artist? Those closest to him seem content to make peace with the dueling spirits inside him, even if he could not.

Grade: B-

“McQueen” opens in select theaters on Friday, July 20.

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