This wonderful film is billed as a documentary but doesn’t exactly feel like one. True, it is stuffed full of interviews with the amazing crew of youngsters (now older) that Alexander McQueen assembled round him, or drew toward himself by the strange attraction that his early designs exercised on those susceptible. It must also include, when you think about it, much archive footage, especially the reruns of old fashion shows, dating back to the 1990s. I can’t tell how much of their own magic the directors have worked on these materials, which are electrifying.

I have a problem with high fashion, which is just the extreme tip of humankind’s insane interest in clothes. McQueen is wonderful because he understands instinctively what is so awful about the catwalk as conventionally practiced. He doesn’t abandon it though, but turns it into a scene of deep conflict and confrontation, a form of torture for everyone involved, the models or actors and the audience or spectators, who are faced with ugliness so unexpected and elaborate that it comes to seem a weird kind of beauty.

In McQueen’s shows this is wrapped up with feelings about the body, with things done or threatened to young bodies, suggested not by actual abuse of persons, but by violence practiced on the clothes, on the cloth they are constructed of, and by the shapes they are made to assume or prevented from assuming. From the beginning McQueen inspired terror with a pair of scissors, feeling a destructive urge to upset harmonies and continuities by simply ripping large complacent expanses of cloth, or cutting roughly apart elements that had been too neatly joined together.

There is occasional talk about where his urge to deface settled orders comes from, from ‘my dark side’ or from abuse suffered as a child. Family plays an inordinate role in McQueen’s life, not just in the early scenes where he is noticeable for an excitement always on the point of exploding. There’s something in there waiting to get out, ungovernable, and at this point more mischievous than alarming, but never quite comfortable.

Later this will seem an innocent time, when Lee (his name in the family, only changed to Alexander, his original middle name, by Isabella Blow to give him gravitas) applied himself with maniacal intensity to learning the tailoring trade from a fascinating series of employers, conventional and unconventional, who supply some of the most perceptive comment on his character. He impressed them all, but none of them could really contain him. Then, how he got to St Martin’s School of Art, definitely the place to be, but what made him want it or think he could do it?

His first designs and shows are my favourites, made of materials found on the floor (cling wrap) or in Borough Market (thin wire mesh) and paid for with his dole money. Although he had a powerful drive to be noticed, at this point he had to keep himself out of public view in case the job centre caught sight of him. It’s a wonderful moment when he and the art school crew come crashing into Paris, where Lee has been hired by Givenchy, who’ve just lost a key designer.

But it is also the first breath of the frightening worldly success that will destroy him. It’s easy to detect this pattern in his life, too easy, because Alexander McQueen is not just another casualty of the Romantic cult of genius, corrupted by fame, money, stardom. The destruction which is a powerful element in so many of his designs was not just a personal aesthetic but something desperately seeking expression. With success, a nasty side of this seemingly benign character began to appear. He cut old friends off from his later triumphs and abandoned others for supposed betrayals. Fashion’s obsession with the body eventually swallowed up Lee too. He lost weight—we aren’t told how—and stopped being the pudgy mess who was such a paradoxical container for that wild imagination. He succumbed to the frightening treadmill of production, 14 shows a year at his peak, and we get quite a good idea of what these cost in every part of life that isn’t work. How strange that the most ephemeral of trades should make such unending demands on its practitioners.

The film involves us to a daring degree in the rat race of these shows, each outdoing the last in lavishness, weirdness and narrative power. McQueen had always tried to make all the designs, impossible to call them ‘dresses’ or ‘outfits’, take parts in the overall story of the show, but it is also important to let individual designs have their own space. Not in the way they would have it in the big museum exhibitions where they’d be standing there motionless as if on pedestals, but filmically, as they are in the brilliant credits at the end of this film, one dress after another that progresses into kaleidoscopic distortions of itself before the next name and next ‘dress’ replace it. So we end with a fluid sense of how far beyond our ideas of something to wear McQueen took what he constructed. These were as remote from everyday life as modernist art and music have regularly been from what people ordinarily see or hear.

McQueen prided himself on bringing gritty reality to the catwalk, but his work twists clothes beyond recognition to create profound experiences that speak of suffering and death, instead of a dogged concentration on what is wearable. These experiences are often not just costumes, but intensely engaging actions, like large robots spraying a rotating model with paint that begins with bold curves on her skirt and ends with a random spatter of dots on her face and her surroundings.

McQueen, 2018, 1 hr 51 min, directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui


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