One common question posed among creatives deals with the separation of art from the artist. Where do you draw the line? If the art comes from the artist, can they be separated at all? Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQueen shows that in the case of the late Lee Alexander McQueen, it is all but impossible.
The movie is based primarily on the fashion shows that McQueen was a part of, whether for his own eponymous brands or for Givenchy, as illustrated by footage of McQueen himself as well as exclusive interviews with his closest friends and family. It begins with McQueen’s rise to fame, detailing his rags-to-riches story from a poor East Londoner to one of the fashion industry’s most esteemed designers. The description of his rise is one of the successes of this film, as it would make for a much more compact story to simply gloss over the fine details and really delve into the storytelling when McQueen reaches Givenchy — it was only a four year gap between McQueen’s graduating college to his winning the British Designer of the Year award and being appointed Creative Director at Givenchy. The context, however, is important, and seeing a young McQueen struggle as the sixth child to working class parents, as someone who couldn’t afford formal schooling without the help of extended family and as someone who used welfare checks and garbage bags to create some of his earliest shows is crucial to understanding his humble beginnings and his rapid success.
McQueen had every chance to be elitist, or to elevate McQueen to a saint-like status. By establishing the early context of McQueen’s upbringing and personality, the film manages to capture him in every bit of his swagger for which he was known, as he was often called the “Hooligan of British Fashion.” Every clip of him showcases his boyish personality, including clips in which he insults his future employers at Givenchy by calling them rubbish and irrelevant. The film, though, begins to take a much darker tone following his appointment to Givenchy. Gone are McQueen’s constant jokes, replaced by a new pressure from taking over as head of one of Europe’s premier fashion houses. It’s at this point that the interviews used throughout the film change from reminiscent to mournful, as McQueen’s closest friends recount his spiral that would later lead to his suicide.
The film shows many of McQueen’s runway shows throughout, but it’s the Autumn/Winter 1995 “Highland Rape” show portrayed in the beginning that is by far the most important. Initially, the use of tattered clothes and distressed models who look as though they had just been sexually assaulted comes off as an attempt by a young McQueen to gain recognition through shock value. Later in the film, McQueen explains that “If you want to know me, look at my work,” as a way of explaining the inspiration behind his art. Certain interviews reveal that he was personally affected by something that may have influenced the aforementioned show, as his sister was sexually assaulted and struggled for years to understand what had happened. Either way, McQueen’s goal is the same: to make the viewer feel something after seeing his show. The common reaction throughout the theater in which I saw McQueen seemed to be disgust, but McQueen explains that this is the exact reaction he was hoping for.
It seems that McQueen himself doesn’t want us to draw a line between Lee McQueen, the poor East Londoner, and Alexander McQueen, the hooligan of high fashion. This is crucial in explaining McQueen’s internal struggles and later issues with drugs, because as the pressure mounted, he was never able to pull himself away from his brand without worrying he would let down everybody who worked with or for him. The film is able to capture this in a subtle way through the juxtaposition of a thin, post-Givenchy McQueen with an overweight but incredibly lively pre-Givenchy McQueen, firmly that McQueen lost some part of himself as he ascended in fame.
This fame and influence was far reaching, something this film fails to really place in a broader light. From styling David Bowie and Bjork to being worn by Rihanna and Sandra Bullock to being name dropped in a Playboi Carti song in 2017, Alexander McQueen had an immense reach that few other designers can claim — something this documentary hints at but never truly captures. Additionally, the movie never gives the words of McQueen’s suicide note, which simply read “I am sorry… please look after my dogs. Sorry… I love you… Lee,” which is incredibly haunting and could have served as one last bitter view into his dark but not entirely serious personality.
Depicting the chaotic rise and fall of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, McQueen the film is a beautifully dark tragedy that perfectly fits its namesake. Although it lacks in some minor parts, McQueen is nearly flawless and is among the most interesting fashion movies, even for those who aren’t interested in fashion.
Daniel Moran is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.