Rhiannon D’Averc reviews the new documentary release about the life and work of Alexander McQueen.
Alexander McQueen is almost a god in our industry. Ask almost anyone whose work inspires them the most – ask almost anyone of my generation who it was that got the interested in fashion in the first place – and his name trips off the tongue.
However, that story is always undercut with a strong note of sadness: the fact that someone so idolised, so admired, could take his own life.
McQueen feels like an attempt to explain exactly why and how Lee McQueen came to that point. Throughout the interviews and old footage scattered through the film, we get to build up a picture: how even using his middle name instead of his first was a decision that was taken away from him. How pressure and expectations built up, forcing him to supress his personal style when he worked for other houses, causing him to change his appearance and become someone that he didn’t even recognise. How even those closest to him were often pushed away in favour of his work, which consumed his life so entirely that there was no separation between the two.
It’s a compelling exploration, and while it is utterly enthralling from start to finish, it doesn’t tell the full story. Of the larger than life characters who make up the film’s principal cast, there is one person who is notably absent: Sarah Burton, the intern who grew with the brand until she eventually took over the designing chair after his death. As arguably the most important person you would want to talk to during this kind of documentary – given that she still holds the position to this day – it sorely lacks her insight into the way his mind worked when creating his collections. Perhaps her lack of representation has something to do with the moment when, looking into a camera that captured him long before this documentary went into production, McQueen clearly states he would not wish for the label to carry on if he was no longer there at its helm.
Some characters – and I use characters here deliberately – are portrayed in certain lights, giving you an impression of their personality which is clearly influenced by the decisions of the filmmakers. For better or for worse, it allows us to slide easily into the narrative, given easy stereotypes and forms to get to grips with.
Perhaps strongest of all, as I left the showing, one question was left in mind: why didn’t these people help him? Despite the fact that McQueen told his friends explicitly that he was planning to kill himself on more than one occasion, it still happened – and not one of them ever talks about any way in which they tried to help or dissuade him from this idea. Perhaps it’s unfair to make a judgement after just two hours of footage – but when the world loses such a formidable talent, it can only be a tragedy for us all.
If you want to get deeper into the McQueen story after having seen the film, I highly recommend Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda. Not only does it fill in some of the blanks – including suggesting a clear motivation for his suicide – but it also contains stunning full-page images of some of his key pieces, as well as explanations of the looks and staging of all of his shows.
The final verdict on this documentary: it’s beautiful, moving, and ends up a tear-jerker. But more than anything, it will remind you of what a genius McQueen was with cloth – and how beautiful and innovative his work still feels even today.
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