The moment I first saw an Alexander McQueen show, I fell in love with fashion.
I was in seventh grade. My after-school ritual was to watch Gilmore Girls, but something compelled me to watch Raw on Fashion Television instead. It was an hour-long program of uncut footage from Jeanne Beker’s fashion adventures. That day’s episode featured the Alexander McQueen Spring/Summer 1999 show. For me, that was when everything changed.
The collection, simply titled No. 13, was presented on a minimalist, unvarnished wooden runway, designed by the newly hired in-house production designer Joseph Bennett. The inspiration was the late Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, with designs constructed from lace, leather, and wood. It encapsulated the best of the 90s trends: bumster pants, one shoulder styles, sheer fabrics, pantsuits, ruffles. It was as high fashion as you could get during the era that thought Jen Aniston sans bra was the epitome of chic.
To close off the parade of neutral tone looks, Canadian model Shalom Harlow took center stage, her body vogue-ing in synchronicity to the hydraulic robots that moved on either side. Suddenly, her mechanical counterparts came alive, spray painting her white taffeta dress while Harlow danced her way through the careful choreography. It transcended the conventional definition of fashion: McQueen didn’t just create clothing, he created art. His runways were theater – emotional, meaningful, iconic.
It was in that moment that Lee Alexander McQueen unveiled an entire new world to me, one that I developed a deep infatuation for. And, it was in that moment – halfway through the new documentary McQueen– that you see the top of the mountain. The final moments of upward wind before stumbling, just like Harlow after the machines finished their painting, into the delicate darkness of a visionary’s downfall.
The 111-minute film by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui profiles the entire span of the Londoner’s career, from the time he left school in 1985 to complete an apprenticeship with Savile Row tailors to the aftermath of his tragic passing. It is a polished attempt at documenting an English country boy’s journey to becoming fashion’s enfant terrible. Ettendgui explains, “The most important question we wanted to answer was how this shy, working-class young man with no connections became ‘Alexander McQueen.’” It offers an intimate, heart-warming, and ultimately heart-wrenching look into one of the most brilliant minds that fashion has seen in recent years.
Breaking down McQueen’s career by cornerstone collections, the documentary straps you into his rollercoaster life, narrated by candid interviews with colleagues, friends, and family. It goes beyond the live runway experience, ripping the curtains off to articulate an honest story of the man behind the savagely beautiful clothes.
Using archival footage as our window into two and a half decades of his life, the late designer’s metamorphosis from an ordinary bloke to liposuction-ed, designer-clad fashion darling is haunting. The man himself said, “If you want to know me, look at the work.” And that is just what we see: after taking on Givenchy, he is consumed by the process of creating 10 collections a year. After creating McQ and a menswear line, that number is bumped to 14. As the years pass and pressure builds, the effervescent, naughty, driven energy can physically be seen leaving his body.
In 2010, the four-time British Designer of the Year took his own life. The world was left devastated but fascinated by his tale; an underdog finding international fame only to be taken by the weight of his own success is as captivating as it is heart-breaking.
The film expertly illustrates that with increasing celebrity comes isolation. In extremely intimate footage, we see McQueen’s relationship with mentor and style influencer Isabella Blow deteriorate. His collections grow more disturbing. The provocative designs of fashion’s bad boy, which weave dramatics with history, are embellished by the heavy darkness of his personal life – domestic violence and sexual abuse in his childhood and an HIV positive status in adulthood (a secret revealed during the movie by his nephew). He translated emotion into art in a way that felt earnest. For McQueen, fashion was a cathartic way of pulling the “horrors out of [his] soul and put[ting] them on the catwalk.” As Peter Travers eloquently wrote for Rolling Stone, “He was an artist who didn’t follow trends or sacrifice craft to commercialism, translating his own psyche into avant-garde forms of expression that took fashion to the next level. And McQueen is an empathetic, ravishing, and scorchingly outspoken look at why, eight years after his death, he still leaves us transfixed.”
At forty years old, McQueen left an immeasurable legacy.
It started with the Met’s posthumous exhibition of the late couturier’s work in 2011, titled Savage Beauty. The exhibition was so successful that it traveled to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2015. That same year, American journalist Dana Thomas came out with the incredibly insightful Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, detailing the lives of two of Britain’s most creative exports. While this new documentary wasn’t officially authorized or endorsed by the McQueen estate or his namesake brand, it is the most comprehensive documentation of his story to date.
At a time where the industry has us feeling despondent – the recent passing of Kate Spade, the restructuring and closing of once profitable publications, the wave of Time’s Up and Me-Too movements that reveal true colours of once-legendary photographers – the film brings hope that beauty can be born from even the darkest corners.
And while we may be focused on buzzwords, follower counts, and hashtags, or trying to find the next “empowering” person/product/brand whose superhuman story of inclusion and individuality propels us into living our “best lives”, it is important to reflect on why the world fell in love with the ingenious Alexander McQueen. He woke the world up, revolted audiences into consciousness not only about what we wear but the world we live in.
As McQueen says in the film, “People forget that fashion is about showing who you are.”