At the beginning of “McQueen,” the mostly polite, deferential documentary on Alexander McQueen, the designer says off camera that he does not care what others think, and that his creativity depends on his honesty. I am paraphrasing, but that’s McQueen at his best, and that’s the motif that cuts to the center of his being and his work.
Watching a documentary on a designer whose death has spawned a creative industry of its own – photo books, unauthorized biographies, an incredibly successful museum exhibition that broke attendance records at the Met in New York and the V&A in London, and an upcoming biopic – was complicated. The complication was compounded by the fact that in this writer’s opinion McQueen remains unrivaled in terms of sheer talent. That he has enriched fashion is an understatement – no one has brought fashion closer to being an art form than McQueen. And so for me McQueen is a treasure; therefore I meet every cultural artifact devoted to him with suspicion. What are the motives? To tell his story, or to make money off of his death? There is an ironic moment towards the end of the documentary, where McQueen says, “Everything I do is personal. If you want to know me, just look at my work.” Why should we watch the film, then?
I cannot give you any particularly strong reason for or against. “McQueen” is competent, but not exactly revelationary if you know McQueen’s work (if you don’t, definitely go see it). It deals politely with McQueen’s drug addiction, his being overweight and HIV-positive, and devotes little real-estate to his fallout with his greatest cheer-leader, the stylist Isabella Blow. But, it also includes some precious (and sadly, precious little) video footage from McQueen’s life. Much of the documentary is comprised of on-camera interviews with McQueen’s friends and coworkers (Sarah Burton is conspicuously absent, for reasons I would certainly like to know.) There is the unflappable husband of Isabella Blow, with the emotional range of a tea spoon, his earnest nephew, who also ended up being a textile designer for McQueen, and McQueen’s sister, Janet, whose former husband sexually abused both of them. But the most poignant of the interviewees is Sebastian Pons, McQueen’s former assistant. The Spaniard oozes unadulterated emotion when he recalls his experience; the countless hours of work, the dedication, the burnout, the fallout with McQueen, and their eventual reconciliation shortly before McQueen’s suicide. At some point in the documentary Pons says about “Horn of Plenty,” one of McQueen’s collections, “I think it really reflects the fashion world today. It’s a pile of crap.”
There are other good moments, especially ones that point out inspiration for some of McQueen’s collections. We find out that the F/W 1997 show, “It’s a Jungle Out There,” was partly a middle finger to the stodgy French establishment and its moronic, incestuous fashion press that bashed McQueen’s more than capable debut at Givenchy. That McQueen show was staged in an abandoned car park, and when one of the cars caught fire in the middle of the show, the designer excitedly demanded that the show goes on. Other things we already know – that the “Highland Rape” show was widely misunderstood, that McQueen was refreshingly honest, to the point of confrontation, with the media, and that he loved his family and his dog.
The film also does a good job underscoring the tremendous amount of pressure the industry put on McQueen. Doing fourteen collections a year is beyond anyone’s strength. I am not counting Lagerfeld here, who can churn out his boring bourgeois costumes in his sleep, but a true auteur who is aiming to outdo himself time after time. About his shows McQueen said, “I don’t want to do a show that feels like you just had Sunday lunch. I want you to be repulsed or exhilarated, as long as it’s an emotion.” At the end of the day the most pressure, just like it does for many of us, came from McQueen himself. At one point Pons talked about begging McQueen to just walk away. Instead, McQueen ponders committing suicide on stage.
Still, if you want to remember McQueen, there are better things to do than rummage through the suitcase of his life. Go on YouTube and watch his otherworldly, mesmerizing shows, revel in the awful force of his talent, weep for the impoverished state of fashion today, and hope that we will get another McQueen down the line. And also realize this – McQueen was the testament to the fact that the most beautiful, astonishing, memorable moments in fashion, and in art in general, will always come from darkness. Come to think of it, I wish someone would simply compile McQueen’s shows into a single film. There would be no better legacy.
“McQueen,” directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, and distributed by Bleecker Street. Opens in the United States today, in wide release on July 27th.