Death haunted Alexander McQueen—the person, the brand, the style—long before the British fashion designer’s death in 2010. His suicide, as the documentary McQueen reveals, was perhaps the all-too-predictable ending to a history of violence. Designing for McQueen, the film suggests, was always a matter of survival, if not reparation—from poverty, self-harm, and domestic abuse. His clothes performed his despair in cryptic ways as he built a no-fucks-given femininity in the runway that was simultaneously wondrous and grotesque, sensual and menacing. Gloom traversed his creations melodramatically, like conspicuous threads screaming some kind of plea.
Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui do justice to McQueen’s rags-to-riches tale of torment by highlighting the somber dimension that underpinned the artist’s work and his private life, as well as searching for clues as to how exactly the former mirrored the latter. That is, how McQueen articulated his symptoms sartorially, allowing the unsaid to articulate themselves in the runway, and how that wasn’t enough to save him.
We know the film will end with McQueen taking his life. In that sense, death haunts the viewer, too, appearing as a kinship between artist and audience. Death stitches scenes together as we look for its final blow. When is it coming? At which point does McQueen, or Lee, as his friends call him, become immune to the numbing powers of glamour (at one point, an assistant takes the Concorde to rush one of his dresses to Sharon Stone) and the freedom to transgress from within (in one of his collections, the pants are cut so low that the models’ pubes are visible—and Anna Wintour is in the front row)?
Death is everywhere in McQueen’s world also to remind us of the ultimate insignificance of artifice: “It’s just clothes,” as the designer says. Death emerges as tailored allegory or literal misfortune: as the suicide of his confidante, Isabella Blow; as his mother’s own demise; as addiction; and as the HIV virus. Death is also in his creative process: the way his ideas flow out of some dark place with no intellectualizing, no rational precision. Just a pair of scissors taken to fancy fabric—dangerously, instinctively, unconsciously—and to the horror of his seamstresses. Indeed, it’s just clothes.
Death drives McQueen, like a bad childhood catching up with a bolting adult no matter how far he goes. And McQueen goes not just far, but places where the pudgy queer boy from Stratford isn’t much welcome. Namely, the house of Givenchy. His first collection replacing John Galliano is reviled: gold buttons, gold wigs, gold epaulettes, gold glitter splattered on the tawdriest décolletage, and gold snake-like horns protruding from the models’ bodies like tree trunks. Critics wished McQueen, who was “not even French,” to be destroyed for daring to take over Paris. Instead of conforming, he doubled down on the unwearable audaciousness in his very next collection.
Talking heads, archival interviews with McQueen and his family, and a timid amount of runway footage all make the case for the designer’s magnetism and penchant for symbiotic collaborations with friends and strangers alike. Though it defends his discipline and genius, the film is no hagiography in the sense that it basically structures itself, rather sincerely, around McQueen’s flaws. Or, rather, the flaws around Lee, which shaped and scripted Lee into McQueen, ultimately doing Lee in even if McQueen survives. If only fashion were therapy, if only fashion were remedy. But it is, indeed, just clothes.