It’s 1999, and model Shalom Harlow spins slowly on a turntable wearing a white, belted, oversize blank canvas of a dress. She’s flanked by two robots that spring to life and begin to rotate themselves. The machines jerk and jolt menacingly, then take aim at that dress, blasting it with black and gold spray paint. Harlow reacts first with faux shock and dismay that eventually gives way to a very messy ecstasy.
This is the grand finale of a fashion show but plays like a dreamy message from the future, and audience members sitting too close to that fantastical interaction probably went home happily paint-spattered themselves. It would become a memorable pop culture moment in a career full of them for designer Alexander McQueen, who died in 2010 at age 40, a man whose sense of the theatrical defined his work.
Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s elegant, mournful documentary “McQueen” doesn’t try to rewrite the man’s life. Instead it allows traditional doc elements — interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, mixed with archival footage, all edited with great care — to tell the troubled designer’s story.
You’d be challenged to come up with a less likely couturier. Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London’s East End, and was raised alongside five siblings in very modest surroundings by a taxi-driver father and teacher mother. He looked like a gay football hooligan with a shaved head, but he apprenticed to master tailors on Savile Row.
In 1992, his brash student collection caught the attention of fashion editor Isabella Blow, and a brilliant career initially marked with press outrages and the frequently shocked disapproval of the fashion establishment followed. When he moved in to the houses of Givenchy, and later Gucci and his own eponymous line, that same establishment embraced him.
His 1995 runway show, “The Highland Rape,” became emblematic of his artistic practice. Addressing the historical subjugation of Scotland by England, models were sent down the runway in torn tartan, breasts exposed, staggering and stumbling, wearing contacts that blacked out their eyes. Accused of misogyny by an uncomprehending press, he was in fact creating theater with models who would, in most other designer’s shows, otherwise be instructed to remain expressionless. But McQueen pushed the boundaries of business as usual with intelligent, aggressive work that was intended to provoke.
Along with fellow iconoclasts like Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, McQueen turned the avant-garde into head-spinning daywear that told a story. Later runway collections would feature similar themes of simmering personal and historical violence. Hot-ticket runway shows would include insects, wild animals, cyborgs, critiques of consumerism, plastic mannequins, “Eyes of Laura Mars”-style car fires, prosthetic makeup, wind tunnels, and a Kate Moss hologram.
But since this is a posthumously told story, fashion fame isn’t the only narrative. Unresolved childhood trauma stemming from sexual abuse informed McQueen’s dark perspective both personally and professionally. Financial success, the public branding of an artist, and the grueling work involved in keeping a fashion empire running aggravated his ongoing anxiety and depression.
Self-medicating with drugs only served to bloom the darkness inside the artist who faced ever-increasing pressure to produce more than a dozen collections annually. In 2010, already rocked by the suicide of Isabella Blow three years earlier, and grieving the death of his own mother, McQueen took his own life.
“McQueen” is formally traditional, and guided by a respectful approach to a complicated man. It’s lovingly told, even as it refuses to gloss over ugliness. And while it was made outside the official involvement of McQueen figures like his closest colleague, designer Sarah Burton, statements like the one Burton gave in a 2017 “Vogue” interview, describing McQueen’s clothes as an “avatar of his personal journey,” seem to affirm the film’s reason to exist.
There’s emotionally resonant archival footage of McQueen’s mother Joyce; revelatory interviews with sister Janet, whose husband abused the young McQueen; videotapes of cramped apartments teeming with young people making fashion history; the ache of broken romantic relationships with boyfriends and the sting of betrayal when McQueen estranged himself from Blow; and first-hand stories from friends and colleagues, all of whom lay bare their love and grief for the designer, and who seem to be missing an essential part of themselves now that he’s gone.
Doubling down with traditional documentary methods and employing a chronological framework also allows Bonhôte and Ettedgui to dig deeply into its subject’s highly personal approach to his work. Late in the film, showcasing McQueen’s “Horn of Plenty” collection, we see that the contents of that horn are pieces of scrap garbage, blackened and piled mountainously high in the middle of the runway, a jarring accompaniment to models encased in extremely structured garments, leading one observer to quote that it appeared that McQueen had “gone mad.” His final show, “Plato’s Atlantis,” with its deep blue atmosphere and dresses that evoked underwater creatures, pulled back from the bleak moment of “Horn” only to plunge his designs into a drowned world.
This orderly reveal of collection and runway highlights brings home the dazzling, and ultimately the despairing point of “McQueen,” very specifically demonstrating them to be as autobiographical as any memoir. They projected his fears, obsessions, unresolved rage, family and cultural history onto women’s clothes. He was a master tailor with vision who became and remained a storyteller, even to that story’s sadly chosen end.