One of the many things for which the year 2018 will be remembered is the number of (mostly) good documentaries playing in theaters. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” and “RBG” are sure to be remembered as “best of” lists are compiled at year’s end. Both films are also shoo-ins for Oscar nominations. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the flawed “Whitney”.
Closer in quality to “…Neighbor” and “RBG” than to “Whitney”, the Alexander McQueen doc “McQueen” (Bleecker Street), co-directed Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, tells the rags to riches story of the fashion designer born Lee Alexander McQueen. Separated into five sections, “McQueen” portrays the brilliant man who went to the far reaches of his dark side to pull the horror from his soul, and then put them on the catwalk.
McQueen, who admitted he wasn’t very good in school, except for art, and was “always drawing clothes in every lesson”, was encouraged by his mother Joyce to apply for (and got) a Saville Row apprenticeship. He learned Bespoke tailoring from master tailor Cornelius O’Callaghan and then went work for avant-garde designer Koji Tatsuno. The “sweet boy from the East End” who “listened continually to Sinead O’Connor” learned about “visual research” and historical and sexual references in fashion from Red or Dead designer John McKitterick.
Before you know it, McQueen lands a job in Italy with designer Romeo Gigli. Back in London, McQueen earned his MA at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design under the guidance of Bobby Hillson, thanks to his generous Aunt Renee who paid is tuition.
From there, McQueen made his name by combining the “modern and the classical” and “sabotage and tradition”, creating beautiful things out of his dark side. A fashion disrupter, McQueen incorporated fetish fascination into his work, which he boldly displayed in his designs as well as his legendary runway shows. Along the way, the “romantic craftsman” with a self-destructive streak, won British Designer of the Year two years in a row. But there were casualties and his intertwined personal and work lives suffered.
Fame didn’t provide McQueen with happiness. He indulged in drug use. He changed his physical appearance. He felt pressured which led to paranoia. McQueen did, however, find pleasure with his dog at the seaside. Still, the deaths of influential magazine editor Isabella Blow (with whom he had a falling out) and his mother proved to be too much. McQueen committed suicide in 2010.
Interviews with sister Janet McQueen, nephew Gary James McQueen and boyfriends Andrew Groves (who was also an assistant designer) and Murray Arthur, provide intimate details. Most of the other insider interview subjects, including Detmar Blow (Isabella Blow’s husband), hairstylist Mira Chai Hyde, agent Alice Smith, writer Plum Sykes, assistants Sebastien Pons and Ruti Danan, and models Jodie Kidd, Debra Shaw and Magdalena Frackowiak, may only be recognizable to those with some familiarity of the high fashion world of the nineties and early aughts. While they may not be familiar names, their connections to the McQueen and the industry definitely give their insights considerable weight.