Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary about the life and career of British fashion supernova Alexander McQueen reveals a man whose personal demons drove his prolific, darkly beautiful designs. The film gains unprecedented access to the designer’s family and revisits key moments of his archive and inspirations. It paints McQueen as a romantic who, burdened with the demands of work and fame, burned out in a manner as spectacular as his runway shows.
McQueen is best when it provides insight into the designer’s most intimate relationships. Though McQueen was gay and married to his work, the figures who cast the longest shadows in his life were women: his mother and the eccentric aristocrat Isabella Blow. The former emerges as her son’s earliest teacher, encouraging his fanciful imagination and initiating him into Scottish mythology and history, which he would draw on for the rest of his career. The latter, who fostered McQueen’s early successes, plays a more troubling role as the best friend McQueen continually struggled to gain ego independence from.
Though the film builds a coherent sense of McQueen’s personal life alongside several seasons of his heterogeneous, iconoclastic collections, the visual aspect lacks the elegance befitting an inimitable designer. The recurring use of a digitally animated skull to track the transformations in McQueen’s aesthetic falls particularly short. Though it attempts to mirror the evolution of his baroque style, its slickness ends up feeling like a cheap copy of his visceral brand of Victoriana-meets-digital culture. More archival footage and a more direct view of McQueen’s sources would have better illustrated the deep structures from which he built his hard-edged but deeply feminine clothing.
But ultimately, Bonhote and Ettedgui build a compassionate portrayal of the transformation from “Lee,” the shy, chubby working-class kid from London, to the international fashion mega-star Alexander McQueen, who committed suicide in 2010. The film convincingly tracks the very personal, very high cost of that transformation along with its vertiginous creative heights.