Years before Silicon Valley co-opted the word for their TED Talkers and pickup-laundry apps, fashion designer Alexander McQueen was the living, screaming definition of “disruptor.”
An East London cabbie’s son who honed his old-world craft on Savile Row and by his late twenties had scaled the precipitous heights of Parisian haute couture, he was the kind of brilliant, mercurial, utterly original artist the industry thrives on and also tends to eat alive.
His clothes were exquisite and often surreal: rendered in silks and Saran Wrap, meticulously sculpted and sewn then defaced with splattered paint or torn chiffon or tire tracks. His work was cheeky and referential and ineffably cool; the press seemed to love and loathe him in equal measure. And by 2010 he was gone, taking his own life five weeks before what would have been his 41st birthday.
In other words, he’s a fantastic subject for a documentary, even if McQueen is not quite able to do justice to his brief, troubled, extraordinary life. Co-directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui have access to extensive archives and home videos, as well as fond and often painfully honest interviews with his family members, ex-boyfriends, and closest confidants, all of whom knew Alexander only by his given name, Lee.
Divided into several chapters — each artfully framed by the skull motifs that may be one of McQueen’s most lasting mass-market legacies — the story unfolds in loose chronology, moving from his scrappy school days through his now-iconic debut collection (fueled by McDonalds hamburgers and financed, in part, by his unemployment checks) and swift, unlikely rise to head the classically staid house of Givenchy.
But with success, as Bonhôte and Ettedgui reveal through friends’ recollections and McQueen’s own words, came pressure, and darkness. Always a little bit round-bellied, he began to winnow his body down to the whippet ideal of the fashion world, and increasingly turned to cocaine to keep up with his punishing schedule.
The bad-boy persona that set him apart — the outrageous presentations, proud Cockney accent, and often scandalous statements to the press — and helped make his impact so indelible also became a sort of prison, as friendships fell away (particularly his fevered intimacy with Isabella Blow, the late high-fashion fairy godmother with a legendary gift for discovering new talent) and his addictions deepened.
If McQueen feels like it’s missing some deeper insights, it may be because its subject kept so much of himself hidden from even the people who loved him most. (Though if you feel like you’re missing some dialogue, that may be the oddly invasive score that surges over so many of the movie’s talking-head interviews.) What’s left is a fascinating if incomplete portrait of genius interrupted — and a life that should have lasted much longer than it did. B+