Designer Lee Alexander McQueen killed himself at the height of his fame and on the eve of his mother’s funeral. An iconoclast, his art transcended commercial concerns but was embraced by the fashion elite. His clothes were, as one talking head says, “about sabotage and tradition.” The documentary “McQueen,” from directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, attempts to explain the contradictions that made the man, his short life and clothes, a legend.
McQueen, or Lee as friends called him, makes for a compelling central character. The son of a London cabbie and an encouraging mother, his was a talent so exciting that when he started out people paid to work with him. The film is jam packed with tidbits like that; testaments to his adrenaline fuelled bursts of creativity and fond memories from friends—“He laughed all the time and was funny and disrespectful.”—but the filmmakers instinctively know the best approach to their subject is through the clothes. “I would go to the far reaches of my dark side and pull these horrors out of myself and put them on the catwalk,” he says.
His dark side included childhood abuse and later, alcohol and drug problems. Excessive workload—he designed fourteen collections a year—and grief at the loss of his mother and mentor Isabella Blow exacerbated his depression. “I’m angry at the world,” he says.
The film’s final chapter details his last, successful but unhappy years. “I think there is more to life than fashion,” he says, “and I don’t want to be stuck in that bubble of ‘This is what I do.’ You see everyone else in the office and they can go home. I can’t. I’m still Alexander McQueen. I can’t shut the door.”
Ultimately “McQueen” makes it clear he was unable to ever close that door, to find a place where life and work could co-exist. The film is a portrait of genius and while the biographical details are interesting, it’s the singular vision of his clothes that lingers. “If you want to know me,” he says, “look at the work.”