Art Doc of the Week | McQueen and I

Alexander McQueen’s suicide in 2010 not only shocked the fashion world, but took even casual followers of that world by surprise. He was, at the time of his death, arguably the most influential, important fashion designer in the world. His story resonated with so many because he was the embodiment of someone who, on paper, wasn’t meant to be part of  – let alone master – the realm he’d made his own. The son of a schoolteacher and a cabdriver, with his working class background, stocky build, and unconventional education, he was in many ways the antithesis of a fashionista.

McQueen and I, directed by Louise Osmond, traces his rise, developing aesthetic, seminal friendship with Isabella Blow (in many ways the documentary is as much her story as McQueen’s), controversies that dogged his career, and battle with depression that claimed his life. It’s a somewhat breezy work for a life as layered and unconventional as McQueen’s, but it’s an excellent primer on his life and career.

Though he referenced performance art and historical fashion throughout his work, the film places the spark of his creativity in London club culture of the 1990s, when House music was the soundtrack, and many club goers (at least in McQueen’s circle) made their gear by using cheap materials to mimic the handiwork of designers Vivienne Westwood and Galliano. One friend of McQueen’s laughs that the young designer – as many young people of the time – fed the on the energy that arose from the combination of poverty, drugs, and music. Former boyfriend Andrew Groves adds, “You slept all day and then you were always out at night, and the people that you lived your life around were prostitutes and all sorts of exciting low-life.”

The film gives shared billing to Isabella Blow, the influential, fashionable eccentric from an aristocratic background who had a taste for the outré and an eye for nascent fashion talent. Having caught McQueen’s first fashion show when he as a student, she quickly became his muse, tutor, close friend, confidant, and occasional source of discomfort. Her privileged façade hid family secrets that complicated her own relationship to wealth and power, and would come to mask the depression that claimed her life.

As Osmond maps McQueen’s rise to prominence and Isabella’s accompanying and overlapping career narrative, she employs clips from old interviews, footage from his shows throughout his career, and interviews with family and friends. Clips from his runway presentations are often breathtaking, no surprise given that McQueen remains unrivaled for his showmanship, and the film gives a good sense of the tensions he navigated being a visionary in the increasingly corporatized world of fashion. But you wish she’d given more space to the exploration of charges of misogyny that were frequently leveled at McQueen (one defender waves them off saying they were simplistic reactions) and that there was more in-depth commentary on his own relationship to violence and social issues. Analysis of his work suffers for coming largely from the “pro” camp, so that even his weaker output is gently assessed here, with news clippings from critics being quickly flashed to show the take of his detractors on his work. The film would’ve skirted being hagiography with fair but tougher-minded analysis of the work. As a serious artist, McQueen deserves that level of consideration.

There’s also a perfunctory look at his being gay and how that played out in his personal and professional life. When it comes to the former boyfriend, we have no idea when he and the designer met, how long the relationship was, how it was affected by McQueen’s demanding career, or if there were other boyfriends along the way.

Alexander McQueen, courtesy V Magazine.

Alexander McQueen, courtesy V Magazine.

What comes through loud and clear is that McQueen was a true artist from the start, and worked his ass off to make his visions manifest in the world. His life challenged a lot of conventional thought (in some ways his soulmate wasn’t a romantic partner, but his platonic best friend, Isabella), while also underscoring the truth at the core of longstanding cliché (he was the secretly tortured artistic genius). His suicide in 2010 followed Isabella’s suicide by three years, and the death of his mother (whom he adored) by months. And the way he died, as one observer notes, was as violent and theatrical as one of his shows.


Previously on Art Doc of the Week:

Top image from the book Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty