One of the most surprising biographical tidbits in McQueen, the new documentary about the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen, is that he didn’t know a collection could tell a “story” until he was several apprenticeships into the fashion industry. He was obviously a fast learner. Even among top-tier designers, McQueen became well-known for his theatrical runway shows. The half-dozen or so presentations we see in the film evoke Jack the Ripper, a mental asylum, sexual assault, robots, demons, goddesses, and animal chimeras. Not all the shows were well received. Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s smartest tactic—the one that makes McQueen such a pleasure to watch, even for fashion outsiders—is giving viewers a front-row seat to the runway, then letting us judge the designer’s oeuvre for ourselves.
Take “Highland Rape,” McQueen’s name-making fall 1995 collection. Intended as a (heavy-handed) tribute to his Scottish roots, McQueen sent down models in plaid and ripped pieces, some stumbling with a breast exposed as if they’d just been attacked, some in contact lenses that obscured the whites of their eyes so they resembled furious insects on the verge of attack. The clips of “Highland Rape” in the film made me nauseous almost immediately: There’s an undeniable aestheticization, perhaps even a glamorization, of sexual violence in those designs. But the sight of those models, walking down a path with askew holes in their garments, also suggests the fundamental wrongness of sexual assault. We know what clothes are supposed to look like, and this isn’t it. Thankfully, it’s not until after we make up our own minds that we learn that the collection was widely accused of misogyny—an opinion that has been revised in the two decades since. (At the end of that runway show, McQueen himself appeared on the catwalk, as designers do at the end of a show, donning those black-with-rage lenses. Later, a friend says the designer was sexually abused by a relative as a boy.)
Withholding a work’s reception isn’t an uncommon narrative technique in documentaries about artists. And yet it makes McQueen—a fairly conventional doc that’s told chronologically and with many a talking-head interview—feel unexpectedly fresh. The intricacy of the pieces and stagings also makes McQueen the relatively rare documentary that demands to be seen on the big screen. The clothes and catwalks often have so many design elements to savor that you’ll want to take in as much detail as possible.
McQueen, who died by suicide at age 40 in 2010, appeared to have had little life outside of work. And yet his biography is fascinating outside of his dark creations. Born Lee Alexander McQueen and known simply as “Lee” to his friends and family, he was one of six children born to a teacher and taxi driver in London’s East End. (His not-always-intelligible Cockney accent sounds like a barely tuned guitar next to the euphonious cadences of his friend and mentor Isabella Blow, the professional fashionista credited with “discovering” McQueen and hat designer Philip Treacy. It was Blow who suggested Lee name his line “Alexander McQueen” to give it a posh ring, though that didn’t dissuade one newspaper headline from dubbing him “king of the yobs.”)
In a compelling example of money’s fickle relationship with fame—sometimes it’s a loyal attendant, at other times not—McQueen’s ex-boyfriend recalls a night when, after Lee’s show at London Fashion Week, the entourage ended up eating McDonald’s food picked up off the floor because they couldn’t afford a second purchase after the first order fell on the ground.* Given these modest origins, it was perhaps inevitable that money would play a decisive role in his life. His output was characterized by an awe-inspiring prolificness, but he may have given finances, rather than his muse, an outsize role in determining his career trajectory. Concerns about money and status also led to a devastating rift with Blow and possibly contributed to his paranoia that the elite fashion world was after him. Then again, maybe that was the cocaine talking.
The second half of McQueen is more predictable: more fame, more opportunities, more drugs, more broken friendships. Especially after his stints at international fashion houses Gucci and Givenchy, we see a riveting refinement of his macabre interests. But pain can’t always be transmuted into art. A friend and former employee remembers McQueen proposing that he end a final runway show by emerging on stage from a floor door and shooting himself in the head. We’ll never be sure what the designer’s last thoughts consisted of, but the film provides several plausible theories. What we do know about McQueen is grippingly told. The rest is shrouded in honest uncertainty.
*Correction, July 18, 2018: This article originally misidentified this story as being told by McQueen’s brother.