The Dark Genius of Alexander McQueen

Everybody loves a good rags-to-riches tale. But the problem with Alexander McQueen’s Cinderella story is that there’s no happy ending.

Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s new documentary, simply titled McQueen, explores the British fashion designer and couturier’s unprecedented rise to fame and his sorrowful decent into madness and depression. But it also exposes him for what he really was—a proper old-school rebel who didn’t give a fuck about fashion etiquette.

McQueen, who dropped his birth name of Lee and adopted his middle name of Alexander when he created his own label, grew up the youngest of six children in the working-class suburb of Stratford, East London. At 16, he left school to study tailoring before graduating from the MA fashion course at Central Saint Martins and debuting his first line at his graduate show in 1992. Four years later, he was chief designer at French luxury fashion house Givenchy.

It’s an incredible story that at times seems impossible—an unassuming kid from East London climbing up the fashion ranks at lightning speed to land one of the most esteemed positions in fashion by the age of 26. But when you see his clothes, it makes perfect sense. Reducing his creations to mere clothes is actually an insult, and when you see these works of art on a runway you understand that McQueen was actually as much a visual artist as he was a designer, and his runway shows equivalent to high production performance art.

It’s easy to focus on the sadness that later consumed both his career and his life, but what I took away from this film was his incredible talent. He was, quite simply, a mad genius. Everything he touched was exceptionally beautiful, but also desperately dark. The production behind the shows for his various collections—which you see a lot of in the film—are honestly breathtaking. Getting to peek behind the curtain to see how those shows came together feels like a real gift to be given, and when I watched robots spray paint model Shalom Harlow as she spun around in a ballerina’s dress for the finale of his Spring/Summer 1999 show, I joined the rest of the theatre in a loud, emotional gasp.

The obscene pressure of the fashion industry ultimately took its toll on McQueen, leading him down a drug-fueled spiral that he would never recover from. At the young age of 40, McQueen took his life. To think of how much he created in such a short time is mind-blowing. And though his death came far too soon, the gifts he left here were quite truly some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen—if only through a screen.

McQueen is in Australian cinemas September 6.

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