A Review of McQueen: A Fashion Documentary

(From left to right: Documentary promotional poster, via Bleecker Street Media found on bleekerstreetmedia.com; Alexander McQueen, The Overlook, Fall 1999. Photo by Tim Walker, via Vogue Magazine. Found on timwalkerphotography.com; Savage Beauty Exhibition at the V&A. Photo by Dan Howarth, via Dezeen. Found on dezeen.com)

A Review of McQueen: A Fashion Documentary


Saturday night of fall break, I decided to watch McQueen, the eponymous documentary covering the life of Britain’s most daring and celebrated fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, whose suicide in 2010 created shock and devastation throughout the fashion world. Few other figures would be so missed. I had heard of the wildly popular exhibition “Savage Beauty” at the Met Costume Institute a few years back. I had glimpsed his outrageously expensive ready-to-wear designs at department stores, often adorned with a skull motif. But I never quite understood the obsession with his edgy, elegant clothes until the documentary.

Contrary to the wiry, intense man whose image circulated long after his death, I was surprised to learn that Alexander McQueen, born Lee Alexander McQueen in 1969 in a London suburb, started off as an unsophisticated, sloppily dressed young man attempting to enter Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The documentary makes great use of home-video footage. While at times the clips felt jarring and blurry, they captured McQueen’s gregarious and spirited personality in his early years. His remarkable dedication to his craft, which eventually morphed into an unhealthy obsession, was mesmerizing to watch as he  moved through his fashion degree and apprenticed at the leading Italian tailor houses.

Throughout the documentary, the audience gets a peek into the relentlessly demanding profession of high fashion, and the sheer pressure McQueen faced, whether for Givenchy or his own house. He was required to devise entirely new and special looks each season. I was reminded of the painstaking and careful work behind haute couture’s most spectacular creations, and the sheer artistry fashion can be at its highest forms. For anyone believes haute couture to be elitist and antiquated, I would recommend this documentary because it shows fashion’s value as an art-form that is worthy of status next to the fine arts, dance and music.

(From left to right: Dress #13 of the show No. 1, by FashGif. Found on giphy.com; A dress inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock film “The Birds” (1963) in the show Voss. Found on vossehf.wordpress.com; Ready-to-wear design Fall/Winter 2015-16. Found on en.vogue.fr)

McQueen’s designs pushed him to international stardom due to their provocative and theatrical nature. I was most enthralled by McQueen’s 1999 show “No.13”. In one achingly beautiful moment, a single model sporting a white dress stands between two robots who sprayed black and yellow ink onto her dress as she twirls, her head tilted back and eyes closed in a sort of reverence. It was by far one of the most creative moments I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. I also was captivated, although in the opposite sense, by McQueen’s 2001 show “Voss.” Some have called this show the triumph of his career– it is characteristically both beautiful and terrifying. The models navigated through an clinical plexiglass box (resembling a padded cell in a psychiatric hospital) separating them from onlookers and photographers, and even pressed against their barrier in a display of claustrophobia. They wore flowing dresses composed of natural materials like feathers and branches, while sporting tight cotton caps to maintain the medical theme. The sound of a pulsing heartbeat played throughout the show. At the end, a square box in the center of the larger clear box shattered to reveal a naked reclining woman, her face rendered grotesque by special effects makeup, attached to a breathing tube. Moths swarmed out, in a final display of “savage beauty.”  Models don’t merely walk the runway in the world of McQueen: they saunter, lurch, prowl and strut through the ornately designed sets. Their faces don’t display the characteristic neutral or blank expressions like other runway models: they express happiness or disgust or pain or passion. His shows were truly works of art and theater.

One of my favorite aspects of the documentary was the creative animation employed in between scenes. Skulls— McQueen’s favorite memento mori— were bejeweled or embellished in multiple eye-catching time lapses. His dark side was always present, but as McQueen became an international fashion icon and amassed great fame, his mental health and upbeat nature significantly deteriorated. He became increasingly depressed, paranoid and detached from his friends and family. The documentary closes with a haunting and emotional depiction of his final days and his suicide, spurred by the death of his beloved mother. As shown through the numerous tributes from friends, colleagues and family, it is clear he left a deep impression on the world of fashion.

Overall, I would highly recommend this documentary to any individual passionate about clothes and designers or in need of a dose of creative inspiration. ★★★★★

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