Film

'McQueen' is another fine cut in the recent fashion of haute couture movies

A documentary about the life of designer Alexander McQueen continues the trend for films about fashion icons. But, of course, this one doesn’t have a happy ending

A documentary is released this week about the designer Alexander McQueen. It’s the latest in what is fast becoming a mini-genre of films about fashion grandees. Vivienne Westwood and Christian Dior, to name a prominent couple, have recently been measured and fitted for their own filmed portraits, and if you add to this list Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread you get the impression that haute couture movies are rolling off the production line like T-shirts in a Primark sweatshop.

That’s actually a little unfair because most of these films have their own distinctive merits – in an age of Primark and the rest, we perhaps long for the culture of unique craftsmanship that these figures of high fashion embody, hence the prevalence of such documents.

In any event, McQueen is pretty good. This is an absorbing, finely crafted, acutely sensitive depiction of the London designer. After a career of prodigious brilliance that he compares in the film to a “rollercoaster” (telling comment, this being a mode of transportation that leaves you sick), McQueen took his own life, aged just 40, eight years ago.

The approach is chronological, and mixes interviews with those who worked with McQueen with archive footage. Lee (as he was known to his family and friends) was raised by loving parents in a working-class part of East London. As a teenager he talked his way into a job apprenticing with Savile Row tailors, experience that left him with a superb understanding of the craft of fashion – especially how to create the right structure for his clothes.

At first I wished directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui had applied some of McQueen’s rigour to shaping their film. Divided into several chapters (or tapes – presumably after the ghostly extracts of home video archive of Lee that haunt the film), the movie is initially unwieldy and repetitive. But slowly themes emerge and take hold. With each tape centred on a key show in his career, we follow McQueen, from bad-boy graduate of Central Saint Martins to a stalwart of Paris fashion as creative director of Givenchy.

In his early days McQueen tried to disguise his identity from keen-eyed Job Centre officials because he was still claiming unemployment benefit

McQueen isn’t especially articulate in the archive (partly for practical reasons: in his early days he tried to disguise his identity from keen-eyed Job Centre officials because he was still claiming unemployment benefit). But you sense he was more comfortable to let the work speak for him, an impression the film allows to resonate through its careful reference to McQueen’s key shows.

Not only are these triumphant and daring pieces of spectacle, they also serve as vehicles of personal expression, especially the darker collections towards the end when McQueen was succumbing to gathering despair (exacerbated by the deaths of his mentor Isabella Blow and mother in quick succession).

1310_Film_embed_©AnnRay

Throughout the film we cut to images of a skull against a black backdrop. It’s an emblem of McQueen’s own label, but it also made me think of one of the iconic motifs of Damien Hirst, another troubled showman from the era who survived the excess of that decade and his demons in ways McQueen did not.

McQueen is ultimately a poignant and stirring tribute to the designer. If I have one criticism, then it’s the wallpaper-use of music by Michael Nyman, the composer beloved of Peter Greenaway, financial service adverts from the 1990s and (we learn) McQueen himself. Nyman’s music is great, but he’s been soundtracked to exhaustion by filmmakers – can we stop for a bit please?

McQueen is in cinemas from June 8

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