From East End to High End

By Jason Solomons

Here’s a dazzling documentary portrait of the east London lad who shot through 90s London fashion like a comet, trailing brilliance and darkness behind. It’s stitched together like a Savile Row suit, a filmic nod, perhaps, to McQueen’s own apprenticeship and tailoring thereafter, a documentary with the sort of dramatic, violent, semi-tragic flamboyance Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen poured into his own catwalk shows. Using offcuts, fragments and friends, the film charts a dizzying path to success – and how hard that is to sustain in fashion. By 2010, McQueen was burned out and suicidal at 40, and if this movie comes with anything like a message, it’s the frenetic demands on modern creative genius.

It can be a noisy, brooding, narcissistic mix – acquaintances and ex-lovers, family members and co-workers, models and media all chime in with opinion and memory, and there’s plenty of footage of Lee (that’s what everyone calls him – ‘Alexander’ was an affectation, because his mentor Isabella Blow thought it sounded ‘posher’) himself prancing about, whooping, enjoying his courtiers, loving his craft and sounding arrogant but brilliant: ‘My shows are about sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. It’s for the excitement and the goosebumps. I want heart attacks. I want ambulances.’

To run through the whole film would be to spoil it for those who don’t know the full trajectory of his short life and career, from Savile Row apprentice at 16, to head of French fashion house Givenchy and pioneer of his own brand and label, known perhaps more for the drama and theatrics of his shows than for the actual clothes. The filmmakers – Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui – weave a stylish thesis haunted by McQueen’s signature skull motifs, told in chapters (or ‘tapes’). The use of graphics to illustrate chronology and the filling in of an unconventional CV are used, I think, to reflect McQueen’s rejection of the normal.

There are moments when you think he’s not an enfant terrible, he’s just a very naughty boy trying to shock. The Highland Rape show still doesn’t work for me, even if I do learn here of McQueen’s own exposure to abuse, but when it all comes together with a glint of mischief and a blurt of anger, the results are glorious. McQueen at his best digs deep into what fashion can mean, often by stripping bare its soul – and his.

I’ve often struggled to understand the lasting legacy of McQueen. There isn’t an iconic piece or a trend you could call his that has endured and influenced – his brand is far more successful and wearable now that he’s gone, his legacy more as a showman of Savage Beauty (to borrow the title of the blockbuster exhibition at the V&A that sealed his reputation) than as a designer of clothes anyone can wear. True, there are moments of self-absorption from McQueen and self-pity from colleagues and relatives still choking on tears as they remember those times. Perhaps the film could have done with more softness, but he seems to have made himself difficult to love, apart from to his cherished mum, joyce. 

Oh those east end boys. But on the whole, this is an excellent, often thrilling film, not too chiding about drug abuse or too mawkish in its handling of death. It’s all chivvied along by one of composer Michael Nyman's most dynamic scores in ages. Like a cinematic cape, it reveals an era of can-do energy and youthful arrogance, as well as its subject’s passion and his fire, his use of fashion’s power as performance and story. ‘If you want to know me, look at my work,’ he says. McQueen created clothes for effect and this film frames them as an extension of the human soul in all its incandescent ambition and all its fragile, flammable self-destruction.