Review: The Personal Becomes Art in Fashion Doc McQueen

It seems as if we’re getting a documentary related to the fashion world about once every other week these days. The truth is, I’m truly enjoying the immersion into a world I know nothing about. If you watch enough of these films in a short period of time, you’ll start to see various designers, fashion writers, models and other cultural icons in each other's documentaries. It forms a more complete sense of what the industry was like over a period of decades, who influenced whom, and what movements and trends influenced each other.

McQueen Image courtesy of Bleeker Street

Plus, who doesn't want to watch a bunch of docs about something you don't know a lot about? I’m all for funneling in as much new knowledge as I can handle, even if it’s about something as frequently baffling and vapid as fashion. Nothing that I’ve seen in the last couple of years has made as much of an effort to dive into the psychological state of its subject like McQueen.

Known for frequently using skull images on his clothes and fashion shows that were more like aggressive, sometimes repulsive, performance art, Alexander McQueen began from fairly humble British, working-class roots, spending much of his younger years as a chubby kid who had a gift for design, one that was encouraged and supported by mentor Isabella Blow. Even at a young age, his skills at cutting material and tailoring were admired, making it somewhat easy for him to work his way into and up within the fashion houses of London and, impressively, to art school. But it was his sources of inspiration that were the standout features of his earliest original designs, pulling motifs from the likes of Jack the Ripper, and holding runway shows with names like “Highland Rape.” It’s a good thing McQueen subscribed to the adage that there’s no such thing as bad press.

Using interviews with many of his closest friends, business partners, and family members, as well as an impressive array of archival footage of McQueen at work and being interviewed (as evidenced in the film, he was one of the most accessible designers of his generation, with a veritable treasure trove of footage for the filmmakers to choose from), first-time feature director Ian Bonhôte and co-director Peter Ettedgui use the shocking scenes of his runway shows to make connections to some of the inner demons McQueen dealt with most of his life.

It’s interesting to see how, when he became chief designer of the fashion house Givenchy in Paris, he worked under a banner other than his own name, and his works became much more mainstream but still quite stunning. But for the portion of the year he worked fully under the McQueen name, everything from his design sketches to the final chaotic show were like a form of therapy or even an exorcism.

One of the many nice touches from the filmmakers is the inclusion of a new, hefty and powerful score by Michael Nyman, who had collaborated with McQueen before the designer's death by suicide in 2010. McQueen makes the case quite convincingly that its subject changed the face and the possibilities of fashion, by making it personal as well as stylish. He was a classic overachiever, working tirelessly to create line after line for various houses, and personally approving things every step of the way, from the production of his garments to the business end of things.

If you’re on the fence about whether fashion should be considered art, McQueen—the film and the man—makes a strong case that you’d be foolish not to.

The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.