The Life and Times of Alexander McQueen

A tender new film about the fashion icon and troubled genius whose creative vision ‘started the 21st century’

The stand-out garment from Alexander McQueen’s 1992 graduation show for his MA at Central St Martins, is a precisely proportioned dress coat, cut from a shot-pink silk satin. A black thorn print runs through it like the shadow of barbed wire. McQueen had been inspired, he acknowledged grimly, by Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel murders of 1888. Installed at the record-breaking ‘Savage Beauty’ exhibition of McQueen’s work in New York at the Met in 2011 and in London at the V&A in 2015, it retains a diabolical elegance: arch, acerbic, sullen. It bears that characteristically McQueen-ish ambivalence. It is a dress-coat designed for a woman who could be both injured and injuring, scored by violence but sharpened by it too.


Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, McQueen, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Misfits Entertainment; original photograph: © Ann Ray

That coat features early on in Peter Ettedgui and Ian Bonhôte’s elegiac new film. McQueen (2018) borrows liberally from catwalk footage and home videos. The archive material is interspersed by interviews with friends and family and is set to a passionately tempestuous Michael Nyman score. As a result, it’s a film that cannot help but be beautiful and melancholic, its sadness rising like a tide as the story bends to its inexorable end. ‘I want to be the purveyor of a certain silhouette, a certain way of cutting,’ McQueen had declared, ‘so that when I am dead and gone people will know that the 21st century was started by Alexander McQueen.’ In the fashion industry, few would deny that McQueen’s astonishing creative vision did start the century and it is the cruellest irony that his suicide in 2010, aged just 40, meant that he would barely witness quite how profoundly he could shape it. 


Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, McQueen, 2018, film still (Isabella Blow and Alexander McQueen). Courtesy: Misfits Entertainment; original photograph: © Iain R. Webb

Ettedgui and Bonhôte’s film is burdened by the enduring grief of those McQueen left behind – a sister, a nephew, his friends and team, their pain often still palpable. But it’s also a film that is charged with a serious question: how could a talent like McQueen’s have come into being at all? There is a certain romance to this story. It is the rags to riches tale of an East End bad boy made good. He was a mischief-maker with an eye for provocative design, championed by style savant Isabella Blow and eventually ensconced in the elite house of Givenchy, before rebelliously breaking free of them both, determined to advance his independent vision. He was the industry’s incorrigible enfant terrible, a chubby, chain-smoking scapegrace, gleefully upturning haughty high fashion conventions, parading girls in gimp masks and slinking ‘bumsters’, setting cars alight next to collections staged in Victoria Coach Station.



Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, McQueen, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Misfits Entertainment; original photograph: © Ann Ray

The film plays up his journey, delighting in all its incongruities. The early interviews present a doughy-faced skinhead with buckteeth who jeeringly pronounces it ‘Ort Cutchure’ and stitches profanities into the linings of Savile Row suits. He cackles wickedly at the edges of the camera, a ‘hooligan with a needle’, running amok in backroom studios and elegant Parisian avenues. Ettedgui and Bonhôte make clear how deeply likeable he was, how extraordinary his gifts were, how brutal the fact of his suicide. How does a life like McQueen’s unravel? This is the film’s inevitable question, only guessed at: drugs, an HIV diagnosis, a history of childhood sexual abuse, the death of a beloved parent, exhaustion, unremitting loneliness? In the end, it is a mystery, of course. We are left, instead, with the enveloping darkness that is always intimated in the work. ‘I pull these horrors out of my soul and put it in my clothes’ he explains, almost nonchalantly, laughing in the dark.


Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, McQueen, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Misfits Entertainment; original photograph: © Gary Wallis

At its best, the film allows those clothes to speak on his behalf. The camera lovingly lingers on a collar, a sleeve, a mask, as the garments slowly rotate in velvety darkness. The designs translate effortlessly to film and it is exhilarating to examine them so close up. If the backstage tomfoolery reveals McQueen’s process as ludic and ad-hoc sometimes, it is never, ever thoughtless. His low-slung ‘bumsters’, cheaply derided by the popular press, were, he explains, studiously deliberate, lowering the waist and breaking up the proportions of the body. The ‘Highland Rape’ collection of Autumn/Winter 1995–6, referred not to the rape of women but the plundering of Scotland by English colonizers in the 18th and 19th-centuries. The film gives him the space to patiently recount how urgently that history resonated, the 20th-century genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia pressing upon his mind.


Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, McQueen, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Misfits Entertainment; original photograph: © Gary Wallis

This is a tender film about a troubled man, mostly told by the people who cared for him. It is often sorrowful and pained. To those who know the story, there are no great revelations. The film rehearses old grudges about the fallout with Blow and retells the tired controversies. But what emerges with brilliant clarity is the sheer miracle of McQueen and his unfathomable, inexplicable genius. ‘I wanted to learn everything’ he tell us at the beginning of the film, describing his early career as a tailor’s apprentice in Savile Row. ‘Give me everything’, he urged with the endless hunger of the autodidact. But everything isn’t always enough.

Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQueen (2018) is out now in select cinemas in the UK and is released in select theatres in the US on 20 July.

Main image: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, McQueen, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Misfits Entertainment; original photograph: © Ann Ray

Shahidha Bari teaches visual culture and philosophy at Queen Mary University of London, UK, and she is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s arts and ideas programme, Free Thinking. Her book, Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes is out next year.

Most Read

In further news: Glasgow School of Art to be rebuilt; Philadelphia Museum of Art gets a Frank Gehry-designed restaurant
Highlights from Condo New York 2018 and Commonwealth and Council at 47 Canal: the summer shows to see
Knussen’s music laid out each component as ‘precarious, vulnerable, exposed’ – and his conducting similarly worked from...
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘You can’t reason with him but you can ridicule him’ – lightweight as it is, Trump Baby is a win for art as a...
Anderson and partner Juman Malouf are sorting through the treasures of the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum for...
From Capote to Basquiat, the pop artist’s glittering ‘visual diary’ of the last years of his life is seen for the first...
‘When I opened Monika Sprüth Galerie, only very few German gallerists represented women artists’
Can a ragtag cluster of artists, curators and critics really push back against our ‘bare’ art world?
In further news: German government buys Giambologna at the eleventh hour; LACMA’s new expansion delayed
Gucci and Frieze present film number two in the Second Summer of Love series, focusing on the history of acid house
Judges described the gallery’s GBP£20 million redevelopment by Jamie Fobert Architects as ‘deeply intelligent’ and a ‘...
Is the lack of social mobility in the arts due to a self-congratulatory conviction that the sector represents the...
The controversial intellectual suggests art would be better done at home – she should be careful what she wishes for
Previously unheard music on Both Directions At Once includes blues as imposing as the saxophonist would ever record
In further news: Macron reconsiders artist residencies; British Council accused of censorship; V&A to host largest...
In our devotion to computation and its predictive capabilities are we rushing blindly towards our own demise?
Arts subjects are increasingly marginalized in the UK curriculum – but the controversial intellectual suggests art is...
An exhibition of performances at Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw, unfolds the rituals of sexual encounters
An art historian explains what the Carters’s takeover of the Paris museum says about art, race and power
Artist Andrea Fraser’s 2016 in Museums, Money and Politics lifts the lid on US museum board members and...
The Ruhrtriennale arts festival disinvited the Scottish hip-hop trio for their pro-Palestinian politics, then u-turned
The Baltimore’s director on why correcting the art historical canon is not only right but urgent for museums to remain...
Serpentine swimmers complain about Christo’s floating pyramid; and Hermitage’s psychic cat is a World Cup oracle: the...
The largest mural in Europe by the artist has been hidden for 30 years in an old storage depot – until now
Alumni Martin Boyce, Karla Black, Duncan Campbell and Ciara Phillips on the past and future of Charles Rennie...
In further news: po-mo architecture in the UK gets heritage status; Kassel to buy Olu Oguibe’s monument to refugees
The frieze columnist's first novel is an homage to, and embodiment of, the late, great Kathy Acker
60 years after the celebrated Brutalist architect fell foul of local authorities, a Berlin Unité d’Habitation apartment...
The British artist and Turner Prize winner is taking on the gun advocacy group at a time of renewed debate around arms...
The central thrust of the exhibition positions Sicily as the fulcrum of geopolitical conflicts over migration, trade,...
The Carters’s museum takeover powers through art history’s greatest hits – with a serious message about how the canon...
The 20-metre-high Mastaba finally realizes the artist and his late wife Jeanne-Claude’s design
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
In the age of Brexit, why Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to return the ‘stolen’ Parthenon marbles has never been...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’
US true crime series Unsolved takes two formative pop cultural events to explore their concealed human stories and...

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018