While a movie can’t quite capture the Stendahl Syndrome-level excitement of the Met experience, this thrilling, lushly appointed documentary is the next best thing.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2011 exhibition Savage Beauty, a posthumous survey of work by British fashion designer Alexander McQueen (1969-2010), was so dramatically staged that it played out more like live theater or cinema than a mere art show, and that spectacle contributed to the exhibition’s blockbuster success. By that measure, McQueen, a loving, vivid profile by directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, should by all rights be a box office smash. While a movie can’t quite capture the Stendahl Syndrome-level excitement of the Met experience, this thrilling, lushly appointed documentary is the next best thing.
McQueen was the son of a taxi driver and schoolteacher, who despite their modest means were supportive of what may have seemed the frivolous passion of a boy who liked to sketch clothes in his schoolbooks from an early age. His mum told him to go ahead and look for work on Savile Row, the London street known for bespoke tailoring; “They could either say yes, or no.” They said yes, but the designer’s future was far beyond such traditional-minded threads, even though the young designer often dressed like a sloppy frat boy (he was still dismissed as “the king of yob couture”).
This unassuming artist created extraordinary work, gleefully breaking the rules with unforgettable (and, at times, seemingly unwearable) clothing. With cheeky imagination, he could take 10 pounds worth of material and make something magic out of it, all while he was living on baked beans. Aware of his self-mythologizing, McQueen punctuates this sad tale by playing an imaginary violin. That’s part of his gift–more than perhaps anyone else, this was a designer who could tell a story—and tell it with clothes.
What kinds of stories can you tell with a runway show? As seen in one of his earliest successes, McQueen told of Jack the Ripper, through designs that honored their Victorian predecessors and exploded them with gothic violence. With the controversial line called Highland Rape, McQueen remembered the brutalization of his Scottish ancestors. One of his most notorious runway shows revolved around a model who was circled by robots that splattered her billowing white gown with bold streaks of paint. The designer explains that this was one show that made him break down and cry, which may seem completely ludicrous; but even as a video loop in one of the more densely-packed galleries in the Savage Beauty installation, the footage of this spectacle was inexplicably moving.
McQueen is edited with quick rhythms that veer in and out of vintage clips, contemporary talking heads and animated segues based on the skull that was the designer’s signature motif. It helps enormously that it’s scored by the same composer who collaborated on the McQueen’s runway shows—Michael Nyman, whose melodramatic minimalism lent an air of brooding elegance to films by Peter Greenaway. Much like such Greenaway films as A Zed and Two Noughts, McQueen conveyed a dark, stylized Grand Guignol invention, but with a great freedom and raw hunger, the kind of spontaneous fervor that would spot a roll of plastic wrap in the studio and decide on an impulse to wrap up one of his models in the sheer material, run a zipper down the back and send her out on the runway – and make it look fantastic.
“I don’t want to do a show that you walk out feeling like you just had Sunday lunch. I want you to come out either feeling repulsed or exhilarated. As long as it’s an emotion. If you leave without emotion, then I’m not doing my job properly.” That’s how McQueen summed up his approach. Fortunately, the makers of this affecting portrait have likewise done their job.