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‘McQueen’ a compelling portrait of British fashion giant

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“McQueen” is a fascinating look at the rise and fall of designer Alexander McQueen. (Courtesy Anne Ray/Bleecker Street)

Even those without a whit of interest in the fashion world should take note of “McQueen,” a richly textured profile of Alexander McQueen, the British designer and cultural force who blended the gorgeous and the gruesome to dazzling effect in his runway shows before succumbing to the downside of overwhelming success.

Directed by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, the film celebrates the creativity of McQueen, while less successfully, but with impressive intricacy and thoughtfulness, delves into his dark psyche.

Via interviews and archival materials, the film chronicles McQueen’s career, which stretched from the early 1990s to his suicide in 2010.

Lee Alexander McQueen — he was Lee to his family and the “posher”-sounding Alexander to the world — was a working-class kid from East London who adored his mother, quit school at 16, and, during an apprenticeship on Savile Row, displayed a talent for tailoring.

His fashion-school graduate collection, “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” contained the violent themes, personal touch (he inserted his own hair into garments) and emotional charge that would continue to characterize his work.

Fashion editor and style maven Isabella Blow was impressed. The filmmakers substantially cover her subsequent mentorship of McQueen and their longtime friendship, along with McQueen’s eventual distancing from her.

At 27, McQueen become chief designer at the Paris-based Givenchy house, an establishment the punky young designer deemed hoary but where his star eventually ascended. The paychecks funded his own, edgier McQueen line.

The excessive workload, along with drug abuse, crushed McQueen. He alienated longtime associates. Liposuction transformed his body into that of a virtual stranger. On the eve of his mother’s funeral, he hung himself.

As a biographical portrait, the film has weaknesses. While admirably treating McQueen’s tragedies respectfully, the filmmakers don’t present significant traumas, such as the childhood abuse of McQueen by his brother-in-law, in ways that allow for a satisfying understanding of how these experiences damaged him. And key relationships are omitted.

Yet even a subpar documentary about Alexander McQueen would likely hold one’s attention, and this film ranks far higher than that. Bonhote and Ettedgui crafted their fascinating material into a captivating, multifaceted portrait of their subject.

The interviewees — McQueen’s sister Janet, hairstylist Mira Chai Hyde and designer Sebastian Pons appear frequently — are informative and enlightening, detailing how McQueen funded his early designs with his unemployment checks, for starters. More valuable still is the video footage of McQueen’s spectacular and provocative multimedia runway shows.

These include “VOSS,” featuring a mirrored cube and a madness theme. In another clip, robots squirt ink on Shalom Harlow’s white dress. Animated skulls (a McQueen motif), changing from one chapter to another, enhance the already dramatic mood.


Three stars
Starring: Alexander McQueen, Janet McQueen, Mira Chai Hyde, Sebastian Pons
Written by: Peter Ettedgui
Directed by: Ian Bonhote, Peter Ettedgui
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

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