The September Issue is now over ten years old, but it is released and re-released almost monthly. The famously against-the-odds story of that film’s production – no one wanted to commission a documentary that it seemed would mostly comprise of people flicking through photo shoots for inspection – set in the course of its runaway success the mould into which its many emulators have slotted themselves. One, find some gloriously over the top figure, and make it a case study in their personality. The original was Anna Wintour, or ‘Nuclear Wintour’ as she’s known in the industry, famed base for Meryl Streep’s Miranda Preistly in The Devil Wears Prada. Two, while the film will be largely about this person, they should interact with other flamboyant types in such a way that they’ll hopefully interact with and ping off each other’s eccentricities. The combined effect is periodically fascinating, occasionally beguiling, but sometimes akin to a more consciously classy version of the formula for Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Gems like Iris have to compete with more formulaic affairs like The First Monday in May.
McQueen is, in this sense, no different. Fashion is a relative concept: you are only fashionable because someone somewhere is comparatively unfashionable, and most of the recurring characters (sorry, subjects) in this film are very self-consciously exceptional in some way. As well as McQueen himself – gobby, cheeky, working class, ‘The King of Yob Culture’ as a 1990s profile labelled him – we’re shown the life of Isabella Blow, probably his closest friend and ‘somewhere between a sister and a mother’ to him in the words of one of those interviewed in this film – also gobby and cheeky but was very much the opposite of working class. As well as occasional glimpses of industry titans like Marc Jacobs, we’re also shown Isabella’s brother, who is not seen in this film except in shirts of the most extraordinary plumage.
This is the thing though, Lee Alexander McQueen was not that working class. It’s a mark of how posh the fashion industry was, and is, that he was thought of as coming from a life of comparable destitution. He was not of immense means, but an aunt had enough saved to put him through the fashion MA course at Central Saint Martins. He’d had a relative in dressmaking and went off at 18 to become a Saville Row tailor and awaiting him was a solid, respectable career path of some social mobility of the type that used to be open to working class kids. The attitude taken towards him of those on the inside track of fashion as their personal link to a more potentially subversive underclass was adoptive, even patronising.
The film is only half capable of putting things in this perspective. We are told that he himself and those around him ‘played up’ his past but the film peddles back through its references to ‘this boy from Stratford’ and his miraculous ‘transformation’ from rags to riches.
The fashion industry dressed Alexander McQueen in this way. His life story, his occasional drug problems, his place at the centre of every party – all were co-opted and woven into supposed deeper meanings in his clothes and a consumable narrative. He was cast as a particular niche firmly placeable within the bad boy tradition and it became self-affirming. Designs that were intentionally shocking – he told one model to ‘go shove your pubes right in Anna Wintour’s face [on the front row]’ before one show – had cast onto them an entire backstory.
This film is, despite its self-awareness, part of that process. It can’t help but buffet and reinforce the image and legend of Alexander McQueen. Grainy home-cam recordings of him in 90s kitchens are intercut with images of cloth draping on skulls in reference to the famous designs we know are coming – an early life tailored to be nothing more than a prelude.
We’re continually told by interviewees who aren’t McQueen what clothes and their design meant to him in this film. Apparently, they were variously his escape, an expression of his pain, and his catharsis. You start to wonder if those around him were constantly digging through his personality until they supposedly found the last little doll inside him that would ‘unlock’ the secret of his clothes. But there is no casual explanation – fashion was his life. At one point, he was designing 14 collections a year, working incredibly long days (fuelled, in more panicked moments, only with regular dosages of cocaine) and collapsing most nights, fully clothed, into bed or onto sofas. He was a dense, complicated man, and this is expressed in his clothes.
The rapidity of the industry, with shows coming twice a year and each one demanding a bigger set piece than the last, had a kind of natural escalation to it. The visual presentation of the subject in this way is jarring: he went from walking on at the end of shows as a slightly chubby, half-shaven, trainers wearing kind of guy to the lipo-suctioned white suit wearing phenomena that he became.
This brings me to my second problem with the film: this tendency can, if treated badly, lend itself to a narrative mania which culminates in a teleological presentation of his death. The film does not explicitly state that his life was imbued with the characteristics of tragedy, but it comes close. And it’s worth chastening anything approaching this (even if it was maybe unintentional on the filmmaker’s part) because his suicide was not inevitable. It came about because of the quick-fire death of the two women he was closest to – his mother and Isabella – the latter dead by cancer before she was even fifty, as well as the stress around the most difficult (and by far the best) show of his life in ‘Plato’s Atlantis’ – where he created a new silhouette. Any presentation of his life somehow spiralling in dramatic mania is problematic and, unfortunately for the filmmaker, irresistible. But it’s not the truth, the life of McQueen was un-prosaic and inelegant, messy and coarse. This documentary tries to tell this series of events and when this feeling comes through is when this film is genuinely and touchingly moving. But ultimately, the film cannot get away from the fact that it is catatonically obsessed, not with the man, but with the legend, of Alexander McQueen.