I grew up thinking of fashion shows as rather tame, polite events, though the clothes on view could sometimes be, shall we say, on the extravagant side.
But then came Alexander McQueen, the crazy gay Englishman who broke all the rules and changed not just fashion shows but fashion itself forever. Who else would build a show around the theme “Highland Rape” and have models dressed as if they had just survived that horrific event?
McQueen considered fashion shows less selling opportunities than theatrical events. Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui give us a fascinating portrait of this “enfant terrible” of fashion in “McQueen.”
The son of working-class parents, McQueen learned to sew early and apprenticed to a tailor on Savile Row, where he showed both facility for design and tailoring and the confidence to fix an imperfect design by hacking away with the scissors rather than bothering with the niceties of measuring, careful cutting and putting back together. This tendency would drive his associates crazy – until they realized that he knew what he was doing.
He studied with Italian designer Romeo Gigli before going off to the Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, where he shocked the audience with his graduation collection called “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.” Here he met magazine editor Isabella Blow, who bought the whole collection and became his greatest supporter.
To put it mildly, his collection themes were often outrageous, frequently inspired by favorite films such as Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” in which he first exhibited his low-rise “bumster” pants.
In succeeding years, the fashion world was treated to runway firsts like Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullens, who opened the 1999 collection on a pair of artfully carved wooden prosthetic legs. The 2003 collection introduced his signature skull-print scarf.
McQueen didn’t always succeed, but this “hooligan of English fashion” wasn’t humbled when his collections weren’t reviewed positively. What they always did was attract attention, and that was the point.
“I want you to come out repulsed or exhilarated,” McQueen said. “If you have no emotional response, then I’m not doing my job.”
This singular talent created spectacular – if not outrageous – fashions, but was usually seen – even at shows – in casual jeans and a shirt.
You don’t have to care about fashion to enjoy this film. Bonhôte and Ettedgui are not out to idolize, just to let us in on an extraordinary life that ended too soon in suicide in 2010.
“McQueen” is showing at the Landmark Hillcrest until August 31.
Landmark Hillcrest is located at 3965 Fifth Avenue #200 San Diego, CA