“Why the new McQueen documentary moved me to tears”

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Arabella Greenhill
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Stylist’s fashion director Arabella Greenhill met Alexander McQueen on several occasions and attended all his fashion shows. She gives her verdict on McQueen, a new documentary about his life. 

My first encounter with Alexander McQueen was when I was in my early 20s and working as a fashion assistant at Vogue. He used to come into the office to see Isabella Blow, the famously eccentric fashion editor who had discovered him. He was funny and cheeky, and had an air of confidence. I thought I had an idea of who he was, but new documentary McQueen reveals a side of the late Lee Alexander McQueen that I never knew existed.

The name Alexander McQueen conjures up many things: skull-print scarves; bumster trousers, cut to be particularly revealing; the man himself laughing arm-in-arm with Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell. When I hear his name, I think of the most memorable fashion shows I have been lucky enough to see during my 25 years working in magazines. 

Model Shalom Harlow is sprayed by robotic arms in McQueen’s s/s 1999 show

There was the chess game (s/s 2005), when the models moved as if they were pieces on a scaled-up board. His a/w 2002 show took place in a medieval vaulted hall in Paris, with a cage full of wolves giving the proceedings a sinister atmosphere. My personal favourite is the s/s 2004 collection. It was a heavily inspired by the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, where a group of desperate, Depression-era people compete for food and money in a dance marathon. McQueen opened the show with a model in a silver cocktail dress. At the end, the same model appeared still wearing the silver dress, which had become tarnished and tattered, and feigned collapse as the show closed. It was spectacular. So moving. The models, the clothes, the choreography, the theatre of it all. Even the most cynical members of the fashion press gave McQueen a standing ovation. But who was the man behind these spectacles, these dresses? McQueen attempts to find out.

It’s not just about his work and career; there are intimate revelations about this particular man, someone who struggled with the responsibilities that come with an immense talent, with his friendships, with personal tragedy, with drugs and his own inner demons.

The film is beautifully shot and edited, made up of home videos, old footage and interviews with friends and family. It pieces together his life from his graduation from Central Saint Martins, his time as a stroppy, young tailor’s apprentice on Saville Row, then to Paris couture house Givenchy and further as he became one of the most iconic fashion designers of all time, to his sad and untimely death in 2010.

For me, the highlight was reliving that incredible moment during the s/s 1999 finale of model Shalom Harlow in a white dress, being sprayed with paint by two robotic arms as she spun around on a revolving platform. I remember it so well. It was breathtaking, and more like art than fashion. What I hadn’t seen, and probably no one else in the audience saw, was McQueen standing at the back, crying.

There is no doubt McQueen was a true genius who left a profound influence on the world of fashion, but this is an emotional and mesmerising film about a man with incredible talent but a complicated, difficult life. It moved me to tears.

McQueen is in cinemas from 8 June

Images: Getty