Sequins and self-destruction: McQueen and the punishing world of high fashion

Two new documentaries, about Alexander McQueen and Studio 54, are caught between rejoicing in excess and mourning its effects. 

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Two documentaries, one set in the world of Nineties British fashion (McQueen), the other steeped in the hedonism of Seventies New York (Studio 54), overlap strikingly in their rise-and-fall accounts of pleasure, profligacy and self-destruction. McQueen unpicks, to a Michael Nyman soundtrack, the short life of the rough-and-tumble East End fashion designer who swapped his first name (Lee) for his middle name (Alexander) because it sounded “posher” – then spent the rest of his life cultivating the persona of the savage among sophisticates.

The early years, from school to Savile Row tailor’s apprentice, are dealt with briskly. A Central Saint Martins MA show draws on Jack the Ripper and attracts the attention of the style icon Isabella Blow. In no time at all, he’s practising falconry at her country pile and claiming to feel an “infinity” with the sea. “Maybe it’s because I’m Pisces,” he says, introducing a Victoria Wood note into these Peter Greenaway surroundings.

Catwalk footage charts the climb in McQueen’s ambition as he zooms from Givenchy to Gucci while fortifying his own label. A show in which models stagger along the catwalk in torn clothes with bits of shrubbery in their hair sparks accusations of misogyny until it emerges there is a confessional element: McQueen witnessed attacks on his older sister by her late husband, and was subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of the same man. Robot arms, which seem about to attack a woman dressed in white on a revolving platform, spray her instead with punky black-and-yellow stripes until she looks like a melted wasp. A giant cube opens to reveal papery moths fluttering above a large naked woman breathing through a tube. “Fat birds and moths,” notes the model in question. “Fashion’s worst nightmare.”

Various factors contributed to McQueen’s suicide, aged 40. Money bought him drugs, which temporarily masked his unhappiness. He forked out for liposuction, draining away much of his sense of identity along with the flab. The death of his mother could not be discounted (he died on the eve of her funeral) but it was overwork that seemed to seal his fate. By the end of his life, he was producing a punishing 14 collections a year. The film – released days after the American fashion designer Kate Spade was found dead in an apparent suicide – is stitched together from archive footage, home movies and new interviews with family, friends and collaborators; it is caught between rejoicing in the era’s excess and mourning its effect on the man who embodied it. We see McQueen swaggering around like a coked-up Timothy Spall in Burberry, professing not to give a flying sequin what anyone thinks. His behaviour suggests otherwise. Even contrarians and iconoclasts crave love and attention; it’s just that they measure theirs in ruffled feathers.

Studio 54 presents a more familiar narrative, festooned with well-worn images of the legendary bacchanalian nightclub: Bianca Jagger on a horse, Liza Minnelli arm-in-arm with Andy Warhol, shirtless waiters in too-short shorts, Liza and Truman Capote, bearded ballerinas, that Fat Liz photo, the demonic lawyer and Trump ally Roy Cohn with his dead eyes and bee-stung face, and oh look, here’s Liza again. If you’ve seen fictionalised retellings such as The Last Days of Disco and 54, you’ll know that the story starts with high hopes and quaaludes and fizzles out with binbags full of cash, FBI raids, prison and Aids. But despite drawing some dubious conclusions about the club’s demise, the filmmakers harvest enough novel footage to justify another airing.

The ramshackle nature of the operation is raked over amusingly. Renovations were started before building permits had been granted, just as drinks were served without a liquor licence. Only months after opening did it become clear that the balcony, site of most of the debauchery, would need to be redone with a wipe-clean surface. There’s a choice clip of co-owner Steve Rubell fashion-shaming the clubbers thronging outside: “That hat! Don’t you ever come here with that hat!” And did you know that Mick and Keith always got in for free but the other Stones had to pay? There I was thinking the club would take any Charlie it could get. 

McQueen
dir: Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui

Studio 54 (15)
dir: Matt Tyrnauer

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family