Raw talent. Sartorial splendor. Passion and rebellious spirit, breaker all the rules: words inevitably fail with Alexander McQueen, the brilliant British designer who revolutionized Fashion and its establishment. His life and complex persona is portrayed in the new documentary, McQueen. Directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, the film is an ode to the prodigal son from a modest family who dared uproot conservative dogmas and whose influence is just starting to be fully understood.
A prolific and complex genius, Lee Alexander McQueen, aka “Lee,” drew from obscure childhood fantasies while equally mining the depths of a life-spanning imagination to reinvigorate a tiring medium, addressing all-the-while the alienation of women in the Western sphere. Staring at a glory he perceived in fast decline, staring perhaps at a less conceived yet swiftly oncoming death, he sculpted his ethereal iconography into his clothes and the spectacular mise-en-scene of his sexually-charged runway shows. The skull became his trademark, ever present during the display of opulent mixture of staged theater, music, history, art and macabre fantasy.
Steering away from sensationalism, McQueen delves into the master’s psyche, interweaving tender flashbacks to his childhood and never-before-seen footage of his personal life, while also deconstructing his obsession and unbridled drive for perfection. Divided into five chapters, the story delicately balances interviews and candid videos from family, close friends and collaborators while mixing in appropriate and fiery bouts of creativity and sumptuous runway footage to create a whole that no less informs as it satisfies.
A “nightmare student” who excelled at his task while under the wings of Bobby Hillson (founder of the Saint Martin’s School of Art MA Fashion), a rebel with a punk attitude who wrote “Fuck You, Romeo” on the lining of a jacket for Romeo Gigli, Lee broke into fashion with cheap materials at hand and could barely afford food even while flying a Concorde at the demand of Richard Avedon to fit his cellophane dress on Sharon Stone.
Controversy trailed him, and while critics burned him at the stake for his initial show Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims, he soon stepped in and never left the limelight. In sharp contrast to the “fake” history of Vivienne Westwood, he honored his newly found Scottish heritage with the provocative Highland Rape. He mastered technology and art in a grand spectacle of industrial robots spray-painting the white virginal dress of ecstatic model Shalom Harlow. “I don’t want,” he told us, “a show where you come out feeling like you’ve just had Sunday lunch. I want you to come out either feeling repulsed or exhilarated.”
McQueen left an indelible mark on an industry pushing the designer’s limits to the brink. When the excitement of working at Givenchy brutally mixed with too many shows, too much pressure, drugs and partying took their toll. McQueen, despite his alienating and flamboyance never lost touch with his roots. He returns in the documentary to his onetime countryside home to realistically weigh the superficiality of Fashion. The sudden death of his mother Joyce and his best friend Isabella Blow provoked a detonating cocktail for a mind always on the brink of the unimaginable.
Alexander McQueen’s 1995 Autumn/Winter collection, Highland Rape
Cynthia Biret: Was it challenging to make a film portraying such an icon?
Ian Bonhôte: Making a film about McQueen is like making a film about Churchill; he has a strong presence in the history in England, and everyone knows him. When we first approached his family, they declined participating in the film. But we approached them again a few years later and assured them that we would steer away from sensationalism and be very respectful of his life.
Biret: The emotions were very palpable in the film — pretty much everyone interviewed talked about McQueen from an emotional level. How did you build his persona for this story?
Bonhôte: We never treated the film as a simple documentary. We always had the intention to build it like a movie. So all the people we interviewed are like characters in a film, with the difference that we did not give them specific roles or put words in their mouths. When we went through rushes, we identified how everyone would tell the story not only in terms of giving us information but also in terms of what sort of emotional reaction we would get from each person. Then we stitched the stories from these different situations together in a certain way. For instance, some of the contributors talked about a special moment in their life with McQueen, and we backed it up with archives from other interviews.
Biret: How did you decide on whom to interview?
Peter Ettedgui: This was a big decision because we wanted people who were genuinely close to him; not necessarily household names as we see in every other film popping up about fashion. We wanted the people who knew him, lived with him, loved him, and worked with him; and the rapport that he had with these people was very powerful, very strong. You end up feeling his loss in their lives, as well as the joy of their memories with him.
Biret: The storyline helps us go deeper and deeper into his mind, deconstructing a fashion icon.
Bonhôte: We use a lot of storytelling tricks that you find in narratives, such as flashbacks, and sometimes our documentary can just move quietly forward with the story hidden in its seams.
From McQueen’s graduation collection at Central St. Martins, 1992: Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims
Biret: His sensationalism made headlines early on, and women had a very strong presence in his show. His original show, Jack The Ripper Stalks His Victims, with models looking like they just fled a rape scene, was torn apart by the critics.
Ettedgui: He brought both his angels and his demons to the runway. He pushed the limits of everything.
Biret: He was accused of misogyny but once said, “I’ve seen a woman get nearly beaten to death by her husband. I know what misogyny is. I hate this thing about fragility and making women feel naïve . . . I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.”
Ettedgui: He was building his clothes to shield them.
Shalom Harlow as The Ballerina, from McQueen’s 1999 Spring/Summer collection, “No. 13,” i.e. his 13th collection.
Biret: The scene where he boldly cuts the pants of a beautiful Givenchy design to transform it into a bodysuit shows his irreverence towards the precepts of the fashion establishment, which was a breath of fresh air during the era of Cool Britannia.
Ettedgui: At that time, everything was beige and black.
Bonhôte: He transcended the fashion industry. A lot of people follow seasons, and obviously he brought in the element of seasons into his designs, but he never followed the themes or the trends imposed by fashion. He didn’t care about that. Instead, he focused on a moment, on something that inspired him or something that inspired his own life. He took his inspiration from everywhere, would it be music or the theme of a movie.
Biret: His silhouettes revolutionized the runway. His imagination brought to life grotesque creatures with a dramatic mise-en-scène, and he never shied away from provocation.
From the 2001 Spring/Summer “Voss” collection, showing some of McQueen’s classic silhouettes
The final unveiling in the 2001 Spring/Summer “Voss” collection
Bonhôte: He created very strong silhouettes. You could recognize a McQueen pretty much from the silhouette, and it could be very different from one season to the next, even radically different.
Ettedgui: He created five or six silhouettes, while Coco Chanel did two, and Yves Saint Laurent had three.
Biret: We discover his genius with the connection between the chapters of his life and the stories he created for the runway.
Ettedgui: McQueen would always say, “If you want to know me, look at my work.” We always knew that if we wanted to be truthful to him we had to make a film that was profoundly emotional, because his shows were telling stories that were conveying emotions.
Biret: McQueen used the iconic skull in many of his creations, and it also became his trademark. Did you incorporate this emblem into the narrative as to commemorate death as his creative catalyst?
Bonhôte: He wasn’t obsessed with death. He found interesting inspiration within the macabre, within that iconography. He wanted people to feel something, to provoke an emotion with the clothes.
Biret: The skull appears at the start of each chapter, symbolizing his apogee and signaling his downfall. How did you build this stunning visual?
Bonhôte: We worked with his nephew, Gary James McQueen, for the design of the skull. We created the poster originally in 3D and we had to restructure it to create a real life mold of it; so basically towards the end of his life and it’s covered with flowers dying, we used real flowers and let them fade away. Lee actually used flowers as an inspiration: He often had roses in his environment, so we felt that by doing a stop frame animation of flowers dying, it would become a beautiful metaphor of many things. It originally wasn’t precisely going where it is in the film, and we found the real placement after we shot it and matched it with the right moment in the film.
Biret: By using different mediums, from archival footage to interviews and 3D imagery, are you aiming to project McQueen’s approach to his runway shows, creating a multi dimensional experience?
Bonhôte: We always wanted to potentially emulate creativity so we could guess what Lee would have done. We always wanted to push our boundary and to mix things that were digitally creative with reality.
Biret: What was the determining factor to work with Michael Nyman’s music?
Ettedgui: McQueen was very good friend with Michael Nyman, who is a celebrated film composer. And he actually worked with Nyman when he was composing music for his shows, sowe decided that it would be wonderful to have Michael Nyman’s music as the backdrop for the film. They were very close because both are rooted in tradition in their creativity, but they are also mold breakers.
Michael Nyman, “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” from the McQueen soundtrack
Biret: McQueen had originally chosen Sarabande music for the hologram with Kate Moss, but later changed his mind to incorporate the score from Schindler’s list. Yet in the film you are reverting back to Sarabande for that scene.
Ettedgui: This film is an homage to him, to his multi facetted personality.
Biret: The story points to a close connection between the loss of his friend Isabella Blow and his mom with his ultimate downfall.
Ettedgui: There is no doubt that these tragedies had a strong influence to his death.
Biret: Interestingly enough, you are not portraying him as a victim.
Bonhôte: All of us are fragile, and people coming from a middle class family can be very proud, and I always felt that he was in charge of his destiny, all the way up to the end.
Biret: What is the appeal of this film for a general audience?
Ettedgui: This is a universal story about an extraordinary person who came from a very ordinary background, and it’s a story that is everything I hope he would want from a movie because we all have emotions that take us to places we’ve never before been and shows us things that we’ve never before seen. I think it’s a real sort of roller coaster ride. It has dark aspects to it. It also has a great deal of laughter and joy in it. We really wanted to make a film that people could experience and live the story.
Bonhôte: One last thing: I think it’s very important that people come to the film knowing they don’t have to know or learn anything about McQueen, and that they would actually be going on an emotional journey.