Alexander McQueen, Kate Moss
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… a powerhouse film
Close up, the camera lingers on a richly decorated skull, butterflies, bird feathers and snakeskin, motifs that are at once primal and cultured, like details from a Jacobean painting with its connotations of death and mortality. This is the opening sequence of McQueen, a stunning, immersive documentary by Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, filmmakers at the top of their game and a passionate interest in celebrating the creative genius of fashion’s iconoclast, Lee Alexander McQueen.
The film documents McQueen’s journey, starting as the youngest of six children to a taxi driver father, He left school at 16 to apprentice himself on Savile Row then to Japanese designer Koji Tatsuno. When his talent was recognised by London’s prestigious St Martins School of Art, a relative paid his fees. A teacher from that time comments,
“He had no formal education so he was open, discovering everything like a sponge.”
The opportunities seem incredible for someone with no money, background or connections, but the film shows us that, every step of the way, McQueen’s extraordinary talent and thirst to learn rapidly opened doors. His undeniable gift was a prodigious and hard-working skill in the craft of making clothes, and he used that craft to express his own obsessions.
His show ‘Jack the Ripper stalks his Victims’ (1992) fused the violent history of east end London with outrageous couture. Stylist and cultural trailblazer Isabella Blow said she had never seen clothes move like that, and bought the whole collection. McQueen had erupted onto the catwalk in the way he was to continue. His shows were more theatre than runway with a blend of pageantry, social comment and surrealist art that was shocking and exciting. “You can be repulsed or exhilarated but if you don’t come out with an emotional reaction then I haven’t done my job,” McQueen says in one of the pieces of video footage threaded throughout the film.
What sets this documentary apart is a five act structure based around McQueen’s key collections. The device is compelling as we watch the designer’s creative trajectory, outdoing himself every time, each show more provocative than the last.
The assured narrative gives us a taste of why McQueen was considered a genius. Well cut footage from shows like ‘Highland Rape’ and ‘It’s a jungle out there’, documented from conception to catwalk, brings us some of the excitement of McQueen’s lavish, daring clothes that subvert fashion as much as applaud it.
McQueen’s sexuality brought influences from the ‘90s club scene and fetish, adding to his romantic identification with Scottish ancestry, and trauma from early sexual abuse and domestic violence. Everything was expressed in his creations.
Bonhote and Ettedgui are particularly well placed to handle this documentary of the fashion genius. Bonhote is a veteran of fashion and music films, while Ettedgui has several documentaries under his belt, including Listen to me Marlon and George Best: All by Himself. More specifically he had a lifelong connection to the fashion world and personal experience of the 1990s London scene.
It’s exciting to see McQueen’s story handled by filmmakers who bring their own strong energy and creative vision. You sense they really ‘get’ what McQueen was about and though they don’t shy away from his personal struggles and failings, they keep the overriding perspective on the designer’s talent and legacy.
In spite of his success McQueen was bread line poor until the fashion house of Givenchy, seeking to revitalise its brand, brought him on as couturier. It was a true ‘rags to riches’ moment for the 28-year-old. Suddenly he had massive status and budget.
McQueen tended to draw in people who could keep up with the punishing work demands and who he could rely on for emotional support. Some of these key people are interviewed in the film, and all express what excitement and fun they had, in the beginning at least. They gave hugely in terms of unpaid work, but their gratitude for the ride he took them on is palpable.
The filmmakers managed a coup when they were able to bring in McQueen’s sister Janet and nephew Gary as voices that anchor the designer’s family relationships and personal demons firmly in the narrative.
The alliance with Givenchy was a massive turning point. The first show wasn’t a success, though filmed scenes of the catwalk for the gold themed ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ are lavish and beautiful. McQueen buckled, employing his gifted craft to create ensuing collections, while building his own label from the money earned.
It was the McQueen collections, unrestricted by mainstream dictates, where his genius exploded. ‘It’s a jungle out there’ was a repost to the Givenchy rules as models prowled and growled like wild animals down the catwalk and a car burst into flames. “He was living his dream,” says his sister.
Video clips of McQueen have him mention how close he was to his dark side. He could pour the violence and romance of his inner world into public expression through his art.
The film shows how McQueen didn’t like the celebrity, and was basically shy except with friends. With the money came drugs, especially cocaine. Commentary by friends and video footage of McQueen show a rapid personality change. One commentator says he was shocked at the increasing paranoia and aggression. He transformed from the chubby, funny young boy to a skinnier figure in a Comme des Garçon suit, becoming something he didn’t want to be. He was increasingly more obsessive, working everyone to exhaustion. According to the people closest to him, including hair stylist Chai-Hyde and assistant Sebastian Pons, ‘none of it was fun anymore’.
Yet the genius was unstinting. The show ‘Voss’ (2001) looked directly at madness, with disintegrating clothes, models performing like asylum inmates and culminating with a naked model revealed inside a glass prism as butterflies swarm around her. The girl in the box was writer Michelle Olley and she points to the subversive nature of what McQueen was doing. “A fat girl and moths? It’s fashion’s worst nightmare isn’t it?”
Tom Ford comments that McQueen’s gift was in creating incredible conceptual work but also knowing how to create clothes to put on a hanger, a ‘blend of poetry and commerce’. It was Ford that brought McQueen onto the Gucci label in 2000.
Apart from the footage from the shows that make McQueen required viewing on the big screen, there are fascinating captures of the designer sculpting garments on a model with astonishing skill, ‘a magician’ as Pons described him.
‘Plato’s Atlantis’ was his last show, the one he was most personally satisfied with. It had themes of surveillance and paranoia, and the notion that we come from the land back into the sea. As a commentator noted, he loved the ocean and scuba diving, it was like going back to the womb, escapism from the pressures that he couldn’t relinquish. His sister recounts how he felt responsible for the fifty people he employed in his fashion house.
By then he had been awarded Designer of the Year four times and a CBE, but Pons describes how McQueen was so lost that he talked about killing himself onstage as a finale to ‘Plato.’. He was HIV positive, Isabella Blow, the mentor he had loved and rejected, had suicided with cancer. The dark side of his own past and trauma caught up with him and his mother’s death seemed to be the tipping point. He hung himself on the eve of her funeral. He was just 40 years old and arguably the most prestigious and notorious designer in history.
Wrapping up such a powerhouse film isn’t easy. The documentary could have ended with the last frame of McQueen disappearing through a doorway, but the filmmakers chose to add a montage of interview clips and fashion footage that celebrate the designer’s creative genius. We are reminded of his legacy, an unparalleled and subversive artistic vision, and how in spite of the madness and exploitation, his friends and associates wouldn’t have missed the ride for anything.