2018 is proving a banner year for the fashion documentary. For the first time in its 20-year history, the Docaviv Film Festival in Tel Aviv devoted an entire strand to the subgenre last month, showcasing sensitive new films about Cecil Beaton, Martin Margiela and Vivienne Westwood. But it was Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQueen that proved the festival’s standout fashion film. This portrait of the late British trailblazer is by turns flamboyant, darkly funny, melodramatic and devastating — a pretty spot-on reflection of its subject, then. Candid interviews with the designer’s relatives, friends, lovers and collaborators are elegantly interwoven with haunting archive footage of Lee Alexander McQueen himself and clips from his most provocative runway shows, all set to a suitably bombastic orchestral score by composer Michael Nyman. While the film inevitably covers well-trodden ground — from his chaste love affair with blue-blooded fashionista Isabella Blow to his battles with drug addiction — it adds depth and nuance to stories more commonly conveyed by salacious tabloid headlines. Here, ahead of the film’s UK release, we consider some of McQueen’s most compelling insights.
He turned his weaknesses into strengths
As a working-class lad making inroads into London’s elitist fashion industry in the early ’90s, McQueen was frequently greeted with raised eyebrows on account of his East End accent and dishevelled appearance. Bobby Hillson, founder of the MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins (CSM), was baffled when he showed up at her office to ask for a position. “I saw this very shabby, very unattractive… boy with a bundle of clothes over his arm”. But despite harbouring superficial prejudices, she concedes that “the whole thing intrigued me”, and found herself offering him a place on her prestigious programme, despite the fact that he had no relevant qualifications.
McQueen swiftly realised that his outsider status could be played to his advantage in an industry where people are tripping over themselves to make exciting new discoveries. Later in the film, we hear him admit, “I really worked that East End yob (angle), this juxtaposition between a hooligan and someone that uses a needle. People couldn’t fathom it … it was a breath of fresh air.”
Working as a fabric cutter opened his eyes to fashion as an art form
Designer John McKitterick gave McQueen an early career leg-up by employing him as a fabric cutter at his brand, Red or Dead. While he’s quick to emphasise that his protégé was very much a self-made success, McKitterick does take credit for schooling McQueen in one vital area: “When I said to him that the Space Baby collection was based on the anniversary of men landing on the moon he was like ‘what?’ He didn’t know that you could take a subject that had no relation to clothing, and get inspiration from that to design clothing. He didn’t understand this idea of visual research or historic references.”
McKitterick affectionately recalls McQueen as “a sweet boy from the East End looking to make money … He listened continually to Sinead O’Connor, which was quite odd because no-one else liked Sinead O’ Connor at that time!”
He was often underestimated by friends and colleagues
Perhaps because he was so adept at passing himself off as an “East End yob”, McQueen continually exceeded the expectations of his peers, particularly in class-obsessed London. McKitterick was astonished by his tenacity and self-belief. “All the designers in Italy were opening diffusion lines, so he went (there) with no language, no place to stay, no money, no qualifications. I thought, ‘Within a week he’ll be back with his tail between his legs.’ A week later … I get a call from Lee — he’d landed a job as an assistant to Romeo Gigli. To say I was shocked was an understatement!”
McQueen’s friend and agent Alice Smith recalls, with similar incredulity, his proclamation that he was going to produce a collection whilst living on unemployment benefits: “I remember thinking, ‘How on earth is he going to have a business? He has … no wherewithal, no studio, nobody to support him …’ And yet he was determined, this is what he was going to do.”
He upset the established order at Givenchy
When McQueen was appointed head designer at Givenchy in 1996, at the tender age of 27, he inhabited the world of haute couture entirely on his own terms. Much has been made of his uneasy relationship with the house, and the mixed reactions to the work he produced for them, but the film emphasises the positive impact he had on Givenchy’s hierarchical culture. Assistant designer Sebastian Pons recalls McQueen being horrified to discover that lowlier employees were prohibited from entering the atelier. “From that day on, Lee wanted to see the person who had worked with the garment, and I think they loved that”. Similarly, his insistence on eating in the staff canteen was greeted as a radical symbolic gesture. Pons remembers that “when we went down there, the people were flipping out, they couldn’t believe it. They treated Lee like a king, but he … wanted to behave like a regular person”.
He almost (literally) razed London’s fashion industry to the ground
Reeling from negative reviews of his debut Givenchy collection, McQueen returned to London in early 1997 to prepare for his eponymous show. With his critical mauling leaving him feeling like a wounded gazelle, the “It’s a Jungle Out There” collection saw the young upstart shake off the airs and graces he’d affected in Paris, and reconnect with his animalistic side. For the launch show, McQueen’s team constructed a kind of urban hellscape within the dingy confines of a pre-gentrified Borough Market, complete with burnt-out cars and fire pots. Model Jodie Kidd recalls that the event “was crazy, people literally were fighting to see the catwalk”. At one point, someone kicked over a fire pot, sending a car up in flames. The crowd thought this was part of the show, and McQueen, Kidd explains, revelled in the ensuing chaos: “He was like, ‘Don’t you fucking dare go out there with fire extinguishers!’” Luckily, one crew member ignored this unhinged order, and put the fire out. In the words of model Debra Shaw, “had that not been rectified… all the top fashion editors and models would have been history!”
He was a self-serving businessman
The film posits that McQueen built his empire through a combination of ingenious resourcefulness and exploitative behaviour. During his early days as a CSM graduate, he crafted entire collections from whatever materials he was able to afford with dole money — in one archive clip, Isabella Blow proudly boasts, “You could give Alexander £500 and he could produce 30 pieces of clothing”. But he also worked his gregarious charm to ride the coattails of talented peers. Friend and agent Alice Smith, who roped her boyfriend in to design the McQueen logo, recalls, “He was fantastic at getting people to do a phenomenal amount of work for him, and we were never, ever paid!”
Later, we hear Tom Ford explain why he felt compelled to poach McQueen from Givenchy for Gucci in 2001: “He is poet and commerce united, because he’s very practical. He understands that you can express whatever you like on the runway, but you have to have something beautiful on the hanger to sell to a store.”
His personal and professional lives became fatally intertwined
It’s been well-documented that McQueen exorcised his demons on the runways, and the film confirms the veracity of several troubling stories that circulated in the wake of his death, such as the fact that his divisive 1995 “Highland Rape” collection was partly “inspired” by the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his brother-in-law. But while this approach to work may have initially proven cathartic to the tortured designer, those close to him suggest that, in his final years, the boundaries between his personal and professional lives had totally dissolved. The haunting image we’re left with is of a drug-addled, paranoid, lonely individual, constantly reliving childhood traumas in order to live up to his reputation as fashion’s prince of darkness. Sebastian Pons explains that he even envisaged his suicide as the finale to a runway show:“He said to me ‘I’ve designed my last collection … when the show ends this box is gonna come out from the ground with me inside, and then I’m just gonna shoot myself.’ He sounded so convinced. He thought the whole fashion system was against him.”
McQueen is in UK cinemas from June 8, 2018.