Directors: Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui
Screenwriter: Peter Ettedgui
Gary James McQueen
Runtime: 111 mins.
Australian release date: 6 September 2018
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 23 August 2018.
In a country where class is everything, Lee Alexander McQueen, a boy from the rough-edged East End of London, only ever wanted to design clothes and used his dole money to buy fabric. A strange choice, you might think, but this act alone showed how dedicated he was to the art of fashion. Being the youngest of six children from a working-class background, the expectation was to take up a trade, but not of this type, more a plumber or a bricklayer, or even follow in the footsteps of his father and become a cabbie. Instead, he smashed the conventional fashion barriers of the period, much as his predecessors had done on Carnaby Street in the ‘60s, and developed a career as one of the most influential and original designers of the 20th Century. His vision was as unconventional as the ‘Cool Britannia’ 1990’s era of which he was a significant part.
He began his career as an apprentice with a Savile Row tailor and it was there that his skill was first noticed. His technique of measuring was quite unique, almost as if he could ‘see’ a design rather than physically ‘size’ it, and he impressed many of the old guard. As director Bonhôte states, “He really was a kind of genius and extraordinary to watch work. That’s what we wanted to capture. A bolt of cloth, a piece of chalk and an unerring ability to assess measurements, produced trousers or a jacket almost instantly. He was a little like Mozart in Amadeus, an obsessive genius running on raw energy and instinct. There was something not quite civilized about him.” He was encouraged to enter the fashion design course at the highly regarded St. Martins College and his entire graduation collection was bought by the influential fashionista Isabella Blow. On first meeting him, Blow recognised his talent, they bonded and under her patronage he made all the right connections and it was Blow who convinced him to use the name Alexander. Regrettably, they grew apart later but she undoubtedly had a great influence on him. In 1996 McQueen was appointed to head up the Givenchy haute couture fashion house, before going on to establish his own label, which was ultimately bought by Gucci. It was during this period that he won the British Designer of the Year four times.
Initially McQueen didn’t fit the stereotypical expectation of a person in the fashion industry; he was quite large and dressed like an ordinary ‘bovver’ boy from the streets. It was only when he became more successful that he changed on a number of levels, including physically. His anarchic shows like Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims and Highland Rape - where his models wore designs that emulated the titles - brought him into the public eye and made people aware of this brilliant but tortured soul; McQueen spoke quite candidly about his style of design and the controversy his shows would cause. The inevitable drug use and subsequent loss of weight went hand-in-hand with his new-found fame and he became known as the enfant terrible of the British fashion world.
Ian Bonhôte and his co-director Peter Ettedgui have encapsulated the period of McQueen’s life through the peaks and troughs, from start to finish. There are many down-to-earth interviews with members of his family and friends and much time is given to his relationship with the fabulously eccentric Blow, his gal-pal and confidante. These contemporary interviews expose a real depiction of the man and his demons and are intercut with archival footage of him at work and his theatrical catwalk shows, and together they make compelling viewing. Cinzia Baldessari’s editing is a treat. Another plus is the instantly recognizable music of British composer Michael Nyman. The downside of the doco is the holes in parts of McQueen’s story, eg. His earlier life could have been fleshed out more, his artistic collaborations with musicians like Bjork and Bowie are largely ignored, and why did he leave Givenchy so abruptly?
McQueen is not only a fashion documentary but a story about a gifted individual who had not only talent, but the courage to come out, gay and proud. As we all know, McQueen took his own life in 2010 and you wonder if this was a skewed way of taking control of his life, at a time when he felt like he was losing control. We’ll never know and McQueen leaves us in the dark.