There are many elements to this documentary of the late fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen that we expect but the one thing that makes it stand out from the rest is its beauty.
Sure there are erratically shot home movies to show some background and the interview footage is standard fare but the scenes of McQueen’s shows, for his own label (becoming Alexander McQueen because it sounded more fitting) and when he designed for Givenchy and Gucci, are spectacular. Veteran film critic Roger Ebert said: “I can’t stress enough how jaw-droppingly beautiful this feature is.”
A stand out scene is when a model in a white dress stands on a spinning turntable with robots gyrating on either side. The machines begin to spray paint in citron and black onto the dress and the result is just another astounding McQueen pattern. Directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui have used significant amounts of footage from his catwalk productions and these highlight the film.
The colour, originality and production are so exciting and even more impressive when it is revealed that in the busy years the enfant terrible designer was staging 14 of these a year. To a layman, not schooled in fashion design, art, sculpture or theatre production, it was mind blowing that each show could be so different, so professional and so entertaining. More impressive was the speed with which these productions would have had to be put together.
But with the originality there was also darkness, something McQueen had in spades. Much is made of Lee McQueen having been abused as a child by his brother-in-law and there are elements of his demons inhabiting the work. Murder, rape, and insanity are just some of the themes he chose to background his catwalk collections.
These were staged for about 18 years until McQueen took his own life at 40. It was the night before his mother’s funeral. McQueen’s life was an intense pressure of work, cocaine (sadly only affordable once he became a success) and responsibility to his devoted staff. Without his mother – and elements of his family played a strong part in the designer’s life – it became too much.
Lee McQueen grew up in humble circumstances. He drew dress designs during every class he took at school, only enjoying art. Without job prospects, he took his mother’s advice and sought an apprenticeship at Savile Row. There he learned to cut. After a couple of other fashion jobs, he ventured to Italy, penniless, no job offers and unable to speak Italian. Within days in Milan he had a job cutting for Romeo Gigli. Returning to London he talked his way into Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Famous graduates include Stella McCartney, John Galliano, Paul Smith ….and Alexander McQueen.
He began designing his own collections, using dole money to pay for fabrics and other tailoring necessities. His ability to use what was at hand added to his originality of design. McQueen was championed by eccentric fashionista Isabella Blow and she became an early muse and promoter of his design. His stocks gradually rose amid a furore of opposition from fashion critics and the designer stood by his conviction that his productions had to “shock his audience into consciousness.”
Being lured to Givenchy when Galliano left, the money he was offered enabled McQueen to put his own label on a more secure footing. When Gucci came calling he was able to sell points in his business to give it a sound future.
But sadly, as with many rags-to-riches stories, the joy of making the big time isn’t as much fun as the joys experienced while climbing the slope. Work demands, the lure of drugs, the dismissal of Blow from his coterie and homosexual love affairs that didn’t endure were significant negatives in the new life. Knowing little about the man, we still didn’t get to know him well but we get to know his work through the expansive coverage of his shows.
Rolling Stone’s reviewer made the following comment: “It seems odd that McQueen’s longtime stylist Katy England isn’t featured and nothing is said about George Forsyth, his deceased, ‘unofficial husband’.” Perhaps there was a lot more story to be told?
A neat postscript was that after his death in 2010, McQueen’s work still brought out the masses. An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was sold out for its entire run.