The triumph and tragedy of Alexander Mcqueen
THERE Is a MOMENT in the new documentary film about his life, when a piece of footage shows Lee Mcqueen ( better known by his professional name, Alexander Mcqueen), saying, ‘If you want to know me – look at my work.’
Certainly, his work – captivating, shocking, romantic, and deeply personal – has always invited its audience to think about the man behind it. ‘He expressed the intensity of his fears, passions and joys on the catwalk,’ says Claire Wilcox, who curated the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Savage Beauty exhibition. ‘He had absolutely no choice but to invest himself totally into his fashion collections from the perspective of being a brilliant tailor, designer, craftsman, but also as somebody who truly believed that fashion could
express deeper truths about being human.’
And now, over eight years after Mcqueen’s death at 40, people are still wanting to know more about the man behind the mythical designs. This week sees the release of Mcqueen, a film directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (son of Joseph Ettedgui, of Joseph fashion store fame – one of the first boutiques to buy the young Mcqueen’s designs).
Charting his rise from self-declared ‘unremarkable’ East End lad with raw, once-in-a-generation talent, via the silver spoon environs of Parisian haute couture during his tenure as head designer of Givenchy, to superstardom and the tragic conclusion, Mcqueen is comprised of original footage gathered from over 200 sources, alongside personal commentary from colleagues, friends and family, including his sister Janet and nephew Gary.
You can see why a filmmaker would be drawn to Mcqueen as a subject (‘ That tension between his self and the world of fashion makes him a very compelling character for a feature documentary,’ says Ettedgui). Handled insensitively, however, the Mcqueen story can be the stuff of tabloid fodder, a concern the directors were aware of. ‘ We didn’t want to whitewash difficult subjects, but what we didn’t want to do is sensationalise it,’ says Ettedgui. ‘ We wanted to view everything through the prism of his work.’ Indeed, those theatrical shows were another reason they were drawn to the story as a cinematic narrative. As Bonhôte says, ‘ We felt it would be amazing to see them on the big screen, and not just on Youtube.’
We’re in a golden era for witnessing fashion stories on screen. This year already, we’ve had Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread and The Assassination Of Gianni Versace, as well as documentaries on Vivienne Westwood and Antonio Lopez. Coming soon is The Gospel According To André, about André Leon Talley. With their stories of artists fighting against the odds and countering the mundanity of the daily life with unshackled creativity, these are galvanising tales for now. The frisson of glamour helps.
In the social media age, there’s no doubt barriers are breaking down. Where there was once mystique, there is now access-allareas. From models getting their make-up done, to celebrities sneaking cigarettes at the Met Gala, to designers sharing postworkout selfies, we’re given apparently candid insights. This flood of information, however, shortens our attention spans: hit ‘Like’, move on. It takes something captivating to hold our attention for two hours and, in that sense, a documentary is an honour bestowed only on the special few. It’s the ultimate status symbol.
Bonhôte and Ettedgui, however, seem uncomfortable with the categorising of Mcqueen as a ‘fashion film’. Rather, as Bonhôte says, ‘ We made a film about an extraordinary man working in fashion, not a fashion film.’ For as long as there are good stories to tell, there will always be people wanting to tell them. ‘ Mcqueen’ is at cinemas from 8 June
Peter Ettedgui, one of the film’s directors
Lee Mcqueen with his fashion friends Isabella Blow (above), Kate Moss (top) and Erin O’connor (right)
With Isabella (far left) on the FROW, and a fitting with Naomi Campbell (left)