Cast: Alexander McQueen, Gary James McQueen, Janet McQueen
Directors: Ian Bonhôte, Peter Ettedgui
Running Time: 111 minutes
Synopsis: The youngest of six children, Lee Alexander McQueen was expected to become a plumber, a bricklayer or possibly a cab driver like his father. Instead, McQueen's fierce romanticism and punk poetry helped create 1990s-era 'Cool Britannia'. For perhaps the first time since the Swinging Sixties, a lad from the East End of London could " and did " become one of the most original and influential artists of the 20th Century.
McQueen is a thrilling rags-to-riches portrait of a complex artistic genius. Through exclusive interviews with McQueen's closest friends and family and never-before-seen archives, McQueen reveals an unmatched talent who expressed his darkest fantasies and greatest ambitions through his revolutionary designs and runway shows.
"My shows are about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's for the excitement and the goose bumps. I want heart attacks. I want ambulances."
― Alexander McQueen
Release Date: September 6th, 2018
"Fashion is a big bubble and sometimes I just feel like popping it." ― Alexander McQueen
Born and raised in East London's working-class Stratford neighbourhood, nothing in the background of Lee Alexander McQueen hinted at his future. The youngest of six children, Lee might have been expected to become a plumber, a bricklayer or perhaps a cab driver like his father. Instead, McQueen's fierce romanticism and punk poetry helped create 1990s-era "Cool Britannia," a celebration of youth culture in the U.K. For perhaps the first time since the Swinging Sixties, a lad from the East End of London could " and did " become one of the most original and influential artists of his time.
Filmmakers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui capture the life and work of a unique creative talent in all his glorious anarchy in their new film, McQueen. They offer a thrilling portrait of McQueen's life and complex persona, following him as he conquers the world of fashion with designs as ravishing as they are sinister. From his apprenticeship at an old-school Savile Row tailor and haberdasher, where he displayed a preternatural knack for pattern cutting and tailoring, to his death at only 40, the film breaks the rules of documentary storytelling with its mosaic of standalone fragments shot in different styles, which accumulate and combine to create a ground-breaking, multi-faceted portrait.
Intimate one-on-one interviews with family, friends and colleagues, footage from his famed live runway shows and previously lost video of McQueen himself reveal an unmatched creative talent who expressed his darkest fantasies and greatest ambitions through his revolutionary clothing design and spectacular showings. Myths and stories from Yoruba folk tales, Dante's Inferno and the legend of Atlantis, as well as personal obsessions, ancestral history, dreams and nightmares, fears and desires all inform his singular artistic vision.
Filtered through the crucible of his febrile imagination, an eclectic and visceral mix of movies, art, music, history, dance and technology provoke both scandal and ecstasy. Enthralled or repulsed, no one could look away " nor would they ever forget what they had witnessed.
Presented in five chapters, McQueen highlights the pivotal moments in the designer's life as expressed in some of his most personal and iconic shows: "Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims," his 1992 graduate college collection; "Highland Rape," his most controversial early show; "Search for the Golden Fleece," the first collection he designed for fashion giant Givenchy; "Voss," an exploration of beauty and madness. The final chapter, "Plato's Atlantis" charts the journey from the collection he dedicated to his great friend and muse Isabella Blow after she committed suicide, to the otherworldly final show he produced before he himself took his life.
About The Filmmakers
Bonhôte's award-winning career as a director and producer of commercials, music videos, fashion films and features made him a natural choice to take the helm of a film about a legendary artistic maverick. "I had never made a documentary before," he says. "But, at Pulse Films, we produced more than a dozen music documentaries, including the BAFTA nominated 20,000 Days on Earth, so I had been attracted to the idea, but never found the right subject or theme. I moved to London in the '90s and at the time Alexander McQueen was very influential, not just in the fashion world. His creative collaborations with music artists and fine artists were slipping into the mainstream culture. His sense of style became synonymous with the city's raw energy and edginess. When the production company Salon approached me to direct the film, I had to do it!"
Ettedgui, on the other hand, had written several successful documentary features, including Listen to Me Marlon and George Best: All by Himself. He also had a lifelong connection to the fashion world. "I heard a rumour that Ian was working on a film about McQueen," says Ettedgui. "I hunted him down at an event and asked if I could please help him. My father was a UK-based retailer with a passion for young designers and one of the first to sell McQueen. I knew that Lee brought people together through fashion in the same way musicians of another generation had."
A conventional biography, they agreed, would never do justice to McQueen's radical spirit. "Lee's life and work were so fused with each other," says Ettedgui. "His shows were so personal. What made him special and different was the work and we wanted find our way to his essence though it."
Although competing films about McQueen were in the works, the filmmakers forged ahead. Shooting began in April of 2017 and proceeded at an epic pace. "It was a very fluid, not totally unlike Lee McQueen's way of working," says Ettedgui. "Changes had to be made on the fly as new material came in right up to the last moment of the edit. One thing that helped was that even before we began shooting, we had done a lot of research and we had a clear vision. We had selected a handful of shows that expressed turning points of his story. I was able to write the treatment quickly because we knew where the highs and lows were. The pace at which we had to work really forged the creative bond between us."
"We wanted to speak with all of the people in his life who were intimately connected with his creativity," says Bonhôte. "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 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."
"But every person we wanted to interview was hard to convince," he continues. "If you have four years, that's alright. We had to press on. Peter and I had to trust each other, so one of us could be shooting while the other was meeting with potential contributors. Despite our different backgrounds " or maybe because of them " we found a groove."
The initial fears of those closest to McQueen were understandable, says Ettedgui, after the overwhelming amount of tabloid coverage of his life. "But we were doing something that hadn't been done before. We were focused primarily on celebrating what he produced. Once one or two people had agreed to be filmed, they were able to pass on the message that maybe we could be trusted to tell this story, and people began letting us in."
The film features original interviews with friends and colleagues including stylist Mira Chai Hyde and assistant designer Sebastian Pons, early industry supporters like John McKitterick and Bobby Hillson, as well as Detmar Blow, the widower of Isabella Blow, Lee's great friend and mentor. There are also excerpts from past interviews with Isabella, and of course, the star of the film is McQueen himself. The filmmakers sought to identify and track down every interview McQueen ever gave, as well as never-before-seen archives of him at work and leisure. As far as possible, Bônhote and Ettedgui wanted to allow McQueen to speak for himself.
"The most important question we wanted to answer was how this shy, working-class young man with no connections became 'Alexander McQueen,'" says Ettedgui. "Sometimes, we would have someone saying something amazing about his journey, and Ian and I would look at each other, and say, 'If only we had Lee saying that!' Towards the very end of the edit, we received a cache of archive we'd been trying to find for almost a year, and it was just extraordinary, because there it was: so many of those exact things we'd been wishing for were there in these incredibly rare interviews. Lee was a bit camera shy, but if he trusted the interviewer, he relaxed and just spoke so eloquently about himself and his work."
Perhaps the most remarkable interviews in the film are with McQueen's sister Janet and her son Gary, himself a designer who had worked at Alexander McQueen with his uncle. As his career soared, McQueen always remained close to his family. For Bonhôte and Ettedgui, their participation would be essential, but they rarely grant interviews. Bonhôte managed to set up a meeting with Gary and doors began to swing open.
"I was approached by Ian out of the blue," says Gary McQueen. "His vision and the whole process hit the spot. I could see he had a personal stake in telling the story and doing it in the right way, which meant a lot to me. He told me that he saw it as a feature film that broke Lee's life into five chapters that would be represented by specific shows. The film evolved as it went along, and that was part of the process."
It was Gary McQueen who convinced his mother Janet, Lee's elder sister by 15 years, to speak with the filmmakers as well. "I can't remember the words they used but it was clear that they were doing this because they respected his talent," she says. "They promised to show him as true to life and wanted to tell the story of how he went from struggling artist to one of the greatest designers of our times."
Janet was already married and out of the family home when her brother began exploring design. "None of us expected him to become who he did," she says. "Lee had a talent none of us knew. When he got to about 16, he went to an art class in school and became interested in fashion through that. We thought of it as something he might show an interest in for a while before moving on to something else."
But in fact, she realized, he had found his place in the world. "Fashion was his life," she says. "Lee lived and breathed fashion and it came from the heart. He pulled it off and he rose to be the fashion designer but even when he was at the pinnacle of his career he was still that sensitive boy who worried people would ridicule him."
Gary McQueen hopes the film brings a deeper understanding of the fact that his uncle was more than just a fashion designer. "People connected with the man behind 'Alexander McQueen,'" he says. "He was a hard worker and skilled technical designer who put his blood, sweat and tears into his work, all for 20 minutes on the runway. But he loved to see the reactions to his shows. I just wish I could see what he would have done with some the technologies that didn't exist when he was alive, like 3D printing."
The Arrival Of Alexander
"I would go to the end of my dark side and pull these horrors out of my soul and put them on the catwalk." ― Alexander McQueen
Alexander McQueen's first collection, "Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims," began as his final project for the Master's program at Center St. Martin's, the prestigious fashion school whose alumni include such superstar designers as John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Zak Posen and Phoebe Philo. McQueen had ended his formal education at the age of 16 to learn tailoring and pattern cutting on the job. He went to St. Martin's looking for work as a tutor. Even though he had none of the required academic qualifications, Bobby Hillson, founder and then head of the graduate fashion program, urged McQueen to apply.
His unconventional background became an advantage for him, says Bonhôte. Not knowing the rules freed him. "Young designers today know all the names and labels. When Lee went to St. Martins, he knew none of that, but he had no shame and no fear. He was a sponge who absorbed things."
The film captures the energy and excitement of that night with images shot during the show. That first collection set the tone for McQueen's legendary iconoclasm and showmanship. Drawing on tales of the Ripper's terror spree in East London, he transformed stodgy Victorian silhouettes into darkly gothic and completely modern garments, some embedded with his own hair, others deconstructed visions in jet back and blood red. The sensational visual style and elevated conceptual inspiration that would be the hallmarks of his work were already apparent.
The show also sparked the most important creative and professional relationship of McQueen's life. Isabella Blow " Issie to her friends " was a stylist, muse and trailblazer with an uncanny knack for discovering the next great thing. She bought the entire collection.
"I was sitting on the floor," she remembered later. "I couldn't even get a seat at the St. Martin's show, and the pieces went past me and they moved in a way I had never seen. And I wanted them. The colours were very extreme. He would do a black coat, but then he'd line it with human hair and it was blood red inside so it was like a body. And I thought, this is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
As the notoriety of the collection spread, his astonishing work was championed by other giants of the fashion world. For almost two decades, his creative energy seemed boundless as he mounted show after show. Drawing on influences as diverse as his own Scottish ancestry, the macabre photographs of Joel Peter Witkin, classic mythology, the elements and his favourite horror films, McQueen created a series of fantastically realized new worlds that riveted audiences.
"Lee started a movement called Alexander McQueen," says Sebastian Pons, a Majorcan designer who joined Lee's studio as an intern and became the assistant designer for his collections. "There was nothing else like it. He used to say that he was not going into fashion, because fashion was boring. It was time to break the rules and bring new energy and new meaning to it. He created theatre that brought you into his world " whether you liked it or not."
He sent models strutting down the runway with live wolves on leashes, used armour and masks to obscure the faces of some of the most beautiful women in the world, drenched his runway in rain and blanketed it with snow, experimented with nudity, constructed dresses out of electrical tape and dropped his trousers as a finale. He also introduced his most infamous innovation: the "bumster" trouser, which was cut below the waist to expose buttocks and base of the spine, a provocation both impudent and deliberate. As Detmar Blow, Issie's husband, remembers, "He told them, you've got to put your pubic hair in Anna Wintour's face. It was just very naughty behaviour."
McQueen created one-of-a-kind, must-see spectacles, each more excessive than the last. But he also produced elegant, ethereal garments that sophisticated women lusted after, extravagant creations of unique materials, lace, feathers sequins and jewels. "Lee often said that he didn't dress women for their husbands," says Bonhôte. "His clothes were made for women who knew their own minds, who had their own power and didn't depend on anyone to take care of them. As Issie once said, the women who wore his designs were like modernday knights creating sartorial force fields that shield people from the brutalities of the world." The fashion elite gathered at McQueen's door to view his outré designs, never knowing what to expect. "His shows were happenings," Ettedgui says. "They had extraordinary sets and music. He sometimes kept people waiting for over an hour to build tension. He was a true showman in a way the fashion world hadn't seen."
Gary McQueen remembers seeing his first show, the Autumn/Winter collection of 2002 and being astounded by the genius of his former babysitter. "I was quite young," he says. "It was the show with the wolves. I wasn't interested in fashion, but I loved theatrics. I recognized that this was about more than just the clothes. Lee was connecting with people on an emotional level."
Before long the world's top models were clamouring to be included in his ground-breaking, over-the-top productions. Bonhôte and Ettedgui combed through hundreds of hours of footage to capture the immediacy and the visceral shock of McQueen's shows. In one clip, supermodel Shalom Harlow, wearing a pristine white dress, is assaulted by robots (one of his favourite themes) shooting streams of paint. Kate Moss takes the runway in hologram form and Naomi Campbell struts down the catwalk wearing golden ram's horns. During one show, the set caught fire and McQueen insisted it be left to burn as the models continued to walk. His imagination was boundless.
Sound & Vision
"It's like exorcising my ghosts. The shows are about what's buried in my psyche." " Alexander McQueen
Along with archival footage of the shows, the filmmakers have incorporated the skull and bird motifs that McQueen used again and again in his collections to bridge the chapters. They've also set the swirling chaos of the designer's creative life to a soundtrack by one of his favourite musicians, Michael Nyman. From the raucous iconoclasm of Lee's early years, to the darker aspects of his later life; from the celebration of his life to the tragedy of his death, Nyman's music is an essential character in McQueen.
"Michael Nyman's name kept cropping up as we researched Lee's life," Ettedgui says. "Colleagues and friends recalled how long nights in his design studio were inevitably accompanied by CDs of Michael's music. We learned that as their creative circles in 1990s London overlapped, Michael and Lee became friends."
When Bonhôte and Ettedgui first met Nyman, the composer revealed that McQueen had once commissioned an original piece of music from him. "Lee's Sarabande" distils in musical form both the joy and melancholy that lie at the heart of McQueen's story and his work. It became a central theme for the film. "Michael played it for us at the meeting," Bonhôte recalls.
"Hearing that work for the first time was truly a spine-tingling moment for both of us."
Nyman provided Bonhôte and Ettedgui with 25 hours of existing music to choose from for the film's score. The music in the film is drawn from every area of the composer's prodigious catalogue, including symphonies, chamber music, concerti, as well as music composed for the inimitable Michael Nyman Band. Theatre and dance music, as well as the film scores, pieces featuring rarely heard medieval instruments like sackbuts and rebecs, and haunting, experimental electronic works.
Thrilling large-scale pieces with driving rhythms became the accompaniment for each of the five fashion shows around which the film is structured. "We found that by some strange alchemy, Michael's music transformed the video of the shows into something cinematic and epic," says Bonhôte. "The sheer variety became in our minds the musical equivalent of the astonishing pageant of Lee's fashion."
Revolution In Faison
"I'm not angry with myself. I'm angry with the world." ― Alexander McQueen
From the outside looking in, McQueen's early career appeared charmed, as his fame grew exponentially. The self-described "unremarkable" boy from East London won two British Designer of Year Awards while gathering a devoted group of collaborators around him who worked tirelessly to bring his feverish imagination into reality. "The early days very creative," says Mira Chai Hyde, his sometime flat-mate and stylist who designed and styled men's hair and make-up for McQueen shows. "We spent a lot of late nights sitting up and talking. It was fun back then. He would do one drawing after another and there was a collection in one evening."
As Sebastian Pons remembers, "With McQueen you were part of something new, something very exciting. Here was this guy who not only showed clothes but put emotion onto the catwalk. Whose own soul had been shaken by life and who knew how to shake people up because of that. It was like, 'Oh my god, really? A fashion show can be this way?'"
The reality, as the film shows in rarely seen behind-the-scenes footage, was that his "staff" was mostly made up of friends who volunteered to help him without pay. He was eating at McDonald's if he could afford to eat at all. Each new collection meant begging for cash from friends, family and supporters. After a successful event, he admits to thinking, "The show was brilliant, but I'll wake up tomorrow morning and where am I going to get a bottle of milk?" Then at 27 years old, with only eight collections under his belt, the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. He was named creative director of the fabled house of Givenchy, whose signature since the early 1950s has been genteel elegance, embodied by poster-girl Audrey Hepburn. With a real atelier in the Place de Vosges and a $400,000 salary that he could plow back into his own line, Lee was an honest-to-goodness couturier.
"The early days at Givenchy were magical," Pons recalls. "We saw amazing things. We visited the ateliers and got friendly with the most talented people. Lee had access to gorgeous materials, extraordinary craftspeople and top models. I got to see the company start from absolute zero, with no table or sewing machines. And then suddenly we were in Paris designing haute couture. I was seeing a legend being born as Lee created a new century of fashion."
But as much as McQueen loved Paris, it was difficult to fit in there, says Pons. "It is not easy to be a leader in a society that you don't belong to. It's one thing to visit Paris, it's another to be Parisian. And Lee missed London and his dogs and his people."
The French fashion media panned McQueen's first showing, a grandiose assemblage of exquisitely tailored suits and dresses in gold and white inspired by the story of Jason and the Argonauts. They were also unimpressed by the designer himself, who appeared at the show's end in his customary baggy pants, boxy short sleeved shirt and running shoes, carrying an open beer. His irreverence, cheek and rebel spirit were lost in Paris.
Worse perhaps was the fact that he and Issie had fallen out. She had been instrumental in brokering the deal with Givenchy and assumed she would have a formal role in the business. When that failed to materialize, she withdrew, hurt. She began a downward spiral that eventually ended with suicide. Their relationship was never the same again.
The Alexander McQueen label was Lee's baby, says Pons, but Givenchy was the price he had to pay to do it. After 20 years of courting controversy, McQueen tried to transform himself into what the fashion world wanted of a designer. Suddenly self-conscious, McQueen liposuctioned himself into svelte Comme de Garçons jackets. He was abusing drugs and alcohol, and his temper could be uncontrollable. He eventually sold 51 percent of his label to Gucci for an estimated 50 million dollars and was wealthy beyond belief. But everything had changed. The fun was gone.
When McQueen completed his "Plato's Atlantis" collection, which he considered to be his masterpiece, he told associates it would be his last. "Lee had always wanted to create the perfect collection," says Pons. "Whenever I congratulated him after a show he would say, 'but we could do better.' With that show, he seemed to feel that he had done his best work."
"I seem sad about my work sometimes. I am sad, but I'm not bitter. I'm grateful for everything that has happened in my life. But I know when the time is to give it up." ― Alexander McQueen
McQueen's rise is a modern-day fairy tale with a gothic ending. A working-class boy from East London builds a global one-man fashion brand on the demons that haunt him and goes on to become one of the most iconic artists of the century. But at the pinnacle of a career that once seemed beyond the reach of a young East Ender, he had driven away old friends and become an increasingly lonely figure. Meanwhile Isabella Blow had taken her own life and his beloved mother Joyce had passed away. He felt isolated and trapped in a deep depression.
By the time his final collection was in stores, Lee McQueen was dead by his own hand, not in front of an adoring audience but alone in his home. At the height of his acclaim and power, the man who collaborated with Tim Burton and Lady Gaga, designed stage costumes for David Bowie and directed videos for Björk once again shocked the world by ending it all.
But McQueen's influence lives on. "We are perennially fascinated by people who achieve something unique in their lives," says Ettedgui. "Lee's story is so much bigger than fashion. He pushed the boundaries of what fashion could be with his work. Both his creativity and his hands-on abilities were second to none. The sheer variety of what he produced makes him unique. Maybe once in a generation or two, a designer will invent a new silhouette. Lee produced three. In fashion terms, that's tantamount to the way Mozart transformed the symphony or how Picasso changed the direction of modern art."
"Creatively, he inspired an entire generation of filmmakers, musicians and artists," says Bonhôte. "Young designers aren't interested in studying Chanel or even Lagerfeld anymore. They all want to know about McQueen. At the time, the idea that someone like Lee, from the East End of London, could break into the world of high fashion was laughable." "But his legacy goes so far beyond design," the filmmaker continues. "In the UK, it sometimes feels that there was a world before Lee and a world after him. Fashion has become so much more commercial since he started out. He was one of the last truly creative designers to start with nothing and get financial backing to build an extremely successful business."
In 2011, about a year after McQueen's death, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted a historic exhibition of his work entitled "Savage Beauty," a comprehensive reflection of his world, both tortured and inspired, celebrating a radical and mesmerizing genius of profound influence. One of the famed museum's most popular shows of all time, it was attended by more than 650,000 people, many of whom waited on line for hours to get in.
The exhibition, says Ettedgui, was a testament to of the breadth and ingenuity of McQueen's genius. "Sebastian Pons told us how he walked through room after room after room filled with extraordinary clothes everywhere, designs that often had been created in only 10 days," he says. "Sebastian couldn't believe what they'd achieved. McQueen had an unparalleled understanding of the craft of making clothes that he could push in any direction. In a 20-year career, he created more fashion than most people could in 80 years."
Release Date: September 6th, 2018