The label was Alexander McQueen. The man was Lee McQueen, a plump, clumsy boy from south London, who spent his time drawing ‘frocks’ during his lessons and rising to become one of the most revered figures in the fickle world of haute couture.
Clearly troubled, for family reasons which are revealed halfway through, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s intense and affecting documentary reveals a young man possessed of an unshakeable belief in his ability to design, cut and create fashion garments of astonishing, unique beauty. Encouraged by his schoolteacher mother Joyce, he bailed on school and took up an apprenticeship with Anderson & Sheppard, one of the bespoke tailors in Savile Row. The precise, uncompromising standards instilled in him during his brief stay served to focus his maverick skills and unerring eye, setting him on the road to serious study at Central St. Martins College of Art, for which his aunt paid the fees.
There, this mouthy, uncouth lad built up a bit of a reputation as the king of yob fashion – a title his mother strongly resented – and the title of his graduation show, Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims, was a warning of things to come. Its sinister implications of menace, violence and creepy East End criminal history, wrapped themselves around a collection of gorgeous garments whose cut, colour and fluid movement had the fashion press asking ‘who is this guy?’ Soon, very soon, they would find out.
Through a treasure trove of intimate camcorder clips, news archive, glossy fashion show footage and interviews with family, fashionistas, lovers and friends emerges a portrait of the complicated, meteoric rise of a one-off artistic genius, who ended his life at the age of 40, when he was at the peak of his artistic powers.
Bonhôte and Ettedgui begin as they mean to go on with a gloriously shot title sequence awash with the symbolism of McQueen’s obsession with beauty and decay. His signature skull logo is encrusted with flowers and shimmering with crepuscular moths and delicate butterflies. As the respective segments of the film unfold – identified as ‘tapes’ and delineated by some of the most famous collections – the skull will become drenched in gold, eventually disintegrating to leave bare bones and staring blank eyes.
He was ‘adopted’ by the aristocratic and eccentric fashion muse Isabella Blow, who persuaded him that replacing the rather common Lee with his second name Alexander would lend his label more gravitas and quality. By the time he graduated, he had gathered around himself – like moths to a flame – a devoted team of stylists and creatives. He was always Lee to them. He confides on camera that in those early days he paid for his fabrics with his unemployment benefit, using his detailed knowledge of his native city – his father was a cabbie – to get the best deals and the best quality.
When, to his own astonishment, he was appointed the unlikely head of the great Parisian house of Givenchy – succeeding the flamboyant John Galliano – the whole gang moved into the handsome headquarters on Avenue George V, bringing with them a rowdy, subversive spirit previously unknown in such stately surroundings.
Unwilling to give up on his London-based label, McQueen embarked on a punishing schedule, dividing himself between the two cities and maintaining the sharply contrasting styles of the McQueen and Givenchy labels. In one year alone, he produced a startling total of fourteen collections.
One by one, they rolled out, each more thrilling, more theatrical, more risky and daring than the last – Highland Rape, Plato’s Atlantis and Voss, a bizarre two-way mirrored show constructed around a glass-walled recreation of Joel-Peter Witkin’s grotesque installation Sanitarium, complete with large naked model, breathing apparatus and fluttering moths.
The piano-based score is by Michael Nyman, a regular McQueen collaborator. Their close personal friendship prompts a subtle building of musical twists and swirls. Gradually it tightens and closes in on a life lived in the public glare, becoming increasingly reliant on drugs and alcohol before finally descending into freefall.
The end is somehow inevitable and terribly sad. Its timing, on the eve of his beloved mother’s funeral, speaks volumes for the inescapable fact that, for all the worldwide success and adulation, it was ultimately the loss of his greatest supporter and emotional anchor that was simply too much to bear.
McQueen is at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast from 8 to 14 June 2018.