Lee Alexander McQueen was a chubby working class boy from Stanford, East London, who left school at 16, and became an apprentice on Saville Row. A master cutter, he rebelled against its tradition and flew to Milan and somehow got a job working for Romeo Gigli. Immersed in high fashion he then came back to London, went on the dole, and got into the iconic Central St Martins school of design - all before most people have left university. His genius tailoring, and subversive designs led to a graduate collection that was bought in its entirety by Isabella Blow - herself a troubled women, but able to patronise Lee, rename him Alexander, and bring him to the attention of fashion editors and houses. It was a love affair without sex, but when he was appointed head of Givenchy, he left for Paris surrounded by pretty young hipsters and left Isabella behind, perhaps jealous of how people gave her credit for his rise? It was an emotional betrayal she didn't recover from, contributing in part to her later suicide. In Paris, chubby Lee reinvented himself physically with fixed teeth and liposuction. But he never shed the feeling that he didn't fit in, the loneliness, and the sheer exhaustion at creating collections for both Givenchy in Paris and his own line in London. Superficially he was rich, successful and feted - his collections were controversial - accused of misogyny - but he was clearly operating on a different level from mere couture - doing something more akin to sculpture or performance art - saying something meaningful about the reality of womanhood that prefigured the #metoo movement and our CCTV culture. He was both acknowledging sexual violence against women, and recreating them as survivors - powerful, strong, warriors. The success was hollow. Haunted by memories of childhood sexual abuse, entering more dark and dangerous sexual practises, increasingly a drug addict, Lee was then bludgeoned by the death of his mother, Isabella and diagnosis with HIV. In 2010, just 13 years after becoming head of a Paris fashion house, he took his own life.
This new documentary is a beautifully edited entry point for viewers wanting to know more about McQueen's life and work. It benefits from previously unseen home videos and audio, and extensive interviews with McQueen's sister and nephew. It also has a marvellous score, with Michael Nyman reinterpreting previous work used by McQueen in his shows. Director Ian Bonhote methodically takes us through McQueen's life and work, splitting the film into five parts, named after five of his iconic shows. But I felt that there were omissions and elisions that wouldn't trouble a casual viewer but WOULD trouble a McQueen fan. Why, for instance, isn't more context given to the impact of the clothing - I would've loved more talking heads from the fashion press discussing its merits and controversies. Why is Annabelle Nielsen, his close friend, entirely absent except for a photograph? Did she refuse to contribute? And why the coyness about his sex life? Accordingly, this feels like a doc for the casual viewer - with little really profoundly new for the McQueen fan.
MCQUEEN has a running time of 111 minutes and is rated R. The film played Hotdocs and Tribeca 2018 and was released in the UK, Ireland and Spain this weekend. It opens in the USA on July 20th and in the Netherlands on September 27th.