The fashion world knew Alexander McQueen as enfant terrible (French for “unruly child”) but to close friends and family, he was just Lee McQueen from Lewisham, London. McQueen, out in theaters today, isn’t so much a fashion documentary as it is an emotional narrative. First-time directors Ian Bonhôte and Petter Ettedgui were tasked with bringing the dark and storied history of the late designer to life, poring over 200 archival sources, conducting 25 intimate interviews with family members, and piecing together a narrative that portrayed McQueen as unflinchingly human and told the story from his point of view.
Ever since McQueen sent models down the runway in Scottish-inspired kilts for his inaugural 1995 Highland Rape collection, the creative visionary and renowned designer became known for his theatrically staged runway shows and the dark subject matter which permeated his collections. At the pinnacle of his mainstream success during his tenure at Givenchy, he was battling his own personal demons, including old childhood wounds of abuse as well as being diagnosed with HIV. His macabre shows became all the more poignant when the designer tragically took his own life in 2010 on the eve of his mother’s funeral.
The film doesn’t focus on the brand itself: Sarah Burton, who has helmed the house as creative director since McQueen’s death, wasn’t interviewed. Instead, the documentary charts the designer’s rise from his humble beginnings in East London, his friendship with the effervescent Isabella Blow, to his enduring legacy in British style and culture by establishing the first bonafide couture house from England. CR sat down with the directors about bringing McQueen’s legacy to life and how they won over Janet McQueen, his sister, to give an interview for the film.
What inspired you to take on this project in the first place?
Ettedgui: We were both in London in the ’90s and you couldn’t avoid McQueen at that point. He was the center of London culture and was a very inspiring and controversial figure. His work before was being reviled by the fashion press and then he was an Eastern London lad making it in Paris and then suddenly he was gone. We watched that whole journey from afar not ever thinking we were going to make a film about it but it seemed like it was occurring literally in our world and we had a bit of a connection to the material in personal ways.
Was it difficult for his family members to open up about him?
Bonhôte: It was very difficult. People forget how brave you must be to sit down and face a camera and share those secrets. Janet McQueen talked about something that was extremely sensitive and many families would rather bury that but she were very generous to share that with us and the rest of the world. We got in touch with Janet at the beginning and she kindly got back to us and said she didn’t want to take part in any project, that the memories were her own and she didn’t want to share, but we kept in touch. At some point, we interviewed one of Lee’s PR people. She felt really good after the interview and asked if we wanted her to make an introduction.
Ettedgui: We were just really happy to meet Janet. She was obviously unresolved about what happened to her brother and felt the family had been slightly exploited and that McQueen hadn’t been done justice. The most important thing for us was to show her we were going to do something that captured her brother in the right kind of way. Once she understood that, she basically came to us.
How did you humanize Lee for viewers who weren’t familiar with fashion?
Ettedgui: A lot of that came from avoiding the usual suspects and the A-list supermodels who appear in every other fashion documentary.
Bonhôte: We had a few but model Jodie Kidd had a nervous breakdown and she walked away from the fashion industry forever. We had to have her because she was there with Lee since the beginning of both their careers and it felt natural to have that in the storytelling. To humanize him, we did interviews with people who really knew him or loved him and we were beginning to see the real person through these wonderfully brave and courageous people. When you have Lee sticking his hand in his birthday cake and saying “I’ve always wanted to do that” or playing with his dogs, you begin seeing someone you can really engage with on a human level.
How did you explore the friendship between Lee and Isabella Blow?
Ettedgui: I hate to say this because it sounds almost exploitative, but it’s a gift to a filmmaker, a story like that, because you have the ultimate odd couple. A lady with all of her aristocratic connections and this boy from the East end and they become best friends. You dig a little bit deeper and realize that Isabella was a kind of a radical in her own way like Lee was. Then you dig deeper and find that she had tragedy in her childhood just like Lee did and so you feel it’s not just an odd couple but these kindred spirits and it’s very compelling how they come together. Then there’s a moment of disillusionment. She wants something from him that he can’t give her. She wasn’t made for a normal job, so how could she work for him at Givenchy? It wasn’t the right fit, but for her, you can understand she had done so much for him and felt so let down because he hadn’t given much back in return that was tangible. And in the final act, he follows her just as he always did: she commits suicide and he follows suit. That whole narrative is a glue for our story, it structures and takes a tragic shape, which is unique.
We get the sense that the public didn’t know Lee as well as they thought they did.
Bonhôte: People only received the beauty of the work, even though some of the beauty might have been dark, they didn’t really know the struggle behind it. We never tried to put an answer to why it happened, because we don’t have an answer, but we try to expose the potential causes related to that last tragic event. You understand more about what he did and how he got to do it, because he was fed by the dark elements and abuse from when he was young. It’s the fact that he contracted AIDS, which isn’t a death sentence, but it still affects you and your rapport with others and how you approach people. All of those elements, growing old in a society as a gay man where youth is celebrated, are not so good. All of his demons a lot of human beings can relate to because despite what he did in his career, he’s still very human.
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