Born the youngest of six children in the East End of London in 1968, Lee Alexander McQueen spent his school days drawing clothes during lessons instead of studying.
His father, a London cab driver, expected him to become a plumber, but he left school at 15 to work for a Saville Row tailor, where he honed his technical skills. From then on his rise was meteoric.
He worked with London-based Japanese designer Kōji Tatsuno, then with edgy ’90s British street fashion brand Red or Dead, before beginning an apprenticeship with Romeo Gigli in Milan. He won a coveted place on the Fashion MA course at London’s Central Saint Martins college, despite lacking the prerequisite qualifications.
By the age of 27, McQueen was chosen — to the shock of the fashion establishment — to be creative director of haute-couture house Givenchy, making him a millionaire.
This is all the more remarkable given his humble beginnings, his lack of conventional fashion background, and his rebellious refusal to conform to fashion norms. He didn’t care what others thought: when he invented his “bumster” trousers, he joked that his models should “shove their pubes in [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour’s face”.
His shows invited controversy; two of his earliest were respectively entitled “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” and “Highland Rape”, collections which were, unsurprisingly, labelled as exploitative and misogynistic. The press response was negative and vociferous, bringing McQueen the publicity he sought.
At the same time, the designer spoke convincingly of the way he used his work to express the truth of his inner world and traumatic childhood experiences: as a young boy he witnessed his brother-in-law’s violence against his older sister, with whom he was extremely close — the same brother-in-law who abused him during his childhood.
He learned, too, that the Scottish ancestors from whom he was descended suffered terrible violence at the hands of the English, the women especially, who were often victims of rape. It is no surprise, then, that his work expressed a savage and dark beauty.
Bonhôte and Ettedgui have created a beautifully visual multi-layered film that, like McQueen, shuns convention.
The footage is structured non-chronologically, in chapters named after the most significant of McQueen’s fashion shows. The interweaving of rare interviews with McQueen’s sister, his nephew (also a fashion designer), his ex-boyfriends, fashion maverick Isabella Blow’s widower and associates paint a picture of a contradictory genius. They speak of him with love and affection, but confess that as he descended into cocaine addiction and mental illness, his mood swings from joyous, funny prankster to ill-tempered paranoiac made him difficult to be with.
It was the women who made the greatest impact on McQueen’s life: his sister, his mother, his muse and stylist Katie England, and his mentor Isabella Blow. Blow ended her life after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, and not long after, when his own mother died, McQueen took his own life at the age of 40, devastating all those who loved him.
More than a million people visited his posthumous exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the V&A in London, underscoring the fact that he was more than a fashion designer: he was an artist. His work, in the end, speaks for itself, and this documentary displays it in its full glory.
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McQueen is showing at Palace Nova Cinemas.
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