Pin It
©AnnRay 316_31A
McQueen in the Givenchy atelierPhotography Ann Ray

How McQueen’s candid moments made it to the big screen

The directors behind a new documentary chronicling the designer’s ascent discuss the project – and uncovering his personal archive footage for the first time

Over the course of his two-decade-long career, Alexander McQueen’s otherworldly shows transported audiences through his imagination, as the enfant terrible of London fashion swept them up to the foreboding hills of the Scottish Highlands (Highland Rape, AW95), the depths of the ocean (Plato’s Atlantis, SS10), and into the human psyche (Voss SS01).

For those of us that weren’t there to experience them first hand, though, the most we’ve seen is via clips on YouTube. While it’s a testament to McQueen’s incredible talent that even glimpsed through the diminutive screen of an iPhone his sheer creativity is still overwhelming, the designer’s shows were never meant to be seen in such a way. But now, as long-awaited documentary McQueen is finally released, a new audience will get to see his work on a much bigger scale.

“All of McQueen’s work was just so visually and emotionally spectacular, and so visceral – there was intent in every stitch of his work, in every presentation, in everything that he did,” explains Peter Ettedgui, who co-directed McQueen alongside Ian Bonhôte. “When we set out to make the film, we really strongly believed that what he did throughout his career needed to be brought to the big screen. While there was a dark undercurrent to everything he created, his work was so vibrant and full of life. And so was he.”   

“All of McQueen’s work was just so visually and emotionally spectacular, and so visceral – there was intent in every stitch of his work, in every presentation, in everything that he did” – Peter Ettedgui

Documenting his journey by way of unseen home video footage filmed by friends and family, McQueen charts his time working in Savile Row and studying at Saint Martins, the early days of his eponymous label, his stratospheric ascent to living legend (which led to his surprise appointment at Givenchy at 27) and, eventually, his demise into drug addiction and depression. Woven throughout are personal snippets of his life away from the atelier, too, as McQueen is seen teasing his mum and sister at their family home in the East End, heading out into the night with a gang including stylist Katy England and assistant designer Sebastian Pons, and intermittently cackling and arguing with close friend and co-conspirator, ex-Vogue editor Isabella Blow.

In a moment that’s particularly poignant, nephew Gary McQueen confirms the late designer had contracted HIV prior to his tragic death in 2010. The subject of much speculation, the time had come for his family to set the record straight according to Bonhôte. “It wasn’t something we knew Gary was going to bring, and we weren’t sure how to handle it at first,” he explains. “It wasn’t something that we wanted to put out there and sensationalise, of course, but it was something Lee’s family felt ready to tell us. Even when Lee was still alive HIV was no longer a death sentence, but it’s something that weighed heavily on his mind and contributed to what he put out into the world creatively. So we felt it was important in that respect.”

With McQueen hitting UK cinemas this Friday, we sat down with directors Bonhôte and Ettedgui to discuss McQueen’s life, work, and relationships, and the daunting task of profiling one of Britain’s brightest and most beloved fashion talents.

How did the film come about, and why did you think it was the right time to embark on the project?

Peter Ettedgui: Lee’s story has been told before, of course, but in this case we wanted to go into it bigger and better, and really get to grips with his creativity in a way that hasn’t been done before. There’s something so cinematic about his work, and we’ve reached a time when the fashion documentary itself has become such a beautiful art form – just look at Dries, or Dior and I for example. Both myself and Ian felt very strongly that he deserved something visually spectacular that represented his life and work. And of course, it’s been almost a decade since he passed away – we wanted to bring his story to a new audience.

Ian Bonhôte: We felt like we were filling in gaps as we went, too. The more we researched the more elements and facets of who he was we uncovered. There’s so much more to him than the poor, working class East London lad whose dad was a cabbie that the media portrayed him as – he was on a mission from day one.

Neither of you have worked on a film about a figure in the fashion industry before. Why did you decide to make the move to cover the story of Lee McQueen?

Ian Bonhôte: McQueen’s story isn’t entirely tied to fashion, and as we discovered more and more about him throughout our research process, we realised it was way bigger and way deeper than just the fashion industry and everything it entails. We’ve had people come and see the film knowing nothing about him, who fell totally in love with him, and then had him taken away from them all in the space of a couple of hours – they’re really rooting for him and experiencing what he went through, and they don’t necessarily know anything about the industry or what he did in it. So it wasn’t like we approached the project in the sense that we just wanted to do something related to fashion. It was more that we wanted to tell this amazing, human story.  

Peter Ettedgui: I think, actually, our distance from the fashion industry was a benefit when we set out on the project. I think someone in the industry would have been obsessed with the nitty gritty of the fashion side of things, but that had all really been tackled before. We got to grips with his work with the likes of Savage Beauty at The Met, and through thorough explorations of his work. All that has been done. This felt bigger.

McQueen features commentary from many members of the designer’s family and some of his very close friends. Was it difficult to convince any of them to take part?

Peter Ettedgui: It was difficult, yes – there were a lot of people for whom the pain was still too raw and while they might have been willing, they were just totally unable to speak about him in front of us and a camera crew. We knew that when we set out though. We wanted to document this extraordinary, creative, charismatic creature, but this was a story that was always going to end with a tragic, heartbreaking loss. And for many, that loss was too profound to put into words.  

Ian Bonhôte: We knew we had to put across that emotion, though – of those that spoke about him and those that couldn’t. That was Lee’s life, you know, there was this rich tapestry of emotion woven throughout everything he did. His shows were full of it. Whether that emotion was shock, or awe or incredulousness at the fact he was sending seemingly-raped women down the catwalk or whatever else. As he said himself about his shows and their often shocking subjects or themes, there was no beauty in coming out of something feeling like you’ve just sat down to Sunday lunch. And so that became our mantra when making McQueen.  

Where did you uncover all of the home video footage that appears in the film?

Ian Bonhôte: We really had nothing when we started out, so we knew it was going to be a huge challenge. It was really Sebastian (Pons) – who we finally managed to convince to tell us Lee’s story and the story of their journey together after a long, long time – who changed all that. He ended up giving us hours of video footage shot over the course of their relationship as friends and colleagues, and suddenly we had Lee on screen telling us about his life.

Aside from speaking to family, close friends, and colleagues, and looking at the old video footage, how else did you research his life?

Peter Ettedgui: When we were looking through footage that we’d been given, we found McQueen telling whoever was filming him “if you want to know me, then read my autobiography,” and we really took that as a direct instruction. We wanted, as much as possible, to tell his story the way he would have wanted it to be told, which was through his work and his own words. And most important to us was avoiding some of the usual tropes: the gossip, the sensation, all the things the tabloids wrote about him.  

Ian Bonhôte: We did a lot of research on how to present the film visually, too. Looking back at his archives and the way he presented his work. When we were editing together the home footage, some of the team were like ‘we need to shoot more’ but Peter and I stuck to our guns and trusted our instincts and – a little like Lee himself did – took inspiration from everywhere, before amalgamating it all together until we had everything we needed.

Why did you choose the shows you did to punctuate the story?

Peter Ettedgui: There’s a darkness to most of what Lee sent down his catwalks, but we really wanted to include the collections and shows that best demonstrated the balance between that darkness and the light, and also his total dedication to his craft. There’s a scene when he is quietly pinning a sleeve to a toile and he’s just so ‘in’ his work at that moment, and so dedicated to it. It’s in stark contrast to this boisterous, filthy-mouthed young lad that’s also within him, bounding around his studio joking about and taking the piss out of his team.  

We’re moving towards a time when the subject of mental health in the fashion industry is something that’s finally being discussed and addressed. Do you think McQueen’s death had a part to play in this?  

Ian Bonhôte: Of course, the pressure on those in the fashion industry is enormous, but I think it’s a much broader conversation that’s opening up, and it’s not just focused on fashion. So whether Lee’s death was a catalyst...I don’t know.

Peter Ettedgui: There’s no denying there are issues that need to be addressed in fashion, and it’s great that these conversations are opening up. But McQueen was the toughest person of all on himself. We talked one of his former boyfriends – who isn’t in the film – who told us that it wasn’t the industry’s pressures that got to him, it was his own. The main pressure and expectation came from Lee himself, to get bigger, and better, and reach for the sky with every subsequent project or collection. And that clearly just became too much. Whether that’s one of the reasons behind the shift in the landscape that’s currently happening was anything to do with Lee? I’m not sure. What is clear though, is how important a moment it is.

McQueen is released in UK cinemas on June 8.