For those who witnessed it, it may be hard to believe that it's been seven years since the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Savage Beauty" exhibit displaying the work of designer Lee Alexander McQueen debuted. Opening the year after he tragically committed suicide at the age of 40, the exhibition broke attendance records for the museum and gave the wider public a compelling look at a designer already much-lauded in the fashion world.
This week, brand-new documentary "McQueen" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival with a similar aim: to preserve and honor the work of a legendary, albeit troubled, designer, and present it to a new audience. Directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, the film explores McQueen's life through a compilation of never-before-seen archival footage and interviews with McQueen's colleagues, ex-lovers and family members.
"Once in a generation you get a personality like McQueen, who's clearly got something that we call genius and who does something remarkable with a very short life," Ettedgui says over the phone. "Though neither [I nor Bonhôte] work in fashion, we could very clearly see what this man was doing was quite extraordinary."
The film breaks McQueen's trajectory from working-class son of a cab driver to global fashion star into "chapters" that are pegged to some of his most memorable collections, from his student thesis show "Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims" to his first show for Givenchy. Along the way, interviews with those closest to McQueen help flesh out the man behind the designs.
"The archive footage that the family gave us was incredibly important because it shows him, I think, in a different light," Ettedgui says.
The bad-boy charm that McQueen was known for is by no means absent from the film. One anecdote comes from Italian designer Romeo Gigli, an early boss of McQueen's, who recalls making the young designer re-do a coat over and over only to find that McQueen had written "Fuck you, Romeo!" inside the lining after the third iteration. But footage from family and friends — especially that which was taped in McQueen's earlier life — also showcases McQueen's soft side, as well as his propensity for keeping everyone around him laughing.
"We wanted to make this film very intimate," Ettedgui explains. Goofy tapes that the designer shot himself on a handheld VHS recorder, imagery of him playing with his dogs and an interview with his late mother describing him as essentially a "sweet boy" lend dimensionality to the film's characterization of McQueen's charismatic and sometimes explosive personality.
For fashion fans, it may feel a bit odd that the film ends abruptly after McQueen's death with virtually no mention of the ongoing legacy of his brand. While plenty of McQueen's close collaborators were interviewed, Sarah Burton, his successor at his namesake label, is only mentioned once in the film and never interviewed. But the directors explain that focusing on the man rather than the brand was intentional.
"Had there been a very open channel or communication or cooperation between the brand and us, I think we would've probably wound up making a brand film, which was not what we wanted to make," Ettedgui notes.
The documentary's willingness to look at McQueen's shortcomings as a boss to his employees and as a friend to the likes of Isabella Blow goes beyond framing McQueen's faults as merely the romantic darkness of a tortured artist. While it seems that wouldn't have been impossible to do while making more mention of McQueen's ongoing legacy, it's understandable that the directors were hesitant to create what might come off as a long advertisement for the current house of McQueen.
One of the film's subtle strengths comes from a set of animations that fill the transitions between "chapters." Made up of 3D visuals of skulls that are covered with imagery from McQueen's oeuvre, the animations are visually decadent, dark and beautiful like the best of McQueen's designs. That they reference McQueen's gothic sensibilities, one of his best-remembered "It" items (the skull scarf) and his untimely end feels particularly fitting.
"We worked extensively with top 3D designers in London and we pushed it to the limit," Bonhôte says, noting that two of the gilded skulls depicted at the end of the film were actually created by McQueen's nephew Gary James McQueen. "Sometimes with just sit-down interviews or archive footage, you can't do justice to the amazing visual creations from Lee... It was almost like our visual stamp on it, but still making homage to what Lee had created."
For a man who spent his life building dazzling visions through his runway shows and clothing, anything less would've felt like a poor tribute, and paying proper tribute is all the filmmakers really wanted to do. "We tried to make a film that hopefully people in the fashion industry do like, but we'd like the film to [also] be for an audience which may know nothing about Lee," Bonhôte says. "We told a universal story of an extraordinary man working in an amazing industry."