McQueen, in theaters July 20, is a fashion film that succeeds where so many others have failed. Fashion features have a tendency to get starry-eyed, hustling to secure glamorous 'talking heads' interviews with celebrities who wore the designer’s clothes, top photographers who shot them, and influential editors who featured their work — but who didn’t necessarily know the person very well. Co-directed by relatively lesser-known directors Ian Bonhôte (known for music videos and fashion ads) and Peter Ettedgui (who had previously worked on films about George Best and Jean Vigo), the masterstroke of McQueen is the narrow focus on McQueen’s family — his mother, sister, and nephew — and the small group of people he worked closely with to create the 'Alexander McQueen' of fashion legend.
McQueen’s catwalk shows were some of the most spectacular in the history of fashion — from the Pepper’s Ghost technique used to project a floating Kate Moss at the Widows of Culloden show, to Shalom Harlow in a white couture gown being sprayed live by robot arms usually used for painting cars (which you can see in the exclusive clip below). But to focus solely on the veneer of fashion fantasy and its proximity to celebrity would have done a disservice to the designer's extraordinary life. In avoiding those clichés, the directors have built an incredibly moving portrait of Lee Alexander McQueen, the working class kid born in Lewisham, England, who went on to become one of the greatest fashion designers of all time.
The most astonishing parts of the film are not footage from the shows — though they are truly incredible — but the piecing together of Lee’s unlikely journey to the top. "I wasn't very good at school. I was always drawing clothes," he says in one recording. But despite the boundaries of class, Lee saw a route to make his dreams come true and worked doggedly to pursue it. He trained as a tailor’s apprentice, working on Savile Row in London, then at a theater costumier — all before flying to Italy (without a contact) to find a job in an atelier there, which he did, working as an assistant to Romeo Gigli. When he returned to the UK, he was accepted into the storied MA Fashion course at Central Saint Martins. Lacking any financial aid, his aunt helped to pay the fees. As a voice in the trailer says: "No one discovered Alexander McQueen. Alexander McQueen discovered himself."
What this film captures is the dichotomous story of a man who was also a myth. The story of a creative genius, able to absorb the strangeness of nature (and the beauty and perversity of human nature), to create spectacular, otherworldly, and sometimes miraculous works of fashion-art. But it is also the story of a depressed, lonely drug addict; a man damaged by childhood experiences with his sister’s abusive husband, deeply wounded by the suicide of his estranged mentor Isabella Blow, and finally crushed by the death of his mother Joyce. McQueen hanged himself in his wardrobe, alone at home on the eve of her funeral. The sadness of the film, of Lee’s death, can take your breath away.
Much has been said about the stresses of the fashion industry and this film speaks to it in-depth. The endless seasons, with more being added all the time — pre-collections, resort/cruise, and diffusion lines. The huge pressure heaped on designers taking the reins at Paris’ historic fashion houses and the need to be immediately successful. (If you watched Raf Simons break down in tears of stress ahead of his debut show for Dior in the 2014 film Dior & I, then you’ve seen, and perhaps felt, that pressure.) Recruited to lead Givenchy in 1997, McQueen is barely mentioned in the history of the house, except to note that he insulted the founder upon joining, and described his own first couture collection as "crap."
In McQueen, rowdy camcorder footage of Lee arriving at the Givenchy offices in Paris, crammed in a car with his optimistic team, gives way to anecdotes about how he cut ties with those friends, isolating himself. It is a pattern that has become familiar. As Suzy Menkes wrote after John Galliano’s (rightfully condemned) anti-semitic rant in 2011: "There is pathos in the vision of one of the world’s most famous — and best paid — designers alone, clutching a glass in a bar."
Today, fashion is again an industry in mourning. Kate Spade, the designer credited for creating It bags in the '90s, was found dead last month. On hearing the news that Spade had hanged herself, her friend Kelly Cutrone, a well-known publicist, told The Daily Beast: "The industry is endemic with suicide, bankruptcy, depression, and addiction. A lot of people in the fashion industry are having a hard time. The real issue is why are so many creatives alone. It's super sad."
While it would be too simplistic to say that fashion is responsible for the deaths of designers with severe mental health problems and addiction issues, perhaps come July 20 — with the release of McQueen — we should all take pause. As the late, great punk provocateur Judy Blame wrote in 2015: "It seems the most radical thing you can do today is care for yourself and other people."