In the 15-month process of making the new documentary McQueen, one of the last scenes locked in was Super 8 footage of the fashion designer Alexander McQueen and his dogs below a majestically gnarled 400-year-old elm tree on the grounds of his country cottage. The pastoral scene dissolves into an image from McQueen’s macabre catwalk show, but not before audiences see a fleeting glimpse of one of the dogs in the foreground, crouching to take a crap.
It is the perfect, in-your-face detail that the movie’s provocateur subject would appreciate.
McQueen was the renegade anti-establishment son of an East London cabbie who rose to head the storied French house of Givenchy at 27. He parlayed that into funding his namesake global brand, before taking his life in 2010 when he was 40.
In light of the posthumous and record-smashing museum retrospective Savage Beauty, McQueen has been one of the most anticipated documentaries, fashion or otherwise, of the year. Throughout the film, co-directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui (Listen to Me Marlon), McQueen and his dark wit feel spectrally present.
Some crucial parts of the film only came together at the last moment, such as the footage with FashionTelevision’s Jeanne Beker. “It’s what we called ‘the golden interview,’” Ettedgui says in Toronto on the eve of the movie’s premiere at Hot Docs, "where he talks very candidly about the fact that it’s lonely for him at the top, as it were. He’s laughing, but you can see in his eyes that the responsibility is quite overwhelming for him. When we looked at that in our little computers, the hairs on the back of our neck stood up.”
In fact, there were many 11th-hour additions. “Stuff would come in,” Ettedgui adds, “and we’d have to rip the material up to re-edit it and bring that material back in. That happened constantly.”
From what the directors were told, “that’s a very McQueen way of working. ... On the day of the show McQueen would say, ‘No, I don’t like that,’ and he would get the scissors out.” (That is echoed in the film when head of Givenchy tailoring staff, Catherine de Londres, remembers being apprehensive any time he got out the scissors in the atelier.)
Some of McQueen retreads the necessary biographical tidbits – how stylist-mentor Isabella Blow bought McQueen’s school graduation collection, and suggested Lee Alexander McQueen use his middle name to sound more posh (although to family and friends he was still known as Lee); their later growing estrangement; her eventual suicide. And there’s the apocryphal tale of McQueen sewing profanity into the lining of a jacket he tailored for Prince Charles. Yet sifting through misspelled and mislabelled B-roll of more than 175 different archive sources and tracking down rare personal home movies yielded results for Ettedgui and Bonhôte. Structured in five parts, which use key fashion shows as turning points in the designer’s artistic evolution, McQueen is a powerful and illuminating portrait precisely because of the pair’s inventive archival footage collage, with old interviews and photographs as well as original new interviews all set to a stately orchestral score by Michael Nyman (The Piano).
A sublime technician of silhouette, McQueen explored dark and deeply autobiographical themes in his shows. He often said, “If you want to know me, look at my work.” So another breakthrough came when Ann Ray, one of McQueen’s preferred photographers to whom he gave full access, agreed to let the documentarians use her archive (more than 35,000 images taken over the course of 13 years). “Although it’s photographic and not in motion, it gives you such a strong impression of McQueen at work," says Ettedgui.
As much as possible, the directors say, they wanted the designer himself to narrate the film, which sounds obvious but means that information and details supplied by contributors are either led by or punctuated with the designer’s own words. Their intentions helped secure the participation of close collaborators like former assistant Sebastian Pons and members of the McQueen family, including his sister Janet and nephew Gary James McQueen, a textile artist who worked for his uncle.
In much of the archival footage, we see Sarah Burton – the one-time intern who is now head designer of the continuing Alexander McQueen brand, owned by Gucci Group – working literally at the designer’s elbow, wordlessly and perfectly in sync. But that’s the extent of her presence in the documentary; she declined to participate. “I think Sarah in particular has kept a very dignified silence around Lee,” Ettedgui says. “There’s a natural concern, because there’s been quite a lot of sensationalist stuff in the tabloids and books, they don’t want to attach themselves to that and get worried that their words are going to be manipulated or misconstrued.”
Following the death of the fashion designer in 2010, there has been a musical, and biographies that run the gamut from lurid to reverential. In her book Gods and Kings, journalist Dana Thomas talks of McQueen’s eating habits, sexual liaisons and proclivities — Burton, for example, was forewarned that her duties might include washing McQueen’s sex toys. But while touching on the designer’s depression and drug abuse where they affected his work, McQueen steers clear of the tabloid fodder to focus on the creativity and commerce.
The movie also covers the changing business in the celebrity-heavy 1990s and industrialization of fashion during the rise of conglomerates like LVMH, Givenchy’s parent company. “That’s very much a part of it,” Ettedgui explains, “there’s an element – I think Detmar Blow [widower of Isabella Blow] called it ‘the Faustian pact’ – that when you got in bed with Givenchy and LVMH and so on, life was going to change. There’s a certain inevitability to that.”
Thomas’s book and the filmmakers’ conversations with her gave them crucial insight into that: “Without making it an academic treatise we thought it was very important to try and have some of that impression. Because really McQueen – and [fellow LVMH designer] John Galliano – really did suffer a great deal.”
But the pair also think it’s important not to look at McQueen as a victim of the fashion system.
“He wanted it," Ettedgui says. “He knew exactly what he could get out of Givenchy so he was very responsible for that. And another thing is that as the pressure came bearing down and he went to Gucci Group, no matter what pressure was coming on the outside, the biggest pressure was coming from McQueen himself.”
McQueen opens Aug. 3 in Toronto before expanding to other Canadian cities