When you hear the surname McQueen, you might think of the man on the motorcycle named Steve if you’re older or if you’re younger, you might think of a red American sports car named Lightning and a world where cars talk, sputter and race. This movie isn’t about either of those. Lee Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) came after Steve and before Lightning and rose spectacularly before falling. Peter Ettedgui (“Listen to Me Marlon” co-writer) and Ian Bonhôte, in their directorial debut, show a man driven by a passion but always shadowed by a threatening darkness in “McQueen.”
Going by his middle name, Alexander, this McQueen isn’t about the King of Cool (1930-1980) whose affection for motorcycles can be seen in the 1963 World War II drama “The Great Escape.” And he isn’t even American like Steve or Lightning. These days, you can walk into an Alexander McQueen store in Beverly Hills or in London. Kate Middleton just word an Alexander McQueen dress to the christening of Prince Louis, but one doesn’t imagine any of the royal family rubbing shoulders with the young man we first meet in this documentary because McQueen was originally known for his shocker fashion shows.
This McQueen was the l’enfant terrible and the Hooligan of English fashion who went on to be chief designer for Givenchy in Paris (1996-2001) and that was both before and after he won British Designer of the Year Awards in 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2003. Before his death at age 40, he was given the Council of Fashion Designers of America International Designer of the Year (2003) and the Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Ettegui and Bonhôte use grainy home movies and interviews both past and present and divide the documentary up into tape segments. Tape One is “Jack Ripper Stalks his Victims.” McQueen was an East End boy, born and raised in the area where the historic serial slasher had wandered more than a century earlier. As McQueen himself recalls, he was “always drawing clothes in every class.” Through his mother’s suggestion, he apprentices with a tailor and then through his own ambition move on to the abstractions of Tokyo-born London designer Koji Tatsuno. He would later study at top art school (Saint Martin where he got his master degree).
Despite his naughty in-your-face first collections, as an apprentice he had “no attitude” and was “never late.” As a student, he was a nightmare, challenging the other students, lecturers and instructors. But he knew how to get attention. Tape Two is “The Highland Rape” where he begins to collaborate with people like hair stylist Mira Chai-Hyde for next to nothing and comes up with “ugly scenes of sex and violence” that is influenced by the “language of fetish.”
If you were not at fan of low-riding trousers and butt-crack displays (for men and women), then you’ll know who to blame. How low? Low enough to display some bush and if you’re troubled by nipples and raw, often ugly naughtiness this documentary is not for you. If you’re troubled by train wrecks, Ettegui and Bonhôte has you staring at one, only coyly avoiding the worst at the end.
Tape Three is “It’s a Jungle Out There” and takes McQueen to Givenchy where he and his crew celebrate success, finally have money and try to bring chumminess to the rigid structure of an established fashion house. But with money, there is something else: cocaine.
Tape Four is VOSS, a fashion show horror movie where the models are inmates of padded cells and the surprise centerpiece is a succubus that is presented amidst shattered glass. Tape five is McQueen’s last show, one influenced by his love of scuba diving: Plato’s Atlantis.
Ettegui and Bonhôte give us a feel for a certain time and aspect of gay culture, because McQueen was openly gay, but indulged in a scene of escapism and grungy, naughty shock exhibitionism. Friendships were solidified without much money and often with in a rush for completion of unfriendly and unwearable fashion with shows coming together with little time to spare.
And then early on, poor boy McQueen met married-rich Isabella Blow for what might have been a Manhattan marriage English-style. Rejection and tragedy follows each.
Even if you’re not fashion-forward, you might be familiar with McQueen’s work. He designed the costumes for David Bowie’s tours in 1996-1997 and the coat worn by Bowie on his 1997 album “Earthling.” Think of McQueen as Japanese abstract wear with a European flare that takes a horror film twist in places. Did he love women? Some charged misogyny after seeing some of his collections although not so much out of Givenchy and, of course, not in what Middleton wears.
There’s something of the feeling of the 2017 fictional drama “Phantom Thread,” but with a lower pedigree and sexuality is not discretely on display with McQueen. The main character of “Phantom Thread” may have had questionable mother issues, but McQueen was close to his mother and while rigid control was one of the themes of the Daniel Day Lewis movie, in this documentary about a real London designer, McQueen as an individual was someone who while controlling was veering out of control. “McQueen” is an absorbing documentary, devoted to an appreciation of the construction behind fashion fantasies and a real must-see for fashion geeks.