In old interview footage included in the documentary McQueen, the late British designer Lee Alexander McQueen states, ‘If you want to know me, just look at my work.’ Relatively few had the privilege of seeing his extraordinary designs on the runway firsthand. Many more got to witness the results of his impeccable craftsmanship and raw, romantic vision at Savage Beauty, the landmark exhibition presented at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2011 and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2015. With this new documentary, the filmmakers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui provide another, more far-reaching opportunity to view McQueen’s work, but also to learn that bit more about Lee McQueen, the man whose imaginative genius revolutionised the fashion industry.
The film is structured as a series of videotapes that chart McQueen’s life through the lens of some of his most important collections. These ‘McQueen Tapes’ cut between archival footage of his runway shows, interviews with the designer, old home video recordings, and recent interviews with family, friends, colleagues, and ex-boyfriends. Specially created animations of skulls, a common McQueen motif, divide the chapters, replicating the gothic drama of many of his shows. The musical score by Michael Nyman furthers this sense of the dramatic, though its use is at times rather overwrought. (Nyman’s music also accompanies part of The Met’s current Costume Institute exhibition, Heavenly Bodies, another stupendous opportunity for those in New York to see some of McQueen’s religiously inspired designs.)
Born in 1969, Lee McQueen grew up in a loving, working-class family in the East End of London. By his own account, he wasn’t very good at school and spent much of his time drawing clothes. With the support of his family, particularly his mother, to whom he was very close, he left school at fifteen to apprentice on Savile Row. Here, this scruffy-looking lad with a wicked sense of humour learnt the precise tailoring skills that would define his clothing. Subsequently, after working as an assistant to designer Romeo Gigli in Milan, McQueen enrolled in the Master of Arts Fashion programme at London’s Central Saint Martins.