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The Dark, Twisted Fantasies in ‘McQueen’

Explains the documentary's co-director Ian Bonhôte, designer Alexander McQueen was "an obsessive genius running on raw energy and instinct."

Directed by Ian Bonhôte and co-directed and written by Peter Ettedgui, the documentary McQueen explores at the life, career and creativity of designer Alexander McQueen. 

“If the subject matter is so amazing and you have visuals, visual support and stories to tell, then I think a documentary is better than a biopic because there’s no one better than the real people to tell the story,” Bonhôte tells Ella Alexander. “Audiences don’t care if it has slick imagery; they care about the emotion of that visual or footage, whether it shows them something they didn’t know.” To read the full article, click here.

Through interviews with family, friends and colleagues, footage from his runway shows and previously lost video, McQueen reveals a creative talent who expressed his darkest fantasies through design. “He was… an obsessive genius running on raw energy and instinct,” Bonhôte says. “There was something not quite civilized about him.”

“[Alexander] started a movement called Alexander McQueen,” says Sebastian Pons, a designer who joined Lee’s studio as an intern and became the assistant designer for his collections. “There was nothing else like it. He used to say that he was not going into fashion, because fashion was boring. It was time to break the rules and bring new energy and new meaning to it. He created theater that brought you into his world — whether you liked it or not.”

A conventional storytelling format, the filmmakers agreed, wouldn’t capture McQueen’s radical spirit. His “life and work were so fused with each other,” says Ettedgui. “His shows were so personal. What made him special and different was the work and we wanted find our way to his essence though it.”

“Even before we began shooting, we had done a lot of research and we had a clear vision,” says Ettedgui. “We had selected a handful of shows that expressed turning points of his story.”

Presented in five chapters, McQueen highlights the pivotal moments in the designer’s life as expressed in some of his most personal and iconic shows: “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims,” his 1992 graduate college collection; “Highland Rape,” his most controversial early show; “Search for the Golden Fleece,” the first collection he designed for fashion giant Givenchy; “Voss,” an exploration of beauty and madness. 

The final chapter, “Plato’s Atlantis,” charts the journey from the collection he dedicated to his great friend and muse Isabella Blow after she committed suicide, to the otherworldly final show he produced before he himself took his life.

Drawing on influences as diverse as his own Scottish ancestry, the macabre photographs of Joel Peter Witkin, classic mythology, the elements, and his favorite horror films, McQueen created a series of fantastically realized new worlds that riveted audiences.

“I would go to the end of my dark side and pull these horrors out of my soul and put them on the catwalk,” McQueen said.

Bonhôte and Ettedgui combed through hundreds of hours of footage to capture the immediacy and the visceral shock of McQueen’s shows. In one clip, model Shalom Harlow, wearing a pristine white dress, is assaulted by robots (one of his favorite themes) shooting streams of paint. Model Kate Moss takes the runway in hologram form and Naomi Campbell struts down the catwalk wearing golden ram’s horns. During one show, the set caught fire and McQueen insisted it be left to burn as the models continued to walk.

“People connected with the man behind ‘Alexander McQueen,'” says Gary McQueen, the designer’s brother. “He was a hard worker and skilled technical designer who put his blood, sweat and tears into his work, all for 20 minutes on the runway. But he loved to see the reactions to his shows. 

“We had about 150 sources,” Bonhôte tells Alexandra Pauley. “We looked for people who had shared the most intimate moments with [McQueen] through working relationships or friendships, and we interviewed these people and built a trust with them. Mira [Chai Hyde], for example, who was a close friend and did the grooming for his shows, discovered all these boxes [of material]. She’s got an amazing collection of early McQueen because she lived with him, and she got paid [in clothes] and things like that.

“And there are other things like, you find a photograph of the gang, and you see that someone is holding a video camera,” Ettedgui adds. “You get in touch with that person, and you go, ‘whose video camera is that?’ and they say, ‘oh, that’s Simon’s video camera,’ so you get in touch with Simon. It’s a detective sort of thing; you have to track the stuff down. To read the full article, click here

The filmmakers worked to track down every interview McQueen gave, as well as never-before-seen archives of him at work and leisure. Wherever possible, Bônhote and Ettedgui wanted to allow McQueen to speak for himself.

“Towards the very end of [postproduction], we received a cache of archive we’d been trying to find for almost a year, and it was just extraordinary, because there it was so many of [the] exact things we’d been wishing for were there in these incredibly rare interviews,” says Ettedgui. “Lee was a bit camera shy, but if he trusted the interviewer, he relaxed and just spoke so eloquently about himself and his work.”