McQueen opens Friday, August 24
Cineplex Park Lane, 5657 Spring Garden Road
The summer Ian Bonhôte moved to England from France was also the summer Alexander McQueen's star reached a new point in the stratosphere. "He was everywhere, his name was everywhere, we were all waiting for what he'd do next," the filmmaker—who is half of the directing duo behind opening-this-week documentary McQueen—remembers via phone. As Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui's film catalogues so well, by the end of the 1990s the London fashion designer had crossed over into mainstream consciousness, attaining the type of fame that sees people in the street asking for your autograph.
To call McQueen the bad boy of '90s fashion feels lazy but not inaccurate: You have him to thank for the ultra-low-rise denim that was popular around the end of that decade and, as Ettedgui puts it, "newspapers were always competing with headlines: 'McQueen is mad,' 'McQueen hates women,'" as he explored themes of sex and violence through pieces that left nipples exposed, acting as adornments.
Luckily for the audience, McQueen isn't lazy. Those headlines are acknowledged with a montage after showing footage of the designer's infamous autumn/winter 1995 collection, "Highland Rape," which garnered ample criticism as models stomped the bramble-filled runway with matted hair.
"People are so unintelligent. They thought it was about raping women, but it was about what England did to Scotland," McQueen explains in the next scene, before the filmmakers chart the south Londoner's attempt to reckon with his Scottish ancestry.
The movie doesn't waste time here, as so much coverage of McQueen has chosen to. Instead, it rewinds to the designer's early days, using an impressive number of interviews to present the image of a young McQueen, growing up in a rough neighbourhood with blue-collar parents and trying desperately to find his place in the world.
Early mentors recall explaining to him that a runway show could be a story, and his eyes lighting up as possibilities bloomed in his mind. Tailors of Savile Row—the historic tailoring district of London, which had fallen out of fashion in McQueen's youth but is now considered on par with the technical hand-stitch of Parisian haute couture (in part thanks to the designer)—describe how quickly McQueen, a rough teen with a foul mouth, picked up the basics of turning hems and fitting sleeves as he worked in their shops.
Bonhôte and Ettedgui stuff an impossible amount of runway footage into their 111-minute runtime, allowing the audience to watch McQueen's career and aesthetic develop over time. It also reminds us why the designer was at once so loved and reviled as his uber-theatrical, story-driven fashion shows weave a tight tale of sex and mischief before visibly uncomfortable, well-heeled audiences.
The directors have done their research, and due to the designer's era and ego this work is rewarded with the sort of private footage uncommon in many fashion docs. In perhaps the best scene, a home video of McQueen and his four best friends sees the group of early 20-somethings arriving in Paris for the first time, driving past the Eiffel Tower days before McQueen would take over at the iconic French house Givenchy. (A decade-plus-old spoiler: The English designer struggled to find his feet at the Parisian label, refusing to follow the expectations of what an haute couture show should be. Footage of Naomi Campbell in a gold cocktail dress and antlers trails by as the film's audience gets the sinking feeling no one in the room "gets it.")
Soon, the price of fame and the incredible workload of running two labels begins to catch up with the designer—and the film makes sure to give a hard look at McQueen's poor coping methods, with old friends giving tearful interviews.
And though the man fell apart, the work never did: Bigger, more structurally adventurous gowns and wilder, more cinematic shows dot the end of McQueen's career and the film's closing arc.
Sometimes, the clothes do make the man. As Bonhôte notes, McQueen "always said 'Don't judge me by what they say or what I do, I am my work so judge me by that,' and that's what we tried to do here: To tell the story of who he was through his clothes."