“We didn’t want to make a fashion film, we wanted to make a film about an extraordinary man who happened to work in fashion,” says Ian Bonhôte, who together with co-director Peter Ettedgui, unveils the highly anticipated McQueen documentary at Tribeca Film Festival this week. His words are fitting because McQueen’s discomfort within the fashion industry is well-documented, and writ large from his early on-screen moments when, still only 22, a self-described “East End yob” he turns his back to the camera during interviews so that he wouldn’t be identified and endanger his unemployment benefit which he used to buy fabrics.
The film’s structure is divided into chapters called “tapes,” each one beginning with Mc Queen’s taped voice revealing intimate thoughts on his work, his motivations, his state of mind, and culminating in a fashion show. The early tapes are filled with fun anecdotes (when he interned at 90s Brit it-brand Red Or Dead, he obsessively listened to Sinéad O’Connor.) But life changes dramatically when McQueen with assistant Sebastian Pons, set designer Simon Costin, stylist Katy England, are whisked off to Paris after he is chosen as the designer for Givenchy. Living together in an apartment in Place des Vosges, equipped with their own personal driver, Costin comments incredulously of the atelier staff: “They’re calling you Monsieur McQueen?”
But the air of tragedy is never far from the surface as we know how this story ends. Interstitial still lifes and videos separating the sections––sculptures of skulls, flowers and feathers, some of which were designed by Gary James McQueen, the designer’s nephew–– are cinematic and poignant. His nephew also designed the chrome skull artwork and promotional material for the blockbuster 2011 exhibition, “Savage Beauty” at the Met. There are many emotional moments throughout, not least of all watching McQueen backstage, clasping his hands to his head, overcome, as he watches the finale of his spring 99 show when two robots spray paint a dress worn by model Shalom Harlow: “It was the first time I cried at my own show,” he admits.
Many of the individuals featured in the show are present in the audience and one can’t help feeling the film must prove difficult viewing for them at times. The designer’s psychologically darker tendencies are never skirted over, despite the stunning visual feast they regularly produced. His disappointing treatment of the late Isabella Blow who is credited with discovering him is particularly excruciating to observe. Pons recalls the time the designer discussed with him his plan for a future show in which the finale would feature McQueen inside a perspex box, and before the gawping audience he would put a gun to his head and pull the trigger. “He could hear voices chasing him,” adds Pons. “‘Paranoia will destroy ya,’ he used to say.”
Bonhôte lets slip in the subsequent Q & A that McQueen had been accepted onto a fine art program in London but felt he couldn’t desert his responsibilities to his staff who had mortgages to pay and lives that depended on the continuation of his company. The mind boggles at how his creativity might have found fresh outlet, and even respite from the grueling 14 shows a year that weighed on him towards the end. Interestingly, Isabella Blow describes the basis of his work as “sabotage and tradition” which is apt as his suicide robbed us of his vision, but his donation of the bulk of his fortune to establishing his Sarabande Foundation which provides scholarships to young creatives so that they can have the opportunities he had has a poetic sense of tradition. Although as Costin reminds us, the likes of McQueen, “don’t come up very often.”
McQueen will be in theaters in July.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Images from BleekerStreetMedia.com and TribecaFilm.com