Filmmakers Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui are the latest people to pay tribute to the life and legacy of the late Alexander McQueen.
Since the designer took his own life in 2010, there has been unprecedented and continuous interest in his work.
But Bonhôte and Ettedgui’s documentary, McQueen, which opens in New York and LA this weekend and in San Francisco on July 27, is more a portrait of the man behind those astounding and occasionally disturbing collections.
We chatted with the pair earlier this week about Lee Alexander McQueen, the demons he fought, and why they never intended to make a film about a fashion brand.
How did you first become aware of Alexander McQueen?
Bonhôte: I immigrated to the UK in September 1997. I was 19-20 at the time, and while I was studying filmmaking I was doing a lot of work in clubs—projection work. The club scene was really exciting in the UK, and I was working in a club called The Blue Note. And from the stairs of The Blue Note, you could look into Lee’s studio in Shoreditch. His presence was so massive in cultural London—he was collaborating with Björk, with the young British artists; he was constantly appearing in The Face, ID, Dazaed and Confused Magazine; and all his friends were the cool kids. So all of that was seeping into my own creative evolution. You were constantly inspired by Lee.
Ettedgui: I first really heard about McQueen through my father who knew him quite well and was one of his early champions. My dad owned the Joseph stores in London, and he kind of discovered a lot of great fashion talent, starting with Kenzo and bringing the Japanese designers Rei Kawakubo and Yoji Yamamoto to London. Isabella Blow actually took my dad to one of the earliest McQueen shows. As soon as he began to produce, my father always bought his collections for the Joseph stores. I remember vividly reading these quite scary headlines—or they at least made McQueen sound like this scary Edward Scissorhands punk, violent badass character. And my dad said to me once, “Don’t believe any of that crap. He’s actually a lovely boy and just a genius tailor.”
I thought, How intriguing. He’s from the East End, he’s got all this attitude, and yet he’s taken the time and trouble to learn his craft, apprenticing on Savile Row.
Why do you think his work and his death have had such a resounding impact beyond the fashion world?
Bonhôte: I think two things: His work was not only fashion. The way he mixed up so many creative influences and art forms and expressed them through his fashion. But his fashion shows being such an event—that made it exciting and inspirational for a lot of people in other creative mediums. The fact of his own life, his humble beginnings and his clash with the fashion world—I think that echoes with other people. I think Lee lived his creative life at such a fast pace that no one managed to catch up with him—even himself. A lot of people in the fashion industry, they go from one show to the next. They have to talk about Alexander McQueen, but they also have to talk about John Galliano, they have to talk about LVMH and Chanel. So they constantly have themselves on the treadmill. So I think even the specialists never really had time to look back at Lee’s entire career. And because he died so tragically, people were curious about it, and when they started realizing how much he had created and the influence he was having, I think people realized those silhouettes he created were as impactful as Coco Chanel was at the time, Saint Laurent, etc.
Ettedgui: I think the other thing is—and you can’t overemphasize this—as you know, he played with emotion so strongly in his work. He wanted his work to be not just decorative, but expressive. That’s quite an unusual aim in the fashion business. It does put his work on a different plane. It’s not just beautiful frocks. It’s beautiful frocks—and sometimes ugly frocks or shredded frocks—and they express something. Like all great craftsmen who are artists as well, he had the tools at his disposal to take his medium wherever he wanted to and express whatever he wanted to express through it.
McQueen’s family were initially hesitant to be interviewed. Do you have a sense of why they didn’t want to participate initially?
Bonhôte: Despite the excitement of making a film about Alexander McQueen and a sense that everyone was going to be excited to talk to us because he was such a great genius, and we had this very respectful approach to the project, what we didn’t realize was that Lee had been gone for only seven years. And seven years is quite a bit of time, but we naively didn’t realize that it was still raw in people’s minds. With suicide, it’s a very typical thing that people blame themselves for what happened. I believe in a lot of people’s minds there was still a lot of guilt. And there have been a lot of vulgar things written about Lee, quite sensationalistic. And because he died so early, some people were not ready to talk to some strangers.
Ettedgui: Or they just wanted to keep their feelings private. Which we understand and we respected that. But we ultimately felt that the people we wanted in this film were family, close friends, some of his boyfriends who actually worked with him. We wanted to make a very personal film rather than the sort of film where you wheel out the usual suspects: the fashion editors and the supermodels and so on. Not that we don’t have some of that, but we didn’t want it to be commentary. We wanted it to be people relating the story and how it felt to be there, working alongside him or to have him as a brother, as an uncle.
The film is structured around these tapes that McQueen himself recorded. What are those and how did you acquire them?
Bonhôte: They were not recorded by Lee himself, actually. They were in a conversation with someone very close to Lee. We obviously don’t want to divulge too much, but we reached out to that person and he spent a lot of time with Lee and was very close to Lee. One day we were at an event and I remember him walking up to me and handing me two 90-minute cassettes. He didn’t even remember all they had been discussing over the years. The sound quality wasn’t even all that great because it was an informal conversation and wasn’t meant to be broadcast in any form. But Lee was so candid on so many subjects. I wish we had six hours because there’s so much amazing truth coming out of Lee [on the tapes]. We always felt that the main protagonist of our story is Lee Alexander McQueen, and however much we could actually have Lee saying—we thought the tapes were essential.
Ettedgui: Very early on we decided to structure the film around a number of fashion shows because McQueen said: “If you want to know me, look at my work.” We identified the shows that we felt best-expressed aspects of his psychological makeup or his lived experience or turning points in his career, and we structured the narrative around those. And then we started getting this rough home movie videotape and these incredible audiocassettes. Those elements plus being able to create these artificial elements featuring the skull giving you a sense of the atmosphere of each chapter of the film—we put those together and created little preludes to each chapter.
How did success change him, and what does that say about the fashion industry?
Ettedgui: Yeah, I think it definitely says something about the fashion industry.
Bonhôte: Maybe we’ll have two different answers to that. For me, it says more about the creative industries in general. I do believe that the pace of the fashion industry is extremely fast. But I believe that a lot of people have taken their lives in a lot of industries. I think as a creative person, the first material that you’re using is yourself. The abuse that Lee experienced when he was young, he kept on going back to it. I truly believe that he never completely resolved some of the issues that he faced when he was really young. The fashion industry, for sure, the level of demand on its creatives is intense. The number of shows they have to do, you never have time to look back on what you’ve done, you always have to look forward, chasing the next one. We’re all very fragile human beings and we have to be careful with how we handle ourselves.
Ettedgui: I do believe that fame in the fashion industry and the illusion of the fashion industry, those are very powerful things that can really undermine one’s mental health. The aspect of this story that always fascinated us was that on the one hand you had Lee McQueen and on the other hand you had Alexander McQueen. I kinda thought, Is that too much of a literary approach? Is it too much of a conceit? But it was interesting how so many of his friends, without much prompting, remarked on that difference between Lee—i.e. the chubby extrovert, laughing child-man that you see at the beginning of the film—and Alexander, the Comme des Garcons-wearing, an unsmiling character that you see later on in the film. And also the tension between Lee the man and Alexander the brand. You really see how he felt trapped by Alexander McQueen the brand. It became something that he did feel had enslaved him. I think he lost himself and part of that was a desire to look like a fashion designer, which he didn’t have early on, and that was part of his charm. So, yeah, the fashion industry did change him—or he changed himself to fit into the fashion industry.
So much of what made his work compelling was the influence of what so many people refer to as his “dark side.” Should his death and the fact that he was obviously very troubled change the way we think about his work?
Bonhôte: When we interviewed Simon Costin, one of the art directors Lee worked with, he never felt that Lee was as dark as we feel he became toward the end of his life. He said that Lee had an interest in the macabre. But it was in an artistic way. It was inspiring him. We’ve got a sort of naïve view that the future will be amazing and we’ll find resolution eventually. But when the years go by and you never have time to take a breath and actually look back on your issues, that’s the aspect that was really too much for Lee. He had a dark side, but he was also interested in the macabre. I think the two things may have started to blend into each other, but they were different at the start.
Several people in the film reference abuse that McQueen experienced as a child at the hands of his brother-in-law. Do you have a sense of what kind of abuse that was?
Ettedgui: It was sexual molestation.
Bonhôte: You know, there are a lot of dark elements in [Lee’s] life—drugs, AIDS. We wanted to mention it and we didn’t want to whitewash it, but we never wanted to dwell in what we would have felt would be vulgar. The same thing with his homosexuality. I think we are a better-developed society where being a young gay man and experimenting and discovering yourself sexually—we talk about it, but it shouldn’t be the main subject matter. I wasn’t interested in Lee’s sexual preferences whatsoever. That’s Lee’s personal life. It might have in some ways inspired the work, but it didn’t dictate what he did. All those elements we felt, let’s mention them, but let’s not be vulgar. You mention it once, it’s fine. You mention it two or three times, potentially people just pick up on that and the whole story of the film becomes about that. There are other documentaries where We reveal this! The latest revelation about Alexander McQueen! That’s so far from what Peter and I wanted to do as filmmakers. It’s so vulgar and simplistic. And I think it’s an insult to anyone who is going through that or has gone through those things.
Ettedgui: It’s interesting you ask that question about what kind of abuse it was. We’re not very good reporters or journalists. We could, of course, have hammered away at Gary and Janet to get them to define things more precisely, but we kind of felt very emotional. It was painful when they started talking about it. We didn’t want to prolong their pain. It was very courageous to bring it up in the way that they did and mention it with such honesty and we felt, that’s enough. The implication is there. And the audience can use their imagination. A more conventional documentary might have said that’s why McQueen could never have a proper relationship, because of that early trauma. It caused him to distrust people, it made intimacy very difficult, etc. All of which is exactly what we believe. But we trust our audience to make those connections.
It was interesting that current Alexander McQueen creative director Sara Burton is mentioned only very briefly.
Ettedgui: Sorry, who’s Sara Burton?
Bonhôte: He’s joking! He’s trying to avoid the question. I’m ready to go there!
Do you have a sense of what the brand thinks of the film?
Ettedgui: We went to the brand very early on, and two things became very clear at that meeting. One was that the brand felt that they had done Savage Beauty [at the Met] partly so they could then face the future, and focus the future of the brand around Sara Burton. Totally understandable. From our point of view, not having the brand cooperate caused certain problems. Fashion is an industry that is very close-knit, to put it politely. If the brand wasn’t involved, certain people said, “We don’t want to be involved because we don’t want to upset the brand.” On the other hand, for us it was a huge advantage because if we had the brand we would have inevitably, even with the best intentions on both sides, we would have inevitably have made a brand film. It would have conditioned who we could interview, it would have conditioned how we told the story, etc. So being independent of the brand I think we gained a great deal, even if we made our lives a little more difficult.
Bonhôte: And we were trying to make a film about the person and not the brand.
Ettedgui: We would have loved to have Sara be involved in it because it would have given a message of hope and a sense of continuity. Also, she was there by his side for so long. But it has to be said that Sebastian Pons was there as Lee’s first assistant. He could really relate what it was like to be in the studio with him, to be part of the gang. This isn’t rationalizing; we really feel that everyone who needs to be in this film to help tell the story in the way we hope to present it is there.
Is there an heir to Lee McQueen? Is there anyone in fashion now that you would consider a potential successor, someone who can make the same kind of impact?
Bonhôte: I don’t want to mention people exactly, I wear a lot of Craig Green and Gareth Pugh so Peter wants me to mention those two names. But what I want to say is, the fashion world as changed. It’s a different business from the early to late 90s when John Galliano and Alexander McQueen came up as very talented people. Money was being pumped behind creativity to fight two major fashion houses: Gucci Group and LVMH. And now, those houses have swallowed most of the brands out there. It’s more about growth in a more capitalistic way and less of a celebration of creativity. So I’m extremely happy that Alexander McQueen the brand is not a part of our film, because I never want to make a brand film. The film needs to have a subjective voice from the filmmakers, and that’s what we’ve managed to do.