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McQueen: Truths and Half-Truths

A sensitive new film about the perturbed life of the late designer tells his sad story all over again.

The painful story of Lee Alexander McQueen – his fashion triumph and inner turmoil – has yet another airing. After “Savage Beauty”, the record-breaking 2011 exhibition of the British designer’s life and art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, now comes a movie.

The poster for the new film about Alexander McQueen’s life and work

Produced by Ian Bonhôte and co-directed by him and Peter Ettedgui, “McQueen” was launched last week in New York at the Tribeca Film Festival and will open in British cinemas on the 8th of June. It is the most sensitive vision I have seen about a creative who never lost his rough edges, and who put his life – the bloody history of distant warriors in Scotland and childhood abuse within his family – on stage.

Courtesy of Ann Ray: Kate Moss and McQueen share a moment backstage at the McQueen Spring/Summer 2001 show

Episodes of McQueen’s life, before his death by suicide in February 2010, both exhibit and explain his development as a young and bolshie creator who, in his days as an apprentice on Savile Row, stitched a vulgar motif hidden on the inside of a suit destined for Prince Charles, and who seemed to move with lightning speed from British bad boy to Creative Director of the Paris couture house of Givenchy.

Alexander McQueen takes a bow with a bird of prey – one of his passions – at the end of his Autumn/Winter 1997-1998 Givenchy Haute Couture show

There are various examples of the designer’s wild side, including collecting dead birds and offering tortuous blocks of footwear in his final and supremely beautiful collection titled “Plato’s Atlantis”. And the film, through interviews with the designer’s family, offers an insider vision – or at least their various points of view.

Courtesy of Getty: Eva Herzigova on the catwalk for McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1997 collection for Givenchy and (right) during a fitting before the show, where McQeen decided to slash the legs off what was originally designed as an all-in-one outfit

The “star” is Sebastian Pons, a Majorcan member of team McQueen, who gives energetic and honest descriptions of what it was like to be on fashion’s floor.

Courtesy of Ann Ray: Naomi Campbell being fitted by Alexander McQueen in a draped gold dress that featured in his Spring/Summer 1997 Givenchy Haute Couture show

The movie is inevitably low-key about McQueen’s addiction, but high on the anguish of those who worked alongside him and watched the downward spiral.

Courtesy of Dave Bennett/Getty: Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow, wearing McQueen, at a Tatler dinner at Floriana on Beauchamp Place, London in 2003

The late Isabella Blow, the designer’s mentor and chief support – until she was pushed aside – has a major role. But in watching that relationship on screen, I started to feel the discomfort of having lived in a parallel universe to the film. When Detmar Blow, Issie’s husband, talks about his wife’s relationship with McQueen, I can think only of Issie’s anguished emails to me in the last few weeks before her suicide, and the betrayal she felt by the designer she had nurtured.

Courtesy of Gary Wallis/Misfits Entertainment: McQueen doing a handstand in the grounds of Hilles House, Isabella Blow’s country home

But the real elephant in the room is John Galliano. The film lacks context on what was happening in fashion in the 1990s, when the old guard of Parisian couture houses started employing the daring Young Turks from London’s Saint Martin’s School of Art and Design. Galliano was the chosen designer at Givenchy in 1995. Only when he shifted to Christian Dior was McQueen put in place.

Courtesy of Rex: In the mid-Nineties and early Noughties, two British designers dominated Paris couture: Alexander McQueen (centre) and John Galliano (left), shown here with Annabelle Rothschild (right) in 2000 at the Vogue Laureus Party at the Monte Carlo Sports Club in Monaco. The new film on McQueen glaringly omits references to John Galliano’s work

There is a harrowing scene in the film when a desolate McQueen realizes that his neo-classical mythology did not gel with Parisian haute couture. He also felt slighted by the relatively low budget he had been given to stage Givenchy shows compared to Galliano’s extravaganzas at Dior.

Courtesy of Getty: A model with giant Icarus wings sits on the balcony of the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris during Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 1997 Givenchy Haute Couture show

Missing too are the YBAs – the Young British Artists – appearing as a group in the 1990s, with Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst as leaders of the art world. Jake and Dinos Chapman were friends with McQueen, and it is impossible to see the designer’s work – such as robotic arms showering paint on model Shalom Harlow in his Spring 1999 show – without its context in “Cool Britannia”.

Courtesy of Ann Ray: Alexander McQueen with Shalom Harlow before she stepped on to the catwalk to be sprayed with paint by robots during the finale of his Spring 1999 Ready-to-Wear show

McQueen with Kate Moss at Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy Club in London’s Notting Hill Gate (circa 1991) at the height of the YBA movement

A brief and passing glimpse of Sarah Burton, who has taken over brand McQueen, also underscores a missing link in the movie.  As a young assistant, she joined the company straight out of college in 1997 and her absence on screen is a reminder of how much of McQueen’s life and departure is locked in noble silence.

Courtesy of Ann Ray: McQueen could often be found working intensely backstage on the final details of an outfit before sending it down the catwalk

Maybe it is time to bring to a close the re-telling of this sad story of Lee Alexander McQueen’s brilliance and burn out. After all, his clothes – gothic, savage, and frighteningly untouchable – speak louder in life than on any screen.

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