McQueen: Truths and Half-Truths

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.

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.

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, supposedly a penis, 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

There is a harrowing scene in the film when a desolate McQueen realises 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.

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/Summer 1999 show – without its context in “Cool Britannia”.

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.

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.