New doc McQueen remembers a tortured genius of British fashion

Directors Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui look back on the life of British fashion icon Alexander McQueen in their new documentary, McQueen

British fashion designer Alexander McQueen committed suicide in 2010
Damon Smith

BORN and raised in the London borough of Stratford, Lee Alexander McQueen was a tortured genius of working class origins, who challenged the fashion establishment with his catwalk shows influenced by death, depravity and violence.

He was a defiantly original yet heart-breakingly fragile voice in a rarefied world that didn't always understand or appreciate his bold ambitions.

The press labelled him a misogynist for his 1995 Highland Rape collection, which draped torn Scottish tartans over bruised models, who staggered down the runway as if they had just been physically assaulted backstage.

For his spring 2001 show entitled Voss, he created a giant mirrored cube lit from within, allowing a stunned audience to view models staggering around the enclosed space in the guise of asylum patients.

The performance culminated in a shocking recreation of Joel-Peter Witkin's grotesque 1983 photographic tableau Sanitarium, comprising a voluptuous woman breathing through a mask.

"Fat birds and moths – isn't that fashion's worst nightmare?" gleefully snorts fetish writer Michelle Olley, who recreated the pose in McQueen's show, during one fascinating segment of Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui's lavishly designed documentary.

McQueen charts the rise of the openly gay trailblazer from his awkward teenage years, through an enduring friendship with mentor Isabella Blow (she persuaded him to trade under his middle name) and a controversial appointment as lead designer of Parisian fashion house Givenchy.

"When Lee was 17, he said, 'I'll make you a couple of skirts'," fondly recalls his sister Janet.

"I've got to say, they fitted like a glove!"

Archive footage and recollections from mentors – McQueen listened obsessively to Sinead O'Connor confides Red Or Dead's John McKitterick – are intermingled with the designer's personal testimony about his craft and penchant for shocking his audience.

"I want you to be repulsed or exhilarated," he confirms to camera.

Key collections and catwalk shows are meticulously dissected including the 1999 ready-to-wear collection which culminated in model Shalom Harlow posing on a revolving wooden platform as two robot arms sprayed her strapless white dress with streaks of yellow, green and black paint.

"You don't move forward if you play safe," McQueen professes.

His drug-fuelled battles with personal demons are illustrated in tearful confessions from close collaborators although there is a curious absence on-screen of ex-husband George Forsyth.

A lush orchestral score composed by Michael Nyman, who provided the soundtrack to some of McQueen's shows, elegantly plucks heartstrings as the film glides towards its tragic conclusion and his 2010 suicide before his mother Joyce's funeral.

"If I've had a bad day, I've only got myself to talk to," laments the designer.

Bonhote and Ettedgui's artfully staged biography is a beautifully tailored tribute to a man who irrevocably changed the trajectory of British fashion.

"If you want to know me, just look at my work," says McQueen late in the film.

Their documentary respectfully and reverentially honours his wish.

RATING: 8/10

McQueen (15, 111 mins) Documentary.

Starring: Alexander McQueen, Isabella Blow, Jodie Kidd, John McKitterick, Michelle Olley.

Directors: Ian Bonhote, Peter Ettedgui.

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