McQueen is a documentary that, like its subject, transcends the industry it portrays. Enchanting and heartbreaking, it’s an enlightening film about a man who had an incredible amount of talent, and pursued his ambitions regardless of the cost.
Near the beginning of McQueen, somebody that knew Lee makes a point that many people now say they discovered the fashion designer, but that you can’t discover talent, you can only help talent along – Lee discovered himself.
That feels as true of McQueen as it is of anyone with true intrinsic talent. Lee Alexander McQueen was the fashion prodigy who grew up in the East End of London, his dad was a black cab driver and his mother looked after him and his three siblings. After college, Lee’s mother suggested he head to Saville Row and try and get an apprenticeship. He succeeded, and changed jobs a couple of times during his apprenticeship, whilst learning the foundation skills that would make him an incredible tailor as well as designer – at one point a boyfriend of Lee’s describes how Lee didn’t need to take someone’s measurements, he could simply look at someone and cut the fabric freehand.
Lee then joined the fashion design MA at Central St Martins. The collection he made for his graduation was bought by Isabella Blow, who became something of a patron and customer of Lee’s, as well as a very close friend. Soon followed the establishment of his fashion brand and his surprise appointment as chief designer Givenchy and fame.
People spoke about his humour, his silliness, of his joy and how much fun it was to work with him. Later on his friends and colleagues start to speak of how they were never quite sure if they would be getting the joker or the person with a short fuse each day.
Lee loved nature, and his dogs. There are many scenes of him enjoying the countryside, he was also an avid diver. He was also a real person, when he joins Givenchy he asks where the real people eat, which turns out to be a cafeteria in the basement, where he joins them much to the surprise of everyone.
The film doesn’t exploit Lee’s pain – it mentions it, and nearer the end of the documentary where it becomes quite unavoidable it gives us enough information without ever feeling exploitative or glorifying of it. There are also gentle hints at the source of his pain but – thankfully – the filmmakers decide to never absolutely vocalise it. There have been plenty of tabloid headlines about this man and this documentary doesn’t add to them.
What stands alone from this film is Lee, obviously, but also his work. Whether you are a fashion connoisseur or completely clueless, McQueen’s talent is tangible and his hard work looks grueling, working for two fashion houses – Givenchy and his own – and creating up to twelve collections a year.
McQueen is a love letter to an incredible man, and an uncommon talent. Like any great documentary, an interest in the subject is not a prerequisite to enjoying the film, or developing an interest in the subject. The documentary manages to take what could be a tragic story and instead make it feel like a celebration of creativity and joie de vivre, qualities embodied by the genius Lee McQueen.