British designer Lee Alexander McQueen was just 40 when he died on the eve of his mother’s funeral in 2010. His vitality and groundbreaking creations brought a working-class boy from London to the couture houses of Paris. So how did an overweight, gay misfit from London’s mean streets climb to the highest ranks of the fashion establishment?

In their new documentary McQueen, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui tell the outrageous story of the designer’s life, work and shine a light on his inner darkness.

The documentary spans the breadth of McQueen’s career, from his graduation from Central Saint Martins in 1992 to his appointment as the creative director of Givenchy in 1997, his departure from the French couture house in 2001 and the final years he dedicated to his eponymous label before his suicide.

“We wanted to make a really respectful cinematic version of Lee’s story,” Bonhôte told Vogue. “You could go very tabloid and sensationalist, but we wanted to put his work at the film’s centre, and to try to tell his life from the fashion shows. People were excited about this.”

Bonhôte (producer and co-director) and Ettedgui (writer and co-director) present the documentary in five chapters, titled “Tapes” after a jokey interview project with friends, punctuated by the skull motif that remains the iconic symbol of McQueen’s design house today.

The skull is continually deconstructed and reshaped, taking on a new form from chapter to chapter, serving as a marker of both McQueen’s evolving aesthetic and his deteriorating state of mind.

Much time is devoted to Isabella Blow, whose mentorship included McQueen’s introduction to those in the fashion know in England. It was Blow that first suggested Alexander made a better, more respectable designer’s name than Lee, that this would take the edge off his reputation as “the hooligan of English fashion.” Her relationship with McQueen is so well-defined it’s devastating when we learn of their eventual fall out.

While there are key absences among the talking heads, notably longtime stylist Katy England, there’s a wealth of professional observations and tender personal recollections from former collaborators and friends notably, hairstylist Mira Chai-Hyde and designer Sebastian Pons.

But the biographical thread of the film would be nothing without the breathtaking footage of the shows themselves, which thankfully, were extensively video-documented despite predating the social media age.

The film includes captivating footage of his catwalk shows, from early collections such as The Birds to the later, Plato’s Atlantis. Recounts of personal stories from colleagues and friends show raw emotion despite the passing of the years. This, cut with footage of Lee in the past, stays with the viewer as the designer’s sad story comes to a close.

Late in the film, McQueen tells us “if you want to know me, look at my work.” By the time we hear this, we’re familiar with the designer’s darker side, some of the agonies he endured, all of which influenced his designs.

If you’re new to McQueen’s extraordinary work and torn-up tartan outfits, prepare to be rocked. And possibly shocked.

View the trailer above. McQueen is being screened as part of the NZ International Film Festival. For the full schedule and ticket information, visit the NZIFF website.

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