'McQueen' Filmmakers on Why It's Better to Be Outsiders Making a Fashion Film

Courtesy of Bleecker Street
'McQueen' still

Ian Bonhote's and Peter Ettedgui's film about the tortured fashion designer Alexander McQueen opens Friday.

Coming to U.S. theaters Friday, McQueen is one of the most anticipated fashion documentaries of the year, telling the story of designer Alexander McQueen, chubby, gay son of a London cabbie who conquered the Paris haute couture only to take his own life at age 40 in 2010.

Along the way, he created an aesthetic that was both macabre and magnificent, dressing Sarah Jessica Parker, Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett, Lady Gaga and many more in his fanciful designs, which were inspired by cool Britannia, kimonos, catacombs, sea creatures and more.

The film is organized into chapters, highlighting several of McQueen’s theatrical runway productions, which cast models as witches, rape victims and mental patients, challenging the notions of what is beautiful and what is grotesque, and helping to turn the catwalk into a pop culture phenomenon. Drawing from more than 200 sources, runway footage is interspersed with archival tape of the designer himself, and heartfelt interviews with McQueen’s family, friends and collaborators about his creative and personal struggles.

It’s a compelling portrait, all the more impressive considering that when the directors, Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui, first took their 15-page treatment and mood reel to the European Film Market in Berlin in February 2017, they didn’t have access to the fashion industry or to the McQueen family or brand, which is now in the hands of creative director Sarah Burton.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Savage Beauty” McQueen show, which drew more than 1 million visitors in 2011, sparked interest in the market. “We had great distributors to help with the financing,” says Ettedgui of the $1.5 million-budget film, which grossed $700,000 as of July 1 after four weeks in the U.K. “The humanity and genius of people like McQueen is drawing audiences into theaters,” says Andrew Karpen, CEO of U.S. distributor Bleecker Street, who also points to a rise in interest in documentaries in general, with RGB and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doing well this summer.

THR chatted with the directors, who held a special screening in Los Angeles on Monday night, about what it took to get the film made as fashion outsiders, why they didn’t tap the usual industry talking heads to take part and why it actually was a good thing that the McQueen brand had zero involvement.

How did you come together over the subject of McQueen?

Bonhote: He’s one of the great Britons and it’s a story deserving of the big screen. We thought if we honored his story, the visual side would back it up.

Ettedgui: Although we both have different relationships to fashion [Bonhote has dabbled in it, creating commercial campaigns for Nike, Puma and several other brands; Ettedgui has not — he was a producer of Kinky Boots and a writer on Listen to Me, Marlon], our ambition was that this shouldn’t be a fashion film, but a movie about an extraordinary person.

Do fashion outsiders make better fashion docs?

Bonhote: One hundred percent; to make a good film…it’s all about the story. A lot of fashion films are done by fans or people who really like the world of fashion. We did it because we love McQueen’s rags-to-riches story and the fact he was a fashion outsider. We thought we could tell that story through his work.

Ettedgui: Having said it’s not a fashion film, what’s fantastic about putting fashion on film is that it’s a kinetic art form. McQueen was very inspired in his designs by watching movies and observing how dresses, a Bette Davis dress, for example, would move in a particular film. We had a couple people tell us about this.

Bonhote: There’s always been a love affair between fashion and film. I think the fashion documentary is almost a normal outcome of that passion. But a lot of fashion films end up interviewing and filming the same fashion insiders, and we actually consciously made the decision not to go down that route. We were just interviewing normal people close to McQueen.

You didn’t have Vogue editor Anna Wintour in the film, for example.

EttedguiWe did try, but because we weren’t in cahoots with the brand, the house of Alexander McQueen, it meant that we could make something that wasn’t a brand film. On the other hand, it made our lives much more difficult, because the first thing people in the fashion industry asked was, "Is the brand on board?" We met with the brand, talked to them and let them know what we were up to. But we couldn’t say they approved of the project, because they didn’t have a connection to it.

Bonhote: A lot of fashion films by getting permission or doing it for the brand, they become an advertisement for the brand. There’s an agenda. Our agenda was to show the true Alexander McQueen. We had to be filmmakers, not advertisers.

You do have a lot of great sources, including Sebastian Pons, a designer who worked closely with McQueen, and several of McQueen’s relatives. How did you convince them to take part?

EttedguiWe were very much left to our own resources, and it did make life a little more difficult, because it meant we had to work that much harder to persuade people who worked with him, knew or loved him. Even the family, although they are not part of the brand, they’ve seen a lot of articles and books that sensationalized his life. Everyone is wary, you have to work hard to win their trust, and say we’re not making a tabloid version of this person’s life. We were profoundly moved by his legacy and his story. Once you can start communicating that to people, and they heard from people who had done interviews and given a good reference, gradually those doors did open, and people were less worried that the brand didn’t approve of their participation.  

Bonhote: Because he passed only eight years ago, it’s still very raw in people’s mind, especially in the U.K. So there were great moments and sad moments and in lots of suicides people have guilt or questions, so it was difficult to get people on board, and we had to be aware of different emotional states.

How did you get his sister to speak to you?

EttedguiJanet was the last person we interviewed. Almost before Berlin we reached out, and she said she would not participate.

Bonhote: We interviewed an early publicist for McQueen, who did early shows including the “Highland Rape” show, and she said she was still working with Gary McQueen [the designer’s nephew, who worked for the brand from 2006 through McQueen’s death, and until 2012]. She put us in touch, and it went well with Gary. He said it was quite cathartic, so after that, we carried on making the film, everything was going well, then Janet called us up and asked if we were still interested? We said, yes, yes, yes and interviewed her. But our main thought was to always be classy, so we would completely respect people who did and didn’t talk to us.

The film uses all kinds of footage, and none of it came from the brand?

EttedguiThe brand doesn’t own any of the archival footage. Once we established we could use other footage of the shows, it meant we could find all of these incredible nuggets. The thing I find so exciting about contemporary documentaries is that they are almost a new film form. Thanks to online archiving, people have access to so many kinds of film, from Super 8 to VHS to Hi 8, then you have YouTube. You put all these things together to create an emotional effect. And you can do it quickly and seamlessly on a timeline. It’s almost like a form of collage. It’s so difficult to communicate the visual possibilities you have at your fingertips.

Audiences have also become accustomed to different formats, because people consume entertainment on YouTube. It’s not just about the quality, it’s about the heart. Some of our lowest-quality footage ended up being the most touching archives we used.

Is there anything you wish was in the film that you weren’t able to get? What if Sarah Burton, who also worked closely with McQueen, had said yes to an interview?

Bonhote: It might have been more trouble than it was worth. If Sarah Burton had said yes, we’d have had to include her…. She’s a somewhat shy person, and what if she couldn’t share too many of the memories, then we would have ended up with a halfway good interview that we felt like we had to include.

Ettedgui: She pays tribute to him in her own way, you see it in every collection, visual motifs and things. You have to respect the nos as well as the yeses. If you know about fashion you might say where is Sarah Burton, or stylist Katy England, but I hope we have threaded in all people who said no through the archives so they have their own Hitchcock cameo moments.

Are you hopeful that the film will find an audience in the U.S.?

Bonhote: I was worried about the U.K., where he’s adored and feared, but the film has been doing well. The U.S. is one step removed, and the Met show led the way. Also, the film touches upon mental health, which is something that’s been talked about a lot. You have a lot of great icons taking their own lives, and a lot of talk about that pressure, being fragile human beings.

EttedguiFor us, the first hurdle was showing the film to McQueen’s family, and our contributors. And the feedback from them was more than we could wish for. We were making a film about and for those people.