So that’s precisely what directors Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui did with their new documentary, “McQueen” (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expanding wider throughout the summer), which traces the British designer’s life and suicide at age 40. The two-hour film is structured into five segments, each focusing on a specific fashion show that defined McQueen‘s illustrious career, which included dressing stars such as Rihanna, Sarah Jessica Parker and Cate Blanchett.
“He wanted it to feel like a true emotional experience,” Bonhote says. “A lot of designers see it as an opportunity to show their work, but sometimes he would spend even more money on the show than on the clothes.”
“Highland Rape” (Autumn/winter 1995)
A rising star in the fashion world, McQueen decided to take the dark themes of his “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” show a step further with “Highland Rape,” which tapped into his Scottish roots and England’s violent history with Scotland. Models came out in tattered, tampon-strewn outfits exposing their privates, and McQueen was quickly labeled a misogynist.
He had intended the show to be a comment on sexual violence and genocide globally, and was “disappointed that people didn’t get what he meant,” Bonhote says. “But Lee also preferred that they have that opinion than nothing.”
“It’s a Jungle Out There” (Autumn/winter 1997)
Weeks after his first show as chief designer of French fashion house Givenchy was scoffed at by critics, McQueen came back swinging with his hometown “Jungle” show in London, which embodied his punk-rock spirit with horned and furred models styled to look like wild animals. The eye-popping show‘s title was “a very specific reference to the way that he felt he was hunted down by the elite critics of the French fashion press,” Ettedgui says.
“No. 13” (Spring/summer 1999)
The first of his shows to bring him to tears was this one, McQueen said, in which model Shalom Harlow stood in a white dress on a turntable center stage, where she was sprayed with yellow and black paint by two large robotic arms as she spun around. Scored by Camille Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” “it’s both disturbing and serene at the same time,” Ettedgui says. “It has this archetypal theme about man or woman against machine.” McQueen didn’t rehearse the spray-painting finale beforehand, which may have added to his emotion when he pulled it off.
“Voss” (Spring/summer 2001)
Set inside a mental hospital, “Voss” was a haunting criticism of the fashion industry. Bandaged, flailing models were placed inside a giant cube “where they couldn’t see outside, so they were isolated (like caged animals),” Bonhote says. The audience was surrounded by mirrors, and forced to look at themselves when McQueen purposefully started the show late. At the end of the show, a glass box shattered to reveal a naked, overweight woman in a gas mask hooked up to tubes and surrounded by hundr of moths.
The concept played on how McQueen felt forced to tone down his vision while at Givenchy. “It was kind of a cage to him,” Ettedgui says. “He felt he was cracking up at times. That sense of pressure on his mental health is absolutely there in all the allusions to madness.”
“Plato’s Atlantis” (Spring/summer 2010)
McQueen‘s final women‘s wear show before his death on Feb. 11, 2010, was a fashion game changer, as the first major runway show to be live streamed. The show – which featured the premiere of the Lady Gaga song “Bad Romance” – played into McQueen‘s love of swimming and scuba diving, with models dressed in aquatic, almost alien-like dresses, accessorized by high-platform heels and hair twists.
“With ‘Plato’s,’ he felt that he had finally expressed all that he felt he could,” Bonhote says. “He had almost created another human race. With the sheer amount of looks … he had said all he needed to say.”