By Joseph Longo
July 19, 2018 at 09:30 AM EDT
Ann Ray/Bleecker Street

Don’t call McQueen a fashion documentary.

Directors Ian Bonhôte and Petter Ettedgui tackle the fascinating life and insurmountable legacy of late fashion designer Alexander McQueen in the new film out Friday. But for the two first-time directors, McQueen’s story isn’t about the brand. Sarah Burton, who took over the label after McQueen’s death in 2010, was never interviewed. McQueen revisits Lee Alexander McQueen, born to a taxi driving father and school teaching mother, who transcended adversity, abuse, and traddition to define British style and find beauty in the grotesque.

However, the two directors initially struggled for access to their subject’s close-guarded family. They made headway six months into research when Alexander’s nephew and protégé Gary McQueen agreed to an interview. For their second meeting, unbeknownst to the directors, Gary brought along his mother Janet, who’d largely avoided the press after sensational coverage surrounding her brother’s suicide.

“You make a documentary about Lee, but everyone who shared their memories, they shared their emotion and moments they shared with Lee,” Bonhôte tells EW. “All of that is a very weird process, and you have to be very respectful and accept the fact that people wanting to share and some people were sharing memories with us, but they would not expect to share those memories in front of the camera.”

McQueen threads the line between fashion documentary and revealing profile by recounting Alexander’s life through his work, punctuating his most autobiographical runway collections with intimate interviews and family footage. It’s the latest in a string of documentary profiles on fashion’s greats, including The Gospel According to André and Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. The directors — who took more inspiration from Amy than The September Issue — say their film has an emotional weight most fashion docs lack. “A lot of fashion film ends up being an advertisement for a brand,” Ettedgui said.

The documentary is coming out just as the fashion world reels the loss of another beloved icon to suicide, designer Kate Spade. Bonhôte says mental illness is an issue the entire creative world is struggling to address, not just fashion. McQueen, he adds, is an attempt to understand “the fragility of human beings.”

Bleecker Street

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your interest in doing a film on Alexander McQueen?

PETER ETTEDGUI: His story — the way that he kind of came from very humble beginnings in the East End to the top of fashion designers by the age of 26. He was the shooting star of this industry. And then, there’s the, I suppose, mystery of why he chose to end it all when he was at the peak. These are questions that we were just passionate about unpacking and trying to answer and trying to understand. He was really an extraordinary figure. He’s a misfit. He’s a rebel. He was something of a prodigy. He was subversive, but he loved tradition at the same time. You don’t find people like that. They just don’t come up very often.

What was the idea for using a skull on the poster and as a major motif throughout the film, serving as chapter breaks?

IAN BONHÔTE: A lot of documentaries, because of sit-down and archive footage, the quality of the footage sometimes ends up being… it might be moving, but it might not be as visually exciting as a created visual.

One of the things we said that those skulls became, not only something that was helpful for us, but became a true visual identity. Furthermore, when we started working with Gary McQueen, he himself had created a skull for an invite for the Savage Beauty show. We asked him to actually create the (documentary’s) poster itself. He started to create a skull we actually included in the film. He actually became part of a very, very key moment when Lee passes and when news is announced by the press of him having passed away.

Why not include celebrity interviews?

ETTEDGUI: The most important thing was to have people who lived with him, loved him, worked with him day-in and day-out and had a very close connection with him. Audiences might not know, in the way they might know Kate Moss or Anna Wintour or whatever, but who would be able to be very authentic on screen, and also not be the people you would necessarily expect. The celebrity version of McQueen’s life, the documentary with all of the A-listers — that’s perfectly possible to make that film, but it was never the film we set out to make. Not that we don’t think that the people who are in our film are not worthy of celebration in their own right — they all are — but they’re just not as much in the public eye. We wanted to harness that. We thought we could make a more original and poignant film by avoiding the celebrity world.

It kind of usurps the audience’s expectation of what you’re going to see.

ETTEDGUI: The real celebrity in the film is McQueen himself. We literally went through every single frame of film — broadcast and home movies. We went to something like 200 sources to give up every single interview that he ever gave. We had people giving us personal tapes of conversations that we used. We really felt that he was the star of the film — his voice.

How do you manage the weight and the pressure to respect not just Lee but his entire family correctly?

ETTEDGUI: It just so happens, for example, people get very excited about drugs. In 1990’s fashion world, everyone was doing cocaine. It’s actually quite banal. So we kind of just instinctively wanted to step away from all of that. We didn’t want to whitewash him, and we didn’t want to create something that was reverential, saying he didn’t have any flaws or vices. Nor did we want to kind of dwell on these, because if you dwell on them too much then that’s what the film becomes about.

What are we supposed to make of McQueen’s legacy now that we’ve reached a point where it’s more about his label and less about him.

ETTEDGUI: The film ends for us with Lee’s life. We didn’t really want to or need to explore beyond that… It’s just not something I personally really considered. The brand separated itself from the man. Before, they were related and almost intricate because he was the brand and the brand was him.

I saw the film a few days after Kate Spade’s passing. Is that something you’ve been wrestling with now that the film has come out in this climate?

BONHÔTE: You could mention that a month before, Avicii — a 28-year-old, young music producer who was for five, six years making around $30 or $40 million, traveling the world, being adored and apparently looked like one of the nicest person on the planet — took his own life. What we’re seeing there, more than — I really don’t want to talk only about fashion.

Mental health might not be as obvious as physical disabilities, but they are very present. All of us have got a certain amount of demons and issues that we have to deal with. Under pressure, as well as being extremely tired, but potentially living a rock-n-roll lifestyle really got into even more fragile state … If we want to still be able to have great, creative things being done, we need to make sure our creative people make it. Because if we keep on asking loads from them, we might not be able to stay on top.

What should we make that, like Spade and Anthony Bourdain, McQueen was middle aged when he passed?

ETTEDGUI: One of his boyfriends that we talked to, he said several times that he kind of equated Lee saying to him, Gays don’t do old. We thought that was a quite interesting thing to say. So it’s not just about being middle aged. It’s about being middle aged and gay, at least that’s what it was for McQueen in his mind. It’s very tricky because I don’t think we should generalize at the same time. McQueen was an exceptional person. Several people have said to us he produced the equivalence of three lifetimes’ work in one very short lifetime. It was kind of like 18 years was when he started.

Do we have to view McQueen as a tragic figure?

BONHÔTE: We made the conscious decision not to finish the film in tragedy. We want people to give us memories about him. That’s what we wanted to leave people [with]. We should never let what happened to him overshadow the sheer amazement of what he did from year to year.

This interview has been edited and condensed.