Before Alexander McQueen became a brand beloved by the royals and A-list celebrities, its founder, Lee Alexander McQueen, was the most provocative disruptor in the industry. Thanks to his outlandish and sometimes grotesque fashion show themes, he established himself as one of the most talked-about designers of his generation. Now, eight years after his suicide, a new documentary provides an intimate look inside his life and the abuse that haunted him.
McQueen (now playing in select theaters) unveils a “softer side” of the designer, co-director and writer Peter Ettedgui tells PEOPLE, through home video footage and intimate interviews with family and friends. It also highlights the internal struggles that affected McQueen personally and professionally.
Later in life, McQueen revealed to his family that he had been sexually abused by his older sister Janet’s then-husband Terence Hulyer, who also physically abused Janet.
“When you’re 8 years old . . seeing your sister strangled by her husband, who is dead now, thank God, all you want to do is make women look stronger,” McQueen said about how his dark experiences influenced his designs.
When Janet found out he had been abused years after the fact she said, “I was shell-shocked,” Janet told the U.K.’s Times in 2015. “You just can’t grasp it at first. Of course I felt guilt. Who wouldn’t?”
The grim subject matters that often made up his shows (including mental asylums, Jack the Ripper and Alfred Hitchcock movies) fascinated him from a young age. “He would bring around horror films and draw fantastical pictures when he babysat for me,” his nephew Gary McQueen, now 39, tells PEOPLE.
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But these dark and twisted stories that inspired his collections were ways to express his inner-most thoughts and create “armor” for women. “It was a way to exorcise his demons, a way of protecting women and himself by creating these strong women who looked like they had armor on,” Gary McQueen says about McQueen’s radical designs in the film.
Despite his immense success — by the age of 27 he won Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards and was named designer of the couture label Givenchy — becoming a celebrity in his own right came with a number of setbacks.
His marriage to George Forsyth (the two wed in an unofficial wedding ceremony in Ibiza in 2000) ended within two years. He also underwent liposuction and abused drugs and alcohol. “Fame, money and drugs can be a lethal combination. And unfortunately for Lee, it was,” his former roommate and hairstylist Mira Chai-Hyde tells PEOPLE.
After the death of his friend and mentor Isabella Blow in 2007, Gary describes McQueen has being “very much out of it a lot of the time.”
According to the documentary, McQueen was HIV-positive when he died which Gary thinks was “always in the back of Lee’s mind.”
At his final fashion show in 2009, his former assistant Sebastian Pons says in the film that McQueen contemplated killing himself at the end of the show. “Everything in his life just led to these feelings of torment,” says Pons. “He said ‘Yeah, I’m fed up, I’m done with this, I just want this to end.’ He thought the whole fashion world was against him.”
What eventually sent McQueen into a deeper depression was the death of his mother Joyce on February 2, 2010. The two were very close and she sat front row at many of his fashion shows. “She was incredibly proud of him,” says Chai-Hyde.
McQueen died one day before Joyce’s funeral. On the day before taking his own life, he passed along the design plans of her gravestone to Gary. “Funny enough, he was in really good spirits and he seemed like he was actually getting better,” says Gary. “I thought that maybe he was going to be OK. But who knows. You just wonder.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).