Sometimes talent seems God-given, and drops from nowhere. Lee Alexander McQueen grew up in the 1970s in the East End of London: his father was a taxi driver, and he was the youngest of six children.
He struggled at school, where he spent most of his time drawing, and left at 16 with just a single O-Level in art. McQueen loved clothes and was already sketching designs, so with commendable common sense his mother Joyce suggested he knock on doors along Savile Row in search of apprenticeships. “They can only say no,” she told him.
One of them said yes and he learnt to sew and fit at Anderson & Sheppard and Gieves & Hawkes before moving on to study fashion at Central Saint Martins. His talent and originality were blindingly obvious, and his entire graduation collection was bought by Isabella Blow, the highly influential stylist and writer who became his local champion.
His daring clothes combined elements of history and theatre, but were also intensely personal, and his early shows were about as rock ‘n’ roll as fashion gets.
McQueen single-handedly sparked a British fashion revolution, launched his own hugely successful label and also conquered the great houses of Paris, working as chief designer at Givenchy.
It’s an extraordinary story, and is brilliantly told with the help of friends, family and colleagues in Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedgui’s superb documentary McQueen.
The footage of his shows is breathtaking and one is struck again by his chutzpah, daring and sheer originality. But fashion is a greedy mistress and McQueen was eaten alive by the demands of his various businesses: he died by suicide in 2012 on the eve of his beloved mother’s funeral. He was 40.
At the start of Ivo Marloh’s excellent documentary All the Wild Horses, a small mount and its uneasy-looking rider canter cautiously along an open plain, dwarfed by the vastness around them. They are competitors in the Mongol Derby, a murderous marathon ride along 1,000 kilometres of harsh and unforgiving Mongolian Steppe, and as Irish jockey Donal Fahy puts it, “It’s the longest and by God is it the toughest race in the world”.
The Mongolians love their horses, and ride them wild: the Derby is inspired by Genghis Khan’s equine postal station system, and an entry fee of $13,000 entitles racers to 30 horses and a local support team. At each station they change horses, and choosing the right one is a vital part of the contest’s skill.
The riders hail from all parts of the globe – America, Canada, South Africa, Britain, Ireland, Australia, Europe – and are drawn by the challenge of the race, as well as its bleak romance. One contestant admits to being regularly overwhelmed by “the feeling of insignificance in that enormous place”.
“You definitely need to be either brave or stupid,” says Fahy, and the Derby certainly poses unusual challenges. Collisions, broken limbs, punctured lungs, mortally wounded horses – it’s all part of the fun, and there’s always the chance that your nag will decide it’s had enough of you and hare off in search of its herd.
Amid grazing yaks, wolf attacks, the terrifying vastness of the open Steppe, contestants battle with the horse, themselves, baking heat and sudden storms. Finishing is an achievement in itself, and only half the riders do. What do the locals think? “I hope the Mongol Derby goes from strength to strength,” says one horseman, “it’s a great way to introduce our culture to a foreign audience.”
It’s such an exotic, unspoilt place: one wonders for how much longer. Marloh’s film pleasingly dramatises the 2012 Derby: need I tell you the Irish fella won it.
Also releasing this week: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom review: Chris Pratt excels in sequel that gets out of hand late on