Clockwise from top left: © Archie Reed; McQueen with boyfriend Archie Reed. © McQueen family; At 6 on a family holiday. © McQueen family; on the Isle of Skye, which he chose as his last resting place. © Murray Arthur; Backstage at a Givenchy fashion show with Carla Bruni and Helena Christensen.
It was in a house in Tooting that he shared with his friend Simon Ungless that Alexander McQueen, known as Lee to his friends, first read the Marquis de Sade’s The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom . “He was amazed at how the book progressed and became more extreme,” recalled Simon. McQueen was intrigued by the unremitting account of sexual abuse and torture that de Sade had written over 37 days in 1785 during his imprisonment in the Bastille. As he read the work, described by its author as “the most impure tale that has ever been told since the world began,” McQueen was gripped by the descriptions of the “simple passions” (non-penetrative acts such as masturbation in the faces of seven-year-old girls, the drinking of urine, the eating of feces); the “complex passions”; the “criminal passions”; and “murderous passions” (skinning children alive, the disembowelment of pregnant women, masturbation while watching teenagers being tortured). “I gather some influence from the Marquis de Sade because I actually think of him as a great philosopher and a man of his time, when people found him just a pervert,” McQueen told David Bowie. “I find him sort of influential in the way he provokes people’s thoughts. It kind of scares me. That’s the way I think…”
McQueen’s friend Chris Bird often thought of the parallels between McQueen’s work and that of de Sade. “That whole aspect of chronicling man’s inhumanity to other men — not condoning it but showing it,” he said. “This is someone — Lee — who embroidered ‘Life Is Pain’ on an item of clothing for one of his collections. There was an element of romanticism in his work, but also cruelty. There was an aspect of bondage, but he wanted to liberate women and enable them to be fierce on a catwalk.”
Caroline Evans, professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins, has written on the links between de Sade and McQueen in her book, Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness. “Both in the cruelty of McQueen’s cut and in the choice and styling of his catwalk shows, he recalled the great female libertines of the Marquis de Sade, with their repertoires of savage dominance and mastery,” she wrote. “Sade’s dangerous females were superwomen so exceptional that they were almost beyond gender.... McQueen, like Sade, was fascinated by a dialectical relationship between victim and aggressor, and the parade of women he created on the catwalk resembled Sade’s aggressors rather than their victims.”
De Sade also outlined how morality is an artificial construct, a matrix of rules and restrictions designed to contain and control the “natural” urges of man. As McQueen read his way through The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom the young designer felt as though he was finally being given permission to express his sexuality — which some might have seen as excessive, messy, dirty, or sordid — in a way that pleased him. In his eyes, nothing was out of bounds or too shocking. “Lee had a voracious sexual appetite; he loved getting fucked,” said his friend Chris Bird.
One of Lee’s favorite greetings, at least for “lucky” gay male friends such as Chris Bird, involved sticking a finger up his ass and as you walked into the pub he would suddenly thrust the smelly digit in front of his friend’s face and say, “Meet Lee!” quickly followed by his cackling fishwife laugh. McQueen loved telling an anecdote about how one day he went into the Victoria & Albert Museum and his bag was checked by security. “He had a dirty dildo in his sports bag and the guards found it; he thought that was hysterical,” said Bird. “The reason why he and Isabella Blow got on so well was because they loved talking about sex, about big cocks, and getting fucked.”
McQueen often regaled his friends and work associates with tales of his sexual exploits. Alice Smith — whom Lee met in the autumn of 1992 — likened him to a filthy-mouthed court jester who regaled her and her professional partner Cressida Pye with elaborate stories of cruising on Hampstead Heath. “He was always interested in sex and wanted to tell us what he had been up to in great detail,” said Smith. “I remember once he told us that he went to Clapham Common to meet men. One day he was tied to a tree by a man who then ran away and left Lee there until the morning. He had the most brilliant laugh, a real old hag’s screeching. We used to say, ‘Can you keep it down, Lee,’ because we would be on the phone to Mulberry or someone and there he would be sitting in the office telling filthy stories.”