“You have a more interesting life if you wear impressive clothes” … and what a life Vivienne Westwood has had. Outspoken, no-nonsense, and still ready to ruffle establishment feathers, the doyenne of British fashion talks about punk, politics and protesting at the Paralympics.
Vivienne Westwood looks nothing short of magnificent striding across the rooftop of her south London studio in sheer point d’esprit tights, laddered to the point of barely being there, worn over striped cotton boxer shorts. Her T-shirt is printed with the slogan CLIMATE REVOLUTION and a vintage silk taffeta cape of her own design is also embroidered with these words. Each letter is almost the size of the woman wearing it.
“I know it’s all a bit young,” she says. “But that’s not the point.”
It certainly doesn’t appear to be. On her feet are the signature elevated platforms, a variation of which Naomi Campbell famously fell from back in 1993. On her head is an oversized helmet complete with a veil of bronze sequins, Westwood’s fiercely glamorous alternative to military netting. The designer is recreating a style that she dreamt up for the Paralympics closing ceremony, where she was asked to appear as Queen Boudicca, riding a chariot conceived by stage designer Joe Rush. Joe Corre, her son by Malcolm McLaren, and Andreas Kronthaler, her husband and partner in design, went along for the ride.
“Joe is a friend of mine and he’d done all these brilliant things,” she says. “When he asked me to be Boudicca, I said, ‘no, get a model, you don’t need me, anybody can do that’. And then afterwards I thought, ‘if I can use it, then I’ll do it’.”
And use it she did. Vivienne Westwood, Queen of Punk, grande dame of British fashion, media manipulator par excellence, one-time agent provocateur and now, more passionately evangelical still, full-blown activist, went so far as to avoid the dress rehearsal, knowing that should her intentions become clear, they might be quashed, whether they were to save the planet or not.
“I had to deceive everyone because I had this thing printed inside my dress and I knew they’d have checked,” she says, her sense of mischief clearly as acute as ever. “They’d have asked, ‘have you got any branding?’, ‘is there any nudity?”‘
Given that Westwood famously picked up her 1992 OBE from the Queen wearing no knickers, they might hardly have been blamed for that. These days, though (and now a dame), she has serious issues, over and above mere indecent exposure, in mind.
“I didn’t feel that guilty because, you know, if I’d told them what I was up to they’d be duty-bound to stay on the safe side and not allow me to do it – and people always end up liking that sort of thing, I think.”
She hasn’t seen the televised version of the stunt in question as yet. Westwood doesn’t approve of watching television, although she did cast an eye over at least part of July’s Olympics opening ceremony.
“I thought the beginning, with this green, pleasant land, the towers coming up, the hospital beds and the Queen was really wonderful. After the punks though … whatever. I’d had enough.”
And the closing ceremony, where she was one of only five fashion designers represented (the others were Burberry, Victoria Beckham, Christopher Kane and Alexander McQueen), also failed to capture her attention more than briefly.
“I did see the bit with my dress but, honestly, that’s not so important to me. Fashion is my job and I just get on with it.”
Westwood, now as ever, uses fashion as a platform to express her views and, at the very least, tell a story that extends beyond the realm of clothes. Her interest in the bigger picture belies the fact that she is among the most influential designers in history. This season alone, London-based designers including Louise Gray, Meadham Kirchhoff and more have referenced the anarchic spirit with which she made her name.
In America, meanwhile, it was announced recently that the subject of next year’s most important fashion exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute will be Punk: Chaos to Couture, a show that will, doubtless, follow Westwood’s trajectory more closely than any other’s.
And that’s a smart move: the parallels between the world then (the late-70s) and now are impossible to ignore for even the most polite fashion commentator. In the past, Westwood has reluctantly spoken about the impact of the movement she dressed so impressively. Now, though, she says: “Johnny Rotten’s songs really were very clever weren’t they? ‘No future. Your future dream is a shopping machine’. Yeah. That’s what he was on about and that is what we are, we’re a consumer society.”
Not only did Westwood give the world the uniform of punk, but there followed 1981’s Pirates, her first collection shown in Paris, that ushered in the New Romantic movement.
“The punk always used to take things around himself out of the gutter, if you like, any old rubbish,” she once told me.
“There were these Irish punks who used kettles as handbags and do you remember getting crisp packets and baking them in the oven so they shrank? They were wearing those like brooches. Then there was Sid with his toilet-paper tie … Malcolm and I always said that we wanted to get off this island and plunder history too, and the world, like pirates. We didn’t want to be seen as token rebels.”
The Buffalo Girls collection (1982) – inspired by Latin American Indians and featuring asymmetrically-layered skirts and petticoats – came next and, not insignificantly, bras worn over blouses a good 10 years before Jean-Paul Gaultier designed Madonna’s conical bra.
Later, Westwood gleefully reclaimed (and reinvented) the uniform of the British aristocracy and of royalty with mini-crinis, Harris Tweed and crowns; she turned to French Old Master painting for inspiration for, by now, signature corsetry and overblown ballgown skirts. The list goes on, and on, and on.
More recently, and in line with a move towards more ethical values, she has reintroduced the virtues of DIY designs that were once an integral part of punk’s spirit, advocating the joys of, say, cutting up a tablecloth to make a skirt or wearing your (male) partner’s underwear as shorts – just as she herself does.
Suffice it to say, though, that her skills as a pattern cutter are rather more deft than most.
For more than 30 years, Westwood has designed clothes for heroes. Outrageously flamboyant if not plain outrageous, they are beautiful, brave and often swim against the tide.
Of today’s so-called icons, she says: “That Victoria Beckham, she always looks neat and sort of minimal and tidy. That’s not bad and her designs are good designs, if you happen to like that sort of thing.” She pauses for a moment before adding, with patrician hauteur: “But I don’t.”
As a woman in control of one of very few independently-owned and globally-recognised brands, she is also a force to be reckoned with. And people love Westwood for that, from fledgling designers for whom she is a source of inspiration, to the obsessive devotees who save up to buy her clothes.
For Westwood, the thinking behind her brand is straightforward. “You have a more interesting life,” she argues, “if you wear impressive clothes.”
So what is more important to the designer than fashion and the company she has presided over for so long now? She is a patron of Reprieve and Liberty. She supports Amnesty International, Environmental Justice Foundation and Friends of the Earth.
She is a long-time advocate of freeing Native American Leonard Peltier. She backs the Greenpeace Arctic Campaign and this year donated £1 million ($1.95 million) to rainforest charity Cool Earth. Her interest in human rights stretches right back to childhood.
“I’ve said this before and I was embarrassed to tell people at first, but I think I was about 4 when I came across this picture of the crucifixion. I’d never seen it before, being a Protestant. Anyway, I just couldn’t believe it. And ever since then I’ve thought people have to stop doing these terrible things.”
Five years ago she read environmentalist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and surmised that humanity was “an endangered species”.
“Our economic system, run for profit and waste and based primarily on the extractive industries, is the cause of climate change,” is how she explains it. “We have wasted the Earth’s treasure and we can no longer exploit it cheaply … Economists treat economics as if it is a pure science divorced from the facts of life. The result of this false accountancy is a wilful confusion under cover of which industry wreaks its havoc scot-free and ignores the environmental cost.”
At around the same time Westwood wrote her manifesto, “active resistance to propaganda”, a text peopled by everyone from Ancient Greek philosophers to Disney cartoon characters – Westwood is interested in appealing to the young especially – to inspire an interest in learning and culture, in place of indiscriminate consumption.
Westwood is not unaware that all of the above begs the question: how can a designer at the forefront of a globally recognised and, yes, ever-expanding fashion business possibly point the finger at anyone without also incriminating herself?
“Guilty,” she says, holding her hands up. “My main point, though, is quality rather than quantity. It’s a question of trying to have less product but for it to be great. I am definitely very worried about the extent of shipping and travelling. We’re a worldwide operation and we’re sending clothes all over the world, all of the time, and we have to find ways of dealing with that, of running down our carbon footprint. I want to see what we can do with the company that will be usefully good.
“What I’m always trying to say to the consumer is: buy less, choose well, make it last.”
Putting her money where her mouth is, she has now changed into somewhat more modest attire – a draped white organza “summertime” dress which hails from her spring 2000 Gold Label collection. It is 13 years old. “Andreas moans at me sometimes and says my clothes are beginning to look a bit threadbare or something,” she says, “but I don’t care. I’m kind of insisting that however lovely a dress in a more recent collection may be, I actually like this one just as much.”
Westwood was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in Glossop, Derbyshire, on April 8, 1941. Her father came from a long line of cobblers; her mother worked in the local cotton mills when she wasn’t at home looking after her children. When she was 17, her parents bought a post office and moved to South Harrow in Middlesex.
After working in a factory for a short while, Westwood went to teacher training college and then married Derek Westwood and had her first child, Ben, by him. The marriage lasted three years, during which time she taught and made jewellery which she sold on a stall on Portobello Rd.
She soon met McLaren (then Malcolm Edwards) and became pregnant with her second son, Joseph. In 1971 she gave up her day job. McLaren had opened a shop called Let It Rock at 430 King’s Rd, London, and Westwood filled it.
It is the stuff of fashion history that in 1972 the name changed to Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die and then, in 1974, to SEX. In 1976, Westwood, punk legend Jordan and then-shop girl Chrissie Hynde were photographed at the store wearing the type of rubber clothing inspired by fetish and pornography that SEX was known for.
When, in 1976, the Sex Pistols, managed by McLaren, released God Save the Queen, it became known as Seditionaries until, in 1980, and with Westwood disillusioned with the mainstream’s adoption of punk and its main protagonists, she renamed it World’s End.
“I realised that they weren’t real anarchists like we were,” she remembers of punk’s later, less radical protagonists. “They just wanted to be in a gang and smash anything to do with the older generation.”
In the end, there is as much warmth, wit, intelligence and imagination to Westwood herself as there is to her clothes which, for all her outside interests, remain a powerfully potent force.
She knows that, but, “If I’m going to talk to someone for two hours, then it can’t just be about fashion.
“You know, I never really wanted to be a designer in the first place but about 15 to 20 years ago I decided that if I was going to continue I’d be better off starting to like it. I do think looking your best is really, really good for the spirit and my clothes allow people to project their personalities and express themselves. I offer choice in an age of conformity.”
A perfect Westwood pronouncement.
A selection from the Vivienne Westwood Anglomania line is available from Jaimie Boutique in Ponsonby, ph (09) 361 4000. Vivienne Westwood fragrances are available from Smith & Caughey’s.
By Susannah Frankel
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