Photo from Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (2018) via YouTube
April 8, 1941– Vivienne Westwood:
“I was very aggressive about punk in those days. It Was like a You’re-With-Me-Or-Against-Me kind of Thing.“
Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood was a major force in bringing modern Punk and New Wave fashions into the mainstream, and she is an iconic modern female impresario.
“I think clothes enhance your experience of life.“
Born Vivienne Isabel Swire in the tiny town of Tintwistle, Derbyshire, she came from humble beginnings. Her father was a cobbler, and her mother worked at a local cotton mill. When she was 17-years-old, Westwood worked at a local factory and enrolled at a teacher training school.
“I lived in a part of the country that had grown up in the Industrial Revolution. I didn’t know about art galleries…I’d never seen an art book, never been to the theatre.“
By the early 1960s, Westwood’s life seemed established. She married Derek Westwood, with whom she had son, and was working as a teacher. Then everything changed. She met an art student named Malcolm McLaren and divorced her husband. With McLaren, Westwood had a second son. McLaren and Westwood started making jewelry on the side, and she discovered a new world of creative freedom and the power art had on the political landscape. Westwood:
“I latched onto Malcolm as somebody who opened doors for me. I mean, he seemed to know everything I needed at the time.“
In 1971, McLaren declared that he was seeking to:
“Rescue fashion from commodification by the establishment.“
With McLaren, 1976 via YouTubeAt her shop with McLaren in 1971
With Westwood, he opened a boutique on Kings Road in Chelsea called Let It Rock. While the name of the shop seemed to be in constant flux, it was changed five times, it was an important fashion center for the punk movement.
They sold Teddy Boy clothing. Teddy Boy was a British subculture with young men wearing clothes that were inspired by the styles worn by dandies in the Edwardian period.
After a trip to New York City in 1972, McLaren’s music career took off when he became the manager for the Glam-rock band the New York Dolls. He designed their outfits and devised a hammer and sickle logo to help promote them. He developed the shock tactics that he used to far greater success later with the Sex Pistols.
By 1975, their shop had morphed into a subversive S&M boutique called Sex. McLaren:
“We set out to make an environment where we could truthfully run wild. On most days, the shop did not open until the evening and closed within a few hours. The goal was to sell nothing at all.“
The shop began to feature Westwood’s designs. When McLaren became manager of the Sex Pistols, it was Westwood’s designs that dressed the band and helped it carve out its identity.
Westwood was one of the architects of Punk fashion. Westwood:
“I was messianic about Punk, seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way.“
Punk style included BDSM fashion, bondage gear, safety pins, bicycle or toilet chains on clothing and spiked dog collars/chokers as jewelry, as well as outrageous make-up and wildly colored hair. Essential design elements include the adoption of traditional elements of Scottish design such as tartan fabrics.
But as the punk movement faded, Westwood was constantly ahead of the curve, not just influencing fashion, but often times dictating it. After her run with the Sex Pistols, Westwood went an entirely new direction with the Pirate collection, with frilly shirts and leather breaches. Her styles also included the mini-crini, an abbreviated version of the Victorian crinoline, and her frayed tulle and tweed suits that were big in the 1990s. She even proved it is perfectly possible to make a perfectly subversive statement with underwear.
Westwood’s unconventional style sense possesses an outspokenness and daring that demonstrates a certain level of fearlessness about herself and her work. In one famous incident, she impersonated charming Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on the cover Tatler, a British magazine. She wore a suit Thatcher had ordered but not yet received, an act that made Thatcher lose her shit.
Westwood’s influence is hard to deny. Twice she has been named British Designer of the Year and was awarded the O.B.E. (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 1992.
For more than 30 years, even after she had long made her fortune and fame, Westwood lived in the same small South London apartment, paying just $400 a month and riding her bicycle to her studio.
In 2010, McLaren was taken by Mesothelioma, a particularly gruesome cancer. He was just 64 years old when he left this world. McLaren spent the last 30 years of his life trying to explain Punk:
“I never thought the Sex Pistols would be any good. But it didn’t matter if they were bad. That was the point.“
His son with Westwood, Joe Corré, owns and designs for his own retail store, Agent Provocateur, which also continues to produce and sell McLaren’s own thoroughly English clothing. In an ultimate act of the Punk aesthetic, Corré, set fire to his huge collection of punk rock memorabilia in November 2016. The collection, which he burned on the Thames on a rented barge, was valued at $7 million. It was a protest of Punk London, a yearlong retrospective, including concerts, exhibitions and films of Punk in the U.K., celebrating 40th anniversary of The Ramones first London performance. The event was sponsored by British Film Industry, the British Library, and the Museum of London with the blessings of Queen Elizabeth II. God Save The Queen!
“The Queen giving 2016, the Year of Punk, her official blessing is the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard. Rather than a movement for change, punk has become like a fucking museum piece or a tribute act.“
In 1992, Westwood married for a second time, to her assistant, Andreas Kronthaler, who is 25 years younger.
Westwood’s designs are featured in the film adaptation of the television series Sex And The City (2008). In the film, Carrie Bradshaw becomes engaged to Mr. Big. She is invited by her editor at Vogue to model wedding dresses, including a design made from Westwood. The dress is then sent to Bradshaw as a gift, with a handwritten note from Westwood herself, and Carrie decides to use the Westwood gown for her own wedding.
Westwood is a supporter of the Civil Rights organization, Liberty, for whom she designed a limited line of tee-shirts with the slogan “I Am Not A Terrorist, Please Don’t Arrest Me”. In 2013, Westwood dedicated her fall collection to trans activist Chelsea Manning and at her fashion show she and her models wore large images of Manning with the word TRUTH under her picture.
For a woman who changed fashion, Westwood is surprisingly disinterested in the industry. Her line is now run by her husband. The one thing that seems to reoccupy her nowadays is Climate Change, and she is passionate. Westwood:
“We need to get rid of the rotten financial system. I do it shorthand: R-O-T-$. Rot $. The rotten financial system we’ve got is designed to create poverty. The only thing to replace the rotten financial system with is a green economy. The green economy is designed to create wealth opportunities; it’s designed to create liberty, equality, fraternity. What nature gives you is free, and no one should privately own. That’s the end of it.“
Photo via YouTube
Westwood on capitalism and clothing:
“Buy less, choose well, make it last“