Vivienne Westwood – rebel and icon turns 80

Photo: Mattia Passeri

“She is like a loaded gun” says Stella McCartney about the English activist and fashion designer.

Vivienne Westwood, who rose to fame in the seventies never stops impressing with her ongoing activism and desire for change. She is still seeing herself as a Joan of Arc – out to save the world – and the fact that fashion design is her chosen medium is secondary. Her career as a designer is steeped in chaos and crisis. In the 1970s it was the economic crisis that left thousands of Britons unemployed – and in 2021 it is the global crisis and environment that is her main concern.

Photo: Manfred Werner

She is frequently celebrated as the grandmother of punk style, but her ability to rise to the top in the conservative world of fashion as an anti-capitalist activist is more impressive by far. Because Vivienne Westwood has always used her collections and catwalk shows as a platform to campaign for positive activism. Like she said to New York Times last year:

“Since the early days of punk in the 1970s, I have been an activist against war and for human rights. I want everyone to know that capitalism and cruelty are connected. I’m doing this through my Climate Revolution website. On social media, I’m dressing up every week for my Friday speeches, using my fashion to get people involved in politics. If people aren’t aware, how are we going to save the world from corruption and climate change?”

She was born on the 8th of April 1941 in Glossop, Derbyshire. Her first career was as a schoolteacher and she married Derek Westwood in 1962. 3 years later she met Malcolm McLaren whom she found impressive and worldly, as he had spent time in New York, unsuccessfully trying to manage a band called New York Dolls. In the autobiography “Vivienne Westwood. An Unfashionable Life” Jane Mulvagh writes that Vivienne was tired of married life, got divorced and moved in with McLaren shortly after they met. Together they started a design business – he had the ideas and she executed them, making T-shirts with slogans – a business that later would involve opening several legendary shops – : Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, SEX, Seditionaries, and last: Worlds End, plus collabs with the band named Sex Pistols.

The backwards clock outside the World’s End storefront. Photo: Mark Ahsmann

McLaren was romanticizing about the French revolution, connecting music and fashion through the concept of confrontation dressing became their idea. In dislocating classic garments and using upside-down crucifixes, swastikas and materials and symbols from fetish clothing like zippers, bondage straps and latex resulted in pieces that was found shocking at the time. Her most famous piece from this period is the white muslin top with a cross, swastika and the word “Destroy” emblazoned across the front while safety pins held up the sleeves. A top made famous by their most famous “top model” Sex Pistols’ front man John Lydon.

Illustration: Styletalkmagazine

In the documentary “Westwood. Punk, Icon, Activist” from 2018 she gets irritated by the never-ending fascination the world holds for punk subculture and fashion in general.

“Oh, let’s just get it over with. It’s so boring” she says to the interviewer. And explains that she never saw herself becoming a designer, but rather an activist:

“I wanted to be a knight. To help people. And then you got to cut a figure. Be prepared for things”.

She soon got tired of how McLaren managed to monetize on the movement. “He started to bore me” she says, and:

“What we were doing was not rebellion at all. We were simply feeding the establishment ideas that they could make money on selling” she says and adds: “I decided if the fashion industry was going to steal my ideas, I’d rather be there myself and get some of the credits for it”.

Her son Joseph Corre fully supports her desire to stop reminiscing of the past. In 2016 he made headlines when he decided to burn punk memorabilia and collectibles worth 10 million pounds. According to the Mirror he claimed: “Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need – to give you an illusion of an alternative choice.” And was supported by his mum who encouraged people to focus on global warming.

While McLaren is remembered mostly for his contribution to punk, Westwood moved on to become a celebrated fashion designer. In 1992 she was decorated with an OBE. In the conservative world of fashion acceptance came late. But there is no doubt she finally received the recognition she deserves. Even the late Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent’s longtime partner claimed that Westwood is, along with Saint Laurent and Gaultier, among the greatest fashion designers of the 20th century – conveniently forgetting both Dior and madame Chanel in his praise of the English icon.

Westwood is still an activist, still playing with symbols. Still provocative after all these years. Her logo is a bejeweled orb and scepter. So, what else to say but: Happy Birthday Vivienne. God Save the Queen!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.