Best known for bringing modern punk and new wave fashion into the mainstream, her enduring influence is born out of a relentless desire to question and agitate.
Ever one to keep the shock value alive, the eccentric designer was recently quoted as saying that “Poor people should buy fewer clothes and be more careful about the quality of the garments they buy.”
In explaining further she redeemed herself somewhat by saying, “It doesn’t mean you have to just buy anything cheap. Instead of buying six things, buy one thing that you really like. Don’t keep buying just for the sake of it.”
Her initial comment is typical of the 71-year-old who has no desire to shrink from the limelight any time soon and feels as empowered as ever to take a stand against an issue. Not daunted by any controversy around her “poor people” comment, she’s now taking heat from the British press for advertising five unpaid intern positions at her London office. But then again, that’s just British political correctness in top gear. Offer this same internship in South Africa and you’d find a queue across town.
Born Vivienne Isabel Swire on 8 April 1941, Westwood first came to public attention when she made clothes for the store of punk band The Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, who owned a boutique in King’s Road, London, famously known as ‘SEX’. It was their ability to synthesize clothing and music that shaped the 70s punk scene, dominated by the Sex Pistols. She was deeply inspired by the shock-value of punk – “seeing if one could put a spoke in the system,” as she says of the time. Westwood went on to open four shops in London, eventually expanding throughout the United Kingdom and the world, selling an increasingly varied range of merchandise, some of it linked to her many political causes such as climate change and the civil rights group Liberty.
Westwood was born in the village of Tintwistle, Derbyshire, the daughter of Gordon and Dora Swire, who had married two years previously and two weeks after the outbreak of World War II. At the time of Westwood’s birth, her father was employed as a storekeeper in an aircraft factory. Aged 17, in 1958, Westwood and her family moved to Harrow, London where she studied at the Harrow School of Art – University of Westminster, taking fashion and silversmithing, but left after one term saying, “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world.”
After taking up a job in a factory and studying at a teacher-training college, she became a primary school teacher and also created her own jewellery, which she sold at a stall on Portobello Road. Westwood created clothes for McLaren, then her second husband, drawing inspiration from bikers, fetishists and prostitutes. During this period, McLaren became manager of the Sex Pistols and subsequently the two garnered attention as the band wore Westwood and McLaren’s designs. Westwood was deeply interested in the punk fashion phenomenon of the 1970s which included bondage gear, safety pins, razor blades, bicycle or lavatory chains on clothing and spiked dog collars for jewellery, as well as outrageous make-up and hair. Essential design elements include the adoption of traditional elements of Scottish design such as tartan fabric. Amongst the more unusual elements of her style is the use of historical 17th and 18th century cloth cutting principles, and reinterpreting these in, for instance, radical cutting lines to men’s trousers. Use of these traditional elements make the overall effect of her designs more “shocking.” Vivienne Westwood is quoted as saying, “Sometimes you need to transport your idea to an empty landscape and then populate it with fantastic looking people.”
She dubbed the period 1981 to 1985 “New Romantice” and 1988–1991 as “The Pagan Years” during which “Vivienne’s heroes changed from punks and ragamuffins to “Tatler” girls wearing clothes that parodied the upper class.”
This has not stopped her from attracting an upper class audience as she became progressively more famous. Princess Eugenie wore three different Westwood designs for the pre-wedding dinner, the wedding ceremony and the after-wedding party at the 2011 royal wedding. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, also wore Westwood to Royal Ascot in 2009. Westwood has influenced the launch of the careers of other designers into the British fashion industry. She employed the services of Patrick Cox to design shoes for her Clint Eastwood collection in 1984. The result was a prototype for nine-inch-heeled shoes like the ones worn by supermodel Naomi Campbell when she fell during a Westwood fashion show in Paris in 1993.
Her designs have featured in the film adaptation of the television series Sex and the City. However, despite being invited to participate in the making of the movie, Westwood was unimpressed with the costuming by renowned stylist Patricia Field and she walked out of the film’s London premiere after 10 minutes, publicly criticizing the clothing featured as being frumpy and boring.
Westwood’s outspoken opinions have suited her inclination to align herself with a cause and she is widely known as a political activist.
In April 1989 Westwood appeared on the cover of Tatler dressed as then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The suit which Westwood wore had been ordered for Thatcher but had not yet been delivered. Her appearance on Tatler reportedly infuriated Thatcher.
In September 2005, Westwood joined forces with the British civil rights group Liberty and launched exclusive, limited design T-shirts and baby wear bearing the slogan “I AM NOT A TERRORIST, please don’t arrest me.” Westwood said she was supporting the campaign and defending habeas corpus, the right to be brought before a judge after arrest. “When I was a schoolgirl, my history teacher, Mr Scott, began to take classes in civic affairs. The first thing he explained to us was the fundamental rule of law embodied in habeas corpus. He spoke with pride of civilisation and democracy. The hatred of arbitrary arrest by the French monarchy, which caused the storming of the Bastille. We can only take democracy for granted if we insist on our liberty,” she said. The T-shirts sold for £50.
In 1992, Westwood was awarded an OBE, which she collected from Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. She accepted the award knicker-less, which was later captured by a photographer in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace. Westwood later said “I wished to show off my outfit by twirling the skirt. It did not occur to me that, as the photographers were practically on their knees, the result would be more glamorous than I expected.”
Westwood does not watch television or read newspapers or magazines, however she is a keen gardener.