Vivienne WestwoodNovember 11, 2016
Vivienne Westwood is a top rank designer that anyone with an interest in fashion will know. Nowadays, it is her cardigans and drapey dresses, discreetly logoed with her queenly orb, along with her “rocking horse” platform shoes that are the best sellers at her Worlds End shop, beloved by Japanese tourists – 30 years ago, that exact same location was host to the most elite heroin addicts, who entered the boarded up shop only if they dared, looking for vinyl t-shirts and messages spelled out in chicken bones.
Vivienne Westwood was born in a small, rural Derbyshire town in 1941 as Vivienne Isabel Swire. That makes her seventy-five years of age, and she’s still cycling to work most days, still making collections, and still protesting about environmental and social injustices close to her heart. And she still hasn’t lost her Derbyshire accent.
Vivienne Westwood – the early style
Westwood is clever and driven. She has always loved clothes, making her own since she was a teenager. On arriving in London in 1957, she went to Harrow Art School, and did a foundation course in art which had a dress design element on Fridays. But she got bored of it because it wasn’t hands on enough and left after just one term, transferring to silversmithing, setting up a stall with her creations – hand beaten bangles and that sort of thing – on Portobello Market. At the time, her personal style was well put together but unremarkable. She took to the Trad look, with long flowing skirts , bare feet and loose knitted jumpers. “Trad” was named after traditional jazz, which everyone was apparently into at the time at the school. Then she met “Mods”, (modern jazz), and started wearing tight pencil skirts and winkle-picker shoes.
And while she enjoyed going round art galleries and museums and she enjoyed making things, she couldn’t see how anyone could make a living as an artist so her next move was to work in the local Kodak factory until she’d saved up enough money to do a Pittman’s typing course, but when she had the qualification she quickly realised that she didn’t want to be a secretary. So her next idea was to train as a school teacher, which she did, and finally this suited her very well. She is remembered as a very creative teacher, who liked to take the class out and about beyond the class room and who was very good with the younger children.
Marriage, Divorce and Children
In 1962 she married a man named Derek Westwood. She was nearly late to the wedding because she was finishing off her dress. Her son Ben Westwood was born in 1963 She divorced him, scandalously, after only three years to become the single mother of a young son, Ben Westwood.
In 1966 Vivienne Westwood became involved with a friend of her brother’s called Malcolm McLaren. She was older than him and he was an eternal art student, and the way that they got together was rather sad. He said it would be a laugh to get together with an older woman, a serious teacher and mother no less. She said that he’d used his bed in an art installation, and when he caught a cold she felt sorry for him, and let him sleep in her own bed. Eventually she was sick of sleeping on the floor, and so she climbed in too, but though she didn’t fancy him she felt like she’d lead him on by looking after him and sleeping in the same bed, so she’d better have sex with him. She got pregnant. Their son Joe Corré, born in 1967, went on to become the founder of lingerie empire Agent Provocateur whilst Ben Westwood, Vivienne Westwood ’s son from her marriage with Derek Westwood became a well-known erotic photographer and fashion designer.
Malcolm never wanted to be a dad and never acted like one. The couple were together for fifteen years but the relationship was extremely tumultuous, with Malcolm often pretending to their joint friends that Vivienne was an authority figure, the teacher or mother was going to come and tell them all off for having fun. But Vivienne Westwood always knew how to have fun. She loved to dress up outrageously, drink whisky and dance. The arguments that she and Malcolm had were tremendous. They did not always live together and Vivienne was often absolutely penniless, trying to get money and look after the two children, at one point taking Ben out of school to go and live with them in a caravan her parents owned in Wales. However, Vivienne herself admits that she was not herself a model parent, being consumed with a passion for fashion, not motherhood. Her own mother, Dora Swire, often looked after the children for her, sometimes for months at a time, and also helped with sewing and making things for the shop.
Despite that, the couple’s relationship was creatively fruitful. Malcolm had lots of ideas about designs for clothing, and Vivienne knew how to make them a reality. Because of this, he called her “his seamstress” – even at a Vivienne Westwood retrospective of 2004 in which he was heavily involved, he insisted that he was equally co-credited in early collections where he had been even minutely involved, again referring to Vivienne as “the seamstress” to the curator, whom he had in tears with his demands.
World Famous Shop
Their famous shop at 430 Kings Rd, an area known as World’s End, started out selling teddy boy clothes and memorabilia, and was opened in 1971 and first called Let It Rock. In the early 1970s, there was a nostalgia for the 1950s and although new tailored 1950 style suits were bought in, and old records sourced, Vivienne got to work on re-making t-shirts in a pastiche of 50s style, with rolled sleeves and a sewn-on transparent pocket encasing a pin-up girl card. By 1972 the shop was renamed Too Fast To Live Too Young to Die.
They took their wares to New York, trying to do a trade show, but the style wasn’t right and so the pair spent months partying instead, meeting The New York Dolls, who Malcolm was desperate to manage, and Richard Hell, the heroin addicted rock star who wore ripped and torn and safety pinned clothing and genuinely didn’t give a f*ck. He became the progenitor for Vivienne and Malcolm’s punk look.
The Sex Pistols
On their return, Malcolm set to work on creating his own band. Prospective members, talent spotted mostly hanging around the shop, were picked more for their look than their ability to sing, or not as was mostly the case. The Sex Pistols were formed. They wore clothes from Worlds End (which they thought were free and absolutely destroyed, not realising that Malcolm was deducting the cost of their stage costumes from their earnings) and performed songs which were co-written by everyone involved, including Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood. A graphic designer called Jamie Reid created the infamous album art of the Queen with a safety pin through her lip, and also designed t-shirts for Worlds End.
The fame of the shop, now, in 1974 called SEX, grew and at its height every Saturday police would collect a gang of punks from Sloane Square tube, and march them in a crocodile down King’s Rd to SEX, then go back for another batch. The clothes were a mixture of rubber skirts bought in from Exchange and Mart, screen printed and altered t shirts, including the iconic “breasts” and “gay cowboy” designs, fetish and leather gear and huge fluffy mohair jumpers. In 1975 Vivienne was arrested for public indecency because of her “pornographic” imagery, a charge that only gave the shop further fame.
Tartan was a favourite of Vivienne’s, to which Malcolm suggested adding straps between the legs. It was all relatively expensive, but the ideas were widely copied and riffed on. There is a photo with Vivienne, their very famous shop assistant Jordan (who had been given her own first class train carriage to travel into work every day, such was the uproar she apparently caused to commuters), Chrissie Hynde, later the front woman of The Pretenders, and others wearing the shop’s clothing and baring their bottoms to spell out SEX. Was it shocking at the time? Now it looks rather sweet, the pale and soft bums innocent compared with the airbrushed, fake tanned, baby oiled and gym sculpted version we’d doubtlessly be looking at today.
Sex and smut
And though Vivienne Westwood ‘s stock in trade was so provocatively sexual, ironically I don’t think she herself was interested in sex itself. She was never that interested in men, never took a lot of lovers. She had a girl-crush on a very stylish friend at art college, but (as far as is revealed) it never went any further. She liked the smuttiness of sex, the idea of shocking people. She thought it was funny. She thought that her later invention, the fig leaf positioned right on the crotch of nude leggings was hilarious, for example (and it is). She did have great passions with men who were full of ideas and knowledge and she’d let them direct her in these ideas – more on which in a moment.
Seditionaries and Nostalgia of Mud
In 1976 the shop name was changed to Seditionairies, and in 1979 to Worlds End. Each time the name changed, the interior of the shop was entirely remodelled. In 1982 a second shop, Nostalgia of Mud, was opened.
In 1981 McLaren and Vivienne split personally, but the business relationship limped on for another two years. She was helped in the business by her two sons, in particular Joe who worked hard to bring it to a high level. In the meantime Vivienne met Carlo D’Amario, an Italian who briefly became her lover and influenced her design style, being incredibly into Disney and encouraging her to inject its cutesy aesthetic into her work. But far more importantly than either of those was that Carlo believed in Vivienne Westwood as a designer and wanted to show her how the Italians did things.
He helped her to move production over to Italy, resulting in a much higher quality of product, and brokered a business deal with the business head of Giorgio Armani worth £150,000 at the time. It eventually fell though but this boosted Vivienne’s confidence, even though all the new ventures Vivienne set up (or even when she tried to rescue the old ones), Malcolm seemed intent on pulling down, phoning up the people she was trying to make connections with and sabotaging them.
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s first catwalk collection was in March 1981. Called “Pirates”, it was inspired by, um, pirates, and its romanticism was a volte face from the hard edges of punk. It in turn inspired the New Romantics style of the early 1980s, all billowing shirts and men with eyeliner. Their second collection was called “Savage”, shown in October 1981, and after that in spring 1982 came “Nostalgia of Mud”, known as “Buffalo” for the “Buffalo Girls” who took up the look with a vengeance. As the “Mud” reference suggests, the collection was all about dull, muddy colours and distressed felted fabrics, and the cuts were baggy and loose. Japanese designer Comme des Garcons in particular took a lot of inspiration from Vivienne’s work at this time.
Punkature (Oct 1982), Witches (March 1983), Hypnos (Oct 1983), and Clint Eastwood (March 1984) came next, after which Vivienne and Malcolm’s partnership was formally dissolved, although Vivienne claimed her by-then business partner had very little to do with most of these collections.
Corsets and Mini Crinis
The Mini Crini (Oct 1985) and Harris Tweed (March 1987) collections showed again a change in direction, largely because there was a new man in Vivienne Vivienne Westwood ‘s life. Carlo was still her business manager, but his creative influence was long gone, to be replaced by a gay man called Gary Ness whom Vivienne adored and had a long platonic relationship with. Gary was a sensualist who loved fabric and art. He taught Vivienne about the lushness of the eighteenth century and she became a regular visitor to art galleries, which lead to a fascination by corsets and how they reinforced a woman’s femininity yet gave her power.
Her corsets, however, were made from stretch fabric and a springy plastic boning, for a thoroughly modern update on those eighteenth century cleavages. Vivienne also introduced her signature platform shoes here. “I’d order leather to cover right down the platform, so it looked a bit orthopaedic, as well – a bit kinky. They have become a classic. A little bit kinky, but also Art, which is very me. Women should be on pedestals. Like art… I wear them all the time.”
Vivienne also introduced the use of heavy British tweeds around this period, an interest which she has sustained so much that she is credited with re-invigorating the dying British woollen trade, for which she was awarded the Queen’s Award for Export in 1998.
Her other awards are many, beginning with Designer of the Year from the British Fashion Council two years running in 1990 and 1991, an honorary Senior Fellowship of the Royal College of Art along with an Order of the British Empire in 1992, (where she famously did a twirl for the photographers, only to reveal she had no knickers on) an Institute of Contemporary Arts Award for outstanding contribution to contemporary culture in 1994, a Woman’s World Fashion Award in 2004 and a Damehood in 2006. In 2007 she received the Outstanding Achievement in Fashion Award at the British Fashion Awards, in 2008 a Distinction from the Royal College of Art for her services to fashion, and in 2010 a special commendation from Prince Philip at the 2010 Prince Philip Designers Prize. Her latest award is a 2015 lifetime achievement award from SCAD Museum of Art.
Towards the Future
Vivienne Westwood met her current partner, Andreas Kronthaler in 1989 when she was lecturing at the Vienna Academy of Applied Arts. He was a twenty-three-year-old student of hers; she was forty-eight. For Andreas it was love at first sight: ”I’d never seeing anybody so good looking and so well dressed, and so very, very elegant, and I just found– I still find– that incredibly attractive.” Vivienne, although she loved spending time and sharing ideas with Andreas, was a little less sure: “In Derbyshire we had a word for it: we called it cradle-snatching!” However, love was too strong to resist and the couple have been together, working closely on her collections, ever since.
Besides fashion, Vivienne Westwood is committed to campaigning against climate change. She donated a million pounds to the Cool Earth charity, and some of her latest collections have been named “Climate Revolution”, “Save the Arctic” “Save the Rainforest” and “End Ecocide”.
Vivienne Westwood is one of those practical, creative, sensible, silly, naughty, clever, blunt and charming – in short, one of those really interesting women that I think we’d all like to have in our circle of friends.
I think it’s really interesting that although she moved from a Derbyshire village to London at the age of seventeen, and even studied silversmithing for a year, she left the course and decided upon primary school teaching instead. “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world” she explained.
Marriage (to Derek Westwood) didn’t help her to fulfil her creative potential, although she did make her own wedding dress. It was only when she met Malcolm McLaren, for whom she left her husband, that she started thinking again about making things.
Vivienne Westwood – not a fashion designer?
But perhaps she wasn’t quite there yet. Although she appeared in public in the most shocking of punk outfits, and she made garments for the shop which they ran together, McLaren was the one to conceive the clothes and to teach her how to be a rebel. In fact, she even says both that he dressed her, picking her outfits and styling her hair, and that she never considered herself a fashion designer until a long time later.
Although that seems like a strange statement for one so widely admired, it’s not usual at all for a charismatic and ambitious man to take the lion’s share of credit for all the good things to come out of a partnership, even convincing the woman herself (or perhaps especially the woman herself) that her work is merely in actualizing his genius.
So perhaps she felt more like a seamstress and dress up dolly at the time. Although I’m not saying she wasn’t into either punk or the New Romantic style that they pioneered: ‘All the clothes I wore people would regard as shocking, I wore them because I just thought that I looked like a princess from another planet.’ Which is always a good thing to resemble.
At any rate, the “ Vivienne Westwood ” label that we know today was initially the “McLaren Westwood” label. McLaren was also busy putting together punk and pop groups – the Sex Pistols, whom he styled in his own label punk clothing was one, as was Bow Wow Wow, who were also dressed in McLaren Westwood clothing – New Romantic style this time. No more proof of the cynicism of this band creation is needed than the sublimely ridiculous song Sexy Eiffel Tower. Presumably meant to be controversial, it’s unfortunate that lead singer Annabella Lwin at the age of only fourteen can only manage a frantic squeak when asked to do sexy noises. Je t’aime… moi non plus it isn’t.
Vivienne Westwood – historical influences
McLaren and Westwood made a number of catwalk shows together, and decorated their shops like art installations. By 1981 Westwood was taking herself seriously as a fashion designer, and throwing aside punk looks began to delve into fashion history for her creations. This resulted in the “Pirates” show amongst others, which launched the New Romantic style.
Three years later and they had amicably split, leaving Westwood’s empire as her own. She researched the V&A archives and learned more about construction techniques, subverting “old fashioned” corsetry and crinolines into her cheeky “mini-crinis”, which although short in length and emphasized an hourglass form were somehow innocent and child-like at the same time – something which probably explains her enduring appeal to devotees of Japanese “Lolita” fashion – it’s a sort of of china shepherdess innocence.
Westwood continued to mix n match her historical influences, combining traditional British Harris Tweed with classic Greek drapery and ancient pornographic images, and lady like twinsets with high platform shoes.
Vivienne Westwood – Awards
In 1988 she won the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement and in 1992 she was awarded an OBE, (Order of the British Empire) doing a knickerless twirl for the press. In 2006 she became a Dame of the British Empire. Her work has continually been commercially successful, and anything which she adds her logo of a queenly orb on becomes highly coveted by many.
She is an ardent environmental campaigner, yet her manifestos against consumerism have been met with remarks pointing out that she produces nine collections a year and has a vast amount of ready to wear garments available emblazoned with her logo. Still, the moment a couple of months ago when she drove a tank to David Cameron’s house to protest fracking was impressive.
She is now married to her third (much younger) husband, Andreas Kronthaler.
Vivienne Westwood, born 1941, still going strong.
Career High-point: showing her fouf to the queen.