THE QUEEN OF
‘she’s spiteful, opinionated, bitchy, self-indulgent... And that’s the nicest thing I can say about her,’said John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. During her long career,Vivienne Westwood has been loved, hated, despised, admired and adored. The 72-year-old fashion designer, who once said that she was ‘the only punk left, actually’, is the living – and today, slightly less provocative – symbol of a time where being obscene and a firebrand was en vogue and pretty much de rigueur. Westwood is not just the emblem of a lost world;she is also what The Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries called a ‘jauntily knickerless recipient of an OBE from the Queen’, red hair topping up her audacious self, and an influential designer whose garments have been shaping trends,moods and a new generation of talented hands for almost 40 years.
Back in the late ‘70s, England’s economy was suffering from what many would describe as clinical depression and the government was out of touch and out of ideas. The working class was angry, tired and often poor, the harsh climate made worse by a garbage strike that turned London into a giant trash bin. In this desolate setting, Westwood planted the grains of her revolution. A few years before the surfacing of the punk ethos, she had started to design some trendy ‘Teddy Boy’ items (think dapper style, creeper socks, shiny shirts and waistcoats and, yes, bolo ties) for her partner Malcolm McLaren – then still to
SHE STROLLS INTO BUCKINGHAM PALACE, ALL FLAMING-RED HAIR, SANS KNICKERS. SHE BITCHES ABOUT KATE MIDDLETON AND CONSUMERISM. THE GRANDE DAME OF THE NEW WAVE HAS BEEN SHOCKING US FOR DECADES BUT SHE’S ALSO BECOME ONE OF OUR MOST IMPORTANT FASHION DESIGNERS AND OUTSPOKEN ACTIVISTS ‘When we started to do punk, we put all of these things together to create the look of an urban guerrilla – a rebel’
become British musician and impresario – and his Let It Rock shop opened in 1971 at 430 King’s Road in Chelsea. By 1974, the boutique, which had been renamed Sex, was an Ali Baba cavern for bondage and fetish garments, a punk (the word was apparently used in the late 16th century as a synonym for prostitute) haven where ripped shirts, rubber cropped tops and leather jackets sported safety pins,‘Destroy’ slogans and razor blades,and where chunky biker boots bore spikes like the symbols of some much-wanted iconoclasm. The store, which changed fashion direction and names several times, soon served as a hangout for all the left-behinds, disenchanted and antagonistic teenagers, among them, John Lydon. Westwood claims she dressed the Sex Pistols (the band’s name is derived from the store) but Lydon counters this saying he dressed himself in garbage bags and a Pink Floyd T-shirt emblazoned with‘I hate’.In an interview for Style.com,Westwood explained, ‘When we started to do punk, we put all of these things together to create the look of an urban guerrilla – a rebel.’ She elaborated in The Guardian in December 2011, telling Jeffries, ‘(…) I really wanted to help. I was interested in human rights.’ She started to be anti the royal family because she felt the Queen was a symbol of hypocrisy at the time. The making of the infamous punk-rock band behind ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and ‘God Save the Queen’,still stirs wild controversy:McLaren (who passed away in 2010) and Westwood claimed the band and its iconic style as theirs while Lydon maintains that ‘no-one created [him]’. During the 26 months of its short existence, the Sex Pistols became the voice of a dismayed generation and was as equally adored as despised:when the brand embarked on its 1976 tour, Bernard Brook-Partridge, a Conservative member of the Greater London Council, famously said: ‘I think that most of these groups would be vastly improved by sudden death.The worst group (...) the Sex Pistols (...) are the antithesis of human kind and the whole world would be vastly improved by their total utter non-existence.’ Still, what they accomplished was nothing short of a revolution; their following was vast, as was the number of bands that sprung in their wake. And Westwood became one of the most prominent British designers in the contemporary world, whether it was because of her unique eye, the Pistols’ controversy that surrounded her, or a wild combustion of both – quite a ride for someone who started as a primary-school teacher.
Born on 8 April 1941 in Derbyshire, Vivienne Isabel Swire moved to Middlesex with her parents at the age of 17, and enrolled to train as a teacher.Of her childhood,Westwood says: ‘I was a good person. I was high-spirited but I was a big reader. What I remember as a child is that other kids didn’t care about suffering. I always did.’ In 1962, she met Derek Westwood, a commercial airline pilot. The couple wed the following July and had a son, Benjamin, now an erotic and fetishist photographer and fashion designer.The marriage ended three
‘If you wear clothes that don’t suit you, you’re a fashion victim. You have to wear clothes that make you look better’
years later when Vivienne met 18-year-old McLaren. In 1967, they had a child together (today’s Agent Provocateur creator Joseph Corré), propelling the punk movement from their shop, until the collapse of the Sex Pistols. In 1980, quite symbolically, the shop was renamed World’s End. Following the end of an era and before separating in 1984, the couple focused on organizing its first catwalk show – for the Pirate collection – launching the post-punk new-romantic tenet that would later be so synonymous with the Westwood brand.
There is something remarkably exuberant in Westwood’s persona and aesthetics. Not everybody can walk into Buckingham Palace, twice, wearing no underwear – once to receive the Order of the British Empire (in 1992),in a long,grey tailored dress and a matching side béret (Westwood famously twirled in the Palace courtyard, exposing her knickerless self); and a second time to be made Dame Commander of the British Empire (in 2006), in a black dress, a pair of black mules with riveted metal holes and tiny silver horns perched on her head. Besides being honoured by the Queen, Westwood’s startling signature has her fans come to her for outfits that are both recognizable and unique: Sex and the City’s costume designer Patricia Field, chose an extravagant wedding dress for Carrie Bradshaw; Princess Eugenie wore an outlandish outfit at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s royal wedding in 2011. Other accolades include a retrospective in 2004 at the Victoria & Albert Museum after 34 years in fashion and, most recently, in Spring 2013, her designs were included in the PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibition at The Met in New York.
Today, she has become something of a brilliant fashion historicist, colouring her collections with reflections from the past, from medieval costumes or the paintings of Thomas Gainsborough to detailed underdresses from the Renaissance, all the way through to her famous 1985 tailored cottonand-tweed ‘mini crini’, a miniature version of the crinoline. She plays with crafty and technical cuts, pleats like delicate origami, a collection mixed and bandaged with bits of trash that sometimes turn it into a random medley.And her designs still manage to enhance the woman’s body: ‘If you wear clothes that don’t suit you, you’re a fashion victim.You have to wear clothes that make you look better,’she once said.In 1994, Westwood created faux cul skirts with exaggerated postérieurs that made legs look longer and the waist look smaller. On this, Vogue’s Anna Wintour said, ‘We all laughed the first time we saw crinolines. But it’s good that someone refuses to be all pale and beige and cashmere.’
Westwood’s refusal to toe the line would always colour her politics as well. Once quoted as saying she still felt the world was ‘run by psychopaths’, she appeared on the cover of Tatler in 1989 dressed as Margaret Thatcher with ‘This woman was once punk’ as a cover line. She is also an activist, regularly speaking up about climate change and environmental issues. In 2011, she told The Guardian, ‘I will say something that sounds terrible. We’re all going into the gas chamber, and what I’m saying is that it’s not a bathroom. We’re going to be killed. The human race faces mass extinction,’ adding, ‘We have got to change our ethics and our financial system and our whole way of understanding the world. It has to be a world in which people live rather than die;a sustainable world. It could be great.’ To support her arguments, Westwood wrote a proposal dubbed ‘Active Resistance to Propaganda’, alerting humankind to the risk of ‘muddling along as usual’, remaining ‘the destructive and self-destroying animal, the victim of our own cleverness’. She is also a fervent supporter of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and a vocal critic of Kate Middleton (not that the two have anything in common). Of the latter she said – apparently after Middleton went to Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton for her wedding dress – ‘I think she’s got a problem with eye make-up.The sharp line around her eyes makes her look hard. Either she should be smudgy or wear none.’
Today, all that’s left of dinosaurs are birds; and all that remains of the punk movement is Vivienne Westwood. At 72, she married Andreas Kronthaler,a former student and 24 years her junior, and continues on a path paved with both awards and controversies. God save Westwood!
Top to bottom Designer Vivienne Westwood walks on the Vivienne Westwood Red Label Spring/ Summer 2013 catwalk during London Fashion Week, at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London, September 2012; Vivienne Westwood Autumn/ Winter 2013/14 Paris collection.
This spread, clockwise from top left Westwood’s son Jo Corré at the New Connaught Rooms in London, December 2000; Westwood with Malcolm McLaren in 1981; posing for photographer Juergen Teller as part of an exhibition called Men and Women; with Baroness Margaret Thatcher at the Vivienne Westwood exhibition at the Museum of London,April 2000; at the anti-fracking protest at the Cuadrilla fracking site in Sussex, England,August 2013; investitures at Buckingham Palace, London, June 2006; Steve Jones,Alan Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Jordan Pamela Rooke,Vivienne Westwood and friend at Sex on King’s Road, London, 1976.
JEAN PAUL GAULTIER AND MADONNA Gaultier admitted that he was always a fan of Madonna, hoping he would, one day, design her costumes.At her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, Madonna sported his iconic cone bra, sold in December 2012 for $52 000 (over R520 000) at the Christie’s Pop Culture auction in London. GUCCI AND FLORENCE WELCH It was an instant love affair between Gucci’s Creative Director, Frida Giannini, and singer Florence Welch.The brand designed Welch’s North America Tour in 2011 and again, in 2012, for the Florence + the Machine Ceremonials Tour. Giannini explained in an interview with Dazed Digital,‘I met her in Los Angeles at this year’s Grammys and was captivated by her presence. She has a powerful personality and an entrancing quality to her performances. She also has that confident and selfassured look that goes hand in hand with the Gucci woman.’
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD AND THE SEX PISTOLS In 1975, the famous punk-rock band was formed under the management of Westwood’s partner, Malcolm McLaren.The band’s particular style – a mix between bondage, fetishism and ripped clothes – was rooted in the early hippy culture and was mainly designed by Westwood.