The Sunday Guardian
Vivienne Westwood is still controversial — and much copied
plus ça change.”
That “plus ça change” is partly why she, Bhaskar and co agreed to bring Goodness Gracious Me back for BBC2’s 50th birthday earlier this year. With sketches poking fun at Blurred Lines, Ukip and the “Delhi Mail”, they found they still had plenty of material. “What was quite stark is that there hadn’t been anything like Goodness Gracious Me since.” Would it get commissioned now? “Probably not. I always thought there would be a baton that would be passed. And in stand-up there has been — there are a lot of really good South Asian stand-ups. But certainly on TV there hasn’t been a similar satiric sketch presence.” She wouldn’t be averse to bringing it back for more but the return of The Kumars, also this year, was less successful. “It’s what Sky wanted and it was a good try but it’s a terribly difficult hybrid to pull off, and I’m not sure it sustained over an hour. I think half an hour would probably have worked better.”
On screen and off, she and Bhaskar work as a team. “Whenever one of us gets a part we say, ‘Hooray, that’s the mortgage!’” They take turns to work. “He was offered a couple of really nice plays this autumn but he couldn’t because it was my turn,” says Syal. “I was at home the first six months of this year. And I know when this comes to an end, whatever comes to me in theatre, I’ll have to turn down.”
She still managed to fit in filming the second series ofBroadchurch and the adaptation of David Walliams’ The Boy in the Dress, a favourite of Shaan’s, for Christmas. In between, she has written her third novel. The House of Hidden Mothers will be released in June next year and is her first book since Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee in 1999 — “I only have one good idea every five years,” she says. This one is about Shyama who runs a beauty parlour in east London. Unable to have children, she travels to India to find a surrogate. Her last two novels both ended up on screen. “But I haven’t had anything on television for a long time,” she says. “That’s not for want of trying. It’s got tougher. We don’t have Screen Two or Play for Today or any of those things that we used to have.”
Syal has recently lent her support to Act for Change, the campaign for diversity on screen. She knows she has lost out on parts because of the colour of her skin. “‘They’re not going in that direction’ is the general phrase…” she says. Does she think there should be racial quotas in television? “There are ways of doing it. This should be a conversation. Change really doesn’t come from haranguing or guilt- tripping people. It’s a much more positive outlook than that. It’s saying, ‘People, you are missing out. There is such a wealth of talent out there. It makes you look more multinational if you want to sell your programmes abroad. There is a brown pound, like there is a black pound and a pink pound.’”
This summer she worked in L. A. for the first time. “You get why so many black and Asian actors have gone over there because they do look at you in a completely different way. They don’t immediately go, ‘ I don’t know if this part is right for an Indian character…’ when you walk in. They don’t have those labels in their heads. And that is the result of many years of campaigning and raising awareness. Sherlock is a great example. Only in America would they cast Lucy Liu as Watson. It’s genius, and I can’t ever see that happening here, not at the moment.”
She was there to shoot a new HBO sitcom, The Brink, about hapless CIA agents. On her first day at Sunset Gower Studios, she found herself being ferried to set on a golf cart with Jack Black and Tim Robbins. “And in the background there was the Hollywood sign. You have to enjoy those moments because unless you’re lucky they’re very few and far between. This is why we do what we do — for these little moments.” THE INDEPENDENT
Dame, punk, crackpot, intellectual, eco-warrior. Those are a few of the labels affixed to Vivienne Westwood over the past four decades. During next week’s British Fashion Awards, Westwood is nominated for the year’s Best Campaign — somewhat paradoxically, given her anti-fashion, anti-establishment and anti-commercial stance (Westwood is probably the only fashion designer in the world who extorts us not to buy clothes). But a British Fashion Award ceremony without Westwood’s name being mentioned would be a travesty.
She is arguably the most influential British designer of the past century.
The imprint of Vivienne Westwood’s work on fashion is ubiquitous. It’s not just high street referencing. Designers for spring took many a leaf from Westwood’s book: Meadham Kirchhoff acknowledged “the obvious and undeniable influence” of her career in their show, titled “Reject Everything”; Raf Simons’ Dior collection, colliding and cross-breeding references from history, mirrored Westwood’s own obsession with century-hopping; while the corseted and ormolu-encrusted excess of Dolce and Gabbana reminded me of Westwood’s baroque early-Nineties years.
There were a few more insidious examples, where designers had picked apart Westwood originals and integrated their innovative features into their designs. She is, to quote former Womenswear Daily editor in chief John Fairchild, “the designer’s designer… copied by the avant-garde French and Italian designers because she is the Alice in Wonderland of fashion.” He said that back in 1989, but it’s still true today. “For ages, I kept a mental scrapbook of all the collections I saw being influenced by her,” says Professor Claire Wilcox, the senior curator of fashion at London’s Victoria and Albert museum, who also masterminded Westwood’s 2004 retrospective exhibition. “There were so many, I gave up.”
Indeed, Westwood’s back-catalogue plays out like 40 years of fashion’s greatest hits. In the ’70s, she and Macolm McLaren gave birth to the sartorial identity of punk through their shop (still standing) at 430 King’s Road. In the ‘80s, her work referenced everything from gay subculture to Victorian crinolines. 10 years later, she had turned to bustles, corsets, Dior’s New Look tailoring and 18th-century court dress. In 1991, during a worldwide economic downturn, she unveiled a collection titled “Dressing Up”, which, counter to the fashion of the time, advocated just that. Leaf through her memoir, written with Ian Kelly and published earlier this year, and her strident, frequently outspoken views shine through. Kelly seems to be scrambling to keep up with her.
In actual fact, that’s the root of Westwood’s continuing appeal and relevance: the shock of the new. “I’ve always said that a good idea is a perfect surprise. People didn’t know they wanted it because it didn’t exist,” said Westwood back in 2004. “When I see a fashion show, I am surprised. The phrase that is always in my mind is ‘never before seen’.”
She’s done that so many times that the expected rapidly became the unexpected – her work with McLaren shifted popular culture; her ’80s and early-’90s collections moved fashion goalposts.
Westwood’s work frequently seems out of synch with the times. How to reconcile her contemporary work, for instance, with the prevalent clean, mean, Céline-tinged minimalism? Westwood has no truck with that sort of stuff. It was the same when it first hit catwalks in the ’90s, when Westwood unveiled corsets printed with paintings by Francois Boucher and dresses decorated with swags of decoration from the furniture of André-Charles Boulle. These seasons, her clothes often feature free-falling, unfinished swathes of cloth, twisted and swagged about the body like the drapery in an El Greco painting — or an especially animated pair of 17th-century curtains, according to your viewpoint. Nevertheless, minimal it ain’t.
They don’t change much from season to season, those cinched corsets, platform shoes and tailored suits with drunkenly sloping seams (she once dubbed one a “Booze” suit, in reference to just that). “I think that when someone’s around for a very long time, everyone takes them for granted,” says Claire Wilcox, explaining some of the industry’s laissez-faire attitude. Although she does reason that Westwood “does her best to distract everyone from the clothes anyway, by saying you shouldn’t be paying attention to them but to climate change!”
Nevertheless, what Westwood’s output represents is a different outlook on clothing, both past and present. Wilcox recalls meeting the designer while she was researching 18th-century men’s breeches in the V&A archives. “She said, ‘Look at the swagger of those trousers, look how sexy they are,’” Wilcox says. “And I suddenly viewed fashion history in a completely different way.”
You get the feeling that Westwood herself views fashion differently from everyone else, too. It is that “eye” that allowed her to reconcile Greek peasant costume with punk’s strapped and wrapped kilts, and that perceived the concealed platforms putting the “ladies” of her 1990 Portrait show, inspired by baroque works of art, back on their pedestals. Incidentally, JW Anderson justified his menswear “chapforms” of this winter with a remarkably similar conceit. Westwood herself, however, has never placed herself up there, despite wearing those shoes even when cycling from her Clapham home to her Battersea offices every day for more than 20 years.
She’s down to earth, even when her work is changing the world. THE INDEPENDENT