Vivienne Westwood remembered
Vivienne Westwood, who died peacefully Thursday, aged 81, will always be known as Godmother of punk fashion, though she should really be remembered as one of the ten greatest couturiers of all time.
Most obituaries of Westwood have focused on her dressing the Sex Pistols, not wearing underwear to get her OBE in Buckingham Palace or protesting against Julian Assange’s extradition.
However, when future generations come to consider her legacy it will be as an outstandingly innovative couturier who ranks up there with Jeanne Lanvin, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent or Cristobal Balenciaga.
Hers was a remarkable trajectory from rebel to grand bohemian lady. From being arrested by London police for disrupting the Queen’s silver jubilee in June 1977 to being made a Dame by the same monarch 25 years later in 2003.
I first had the great pleasure and privilege of meeting Vivienne Westwood back in 1994 when I was the Paris Bureau Chief of fashion bible Women’s Wear Daily. Enjoying a Saturday morning coffee in Les Halles, two days after she staged a wonderful Gold label show inside the Grand Hotel.
A show that contained her most celebrated tailoring statement, the Mini Crini, a meeting of the crinoline and the mini skirt, and an ideal Westwood statement, as it blended historicism with edge. She began showing in Paris in 1992, becoming the first British designer since Mary Quant to show in the capital of France, and of fashion. It was a typically provocative romp, with models in mixes of hunting pink jackets paired with punk bondage chokers and black leather codpieces.
At the time, serious editors, like my then boss and mentor the Godfather of Fashion and founder of W Magazine, John Fairchild, regarded Vivienne as one of the half dozen most innovative creators working in fashion. Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner, even insisted that along with Jean-Paul Gaultier, she and Yves were the three most important designers of their time.
Which made the location of our meeting all the more remarkable. After four years with WWD in Paris, I’d grown used to meeting Yves Saint Laurent in a mansion on Avenue Marceau, lunching with Karl Lagerfeld in his hotel particular or dining with Emanuel Ungaro in his antique crammed pavillon. Instead, I encountered the insurrectionary Vivienne in a two star hotel in funky Les Halles, the sort of hotel whose lobby is on the second floor.
Nonetheless, dressed in a sublimely cut dimpled dress, cashmere cardigan, bovver boots and spiky hair she somehow looked more like a designer than any I had ever met before. Her hair was still in those days actually razored into spikes, then jelled to stand erect, a look that was mimicked by David Bowie, no less.
However, at that first encounter what was most apparent was her determination to be recognized as a designer of first rank. She also regarded herself very much as a fine artist, while most her Parisian confreres still thought of themselves as purely designers, and thus mere applied artists.
Looking around the fashionable café, she announced disdainfully, “everyone talks about all this modern fashion in London and Paris, but to be honest I think most people look like crap. People were much better dressed 100 years ago!”
When I enquired about her early days inventing punk fashion, she smiled and laughed wickedly, “I thought it was a good way to poke a stick into fine fashion’s wheels!”
Vivienne Isabel Swire was born in the small Cheshire town of Tintwistle, and spoke with the broad vowels of a strong north of England accent. Her background was modest – her father Gordon was a storekeeper in a factory, and her mother Dora a local post office mistress. And her thrifty upbringing helped her in the tough early days to establish her fashion house. Her childhood had been a happy one, spent rambling around the local peaks and dales. And a nostalgia for idyllic rural England always informed her fashion, creating versions of riding, fishing and shooting clothes though always with novel twists for the urban sophisticates that became her clientele.
In the 60s she had been a school teacher, and when she was discussing art or fashion history she sounded like a tough head mistress. It was little surprise to me when Michael Roberts had photographed Vivienne in a crisp suit with pearl necklace as Margaret Thatcher for the cover of Tatler magazine. The tagline read: This woman was once a punk. Though oceans apart politically, both shared that unique drive of a talented small town gal determined to succeed on a greater stage.
We met in Café Costes, the first establishment opened by the Costes brothers, who a half decade later would open the most successful hotel in Paris in the past half century. Known as Godmother of punk and the princess of pirate chic, Vivienne’s collection that season was instead more like a Restoration romp, yet also unquestionably a collection of couture.
Discussing the inspirations, her conversation was littered with references to Christian, Hubert and Cristobal, who she clearly considered as her equals. Indeed, she had come to Paris to prove that very point.
Westwood would never achieve the same level of financial success as these Continental icons. For the past decade her fashion house has enjoyed an annual turnover of some £30 million, allowing her to lead a gentile existence, living in a Queen Anne house in south London.
Yet Westwood, certainly matched them in terms of influence, ideas and creativity. A legacy that lives on, and keeps popping up in other designers collections.
Just a couple of weeks before the Covid lockdown began, I attended a show in New York by Monse, the duo who design Oscar de la Renta. It was a Vivienne Westwood revival, albeit with a doubly deconstructed twist. A photo of Westwood was even on their mood-board backstage. While the previous weekend at the Oscars, Westwood had a stellar red carpet moment – dressing Kate Hudson, Natalie Dormer and Winnie Harlow.
Her collabs ranged from the mundane – with, believe it or not, carpet maker Brintons to Burberry, with Riccardo Tisci in late 2019. And many thought this was the best collection made for the UK house, during the Italian’s tenure.
In the later days, Vivienne’s most celebrated creation was probably the wedding dress worn by Carrie Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, in the movie Sex and the City in spring 2008. She put the original ivory silk dress on public display a decade later in her New York boutique on East 55th Street. And you can still buy slimline versions of the voluminous wedding gown on e-commerce sites for about £5,000.
The dress was part of her Gold label or “couture” collection. At one stage she showed her ready-to-wear Red label in London Fashion Week, and her menswear collection in Milan, underlining her exceptional industriousness.
Westwood first steps in design were back in the 60s, selling glass costume jewelry on Portobello Road, and she kept that bohemian thread throughout her work.
A key figure was clearly Malcolm McLaren whom she met when he was still an art school student, and she was working as a hat check gal, in a club run by her first husband, Derek Westwood. She had sons by each of the two – Ben Westwood and Agent Provocateur founder Joe Corré, and though very proud of both rarely mentioned them.
She began collaborating with McLaren, and when he became manager of The Sex Pistols she designed the band’s clothes, sparking a gigantic media storm.
It’s hard to understate how irate the British establishment and tabloid papers became when the Pistols sang, “God Save the Queen. It’s a fascist regime... She ain’t no human being.” Going into paroxysms of rage when McLaren had Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious had the temerity to sign a record deal at the gates of Buckingham Palace.
Back in 1977, the year of both the punk revolt in the UK and the Queen’s silver jubilee, the couple’s tiny boutique SEX at World’s End, near the bottom of the King’s Road seemed a hotbed of anarchy. That year, the first time I visited SEX, on a sunny Saturday in July, a half dozen Black Maria police vans showed up and arrested a score of punks just a few yards away for allegedly causing a disturbance of the peace. In truth, their only “crime” was simply looking like they were rebelling, and their tailor was Vivienne. Westwood herself had been arrested a month before, along with the Pistols, after the band tried to disrupt the jubilee night of June 7, by playing a concert on a boat on the Thames.
She eventually attired an entire generation in her early iconoclastic punks ideas – mohair sweaters knitted with giant needles; slashed up bondage gear with swastikas (something unimaginable today); Scottish rebel kilts; labels shown on the outside; ripped T-shirts; punchy graphics mixed up with Tom of Finland hardcore gay sex imagery. My earliest memory of a Westwood look was the legendary image of the Queen with a safety pin stuck through her nose. At the time, there were calls for Westwood to be jailed under English law allegedly for “Contempt of the Sovereign.”
Like all great designers, Westwood was able to journey through multiple stylistic periods. Moving from punk to New Romanticism, to Pirate chic and then to Anglomania in the early 90s – blending tartan, brilliant deconstruction and a touch of anarchy. It was a great joy to attend her shows in London, Milan or Paris, where she regularly took bows in politically themed T-Shirts, as her concern for ecological disaster grew. She favored historic locations, like the College of Surgeons in London in 2016, where she presented Saucy Marie Antoinettes in asymmetrical slip dresses and lace frocks sparkling with crystals.
Her collections always had great rousing names: like her Pirate of the High Seas collection back in 1981; Voyage to Cythera or Savage where Matisse dancers skipped over empire waist dresses. Or Witches, her last collaboration with McLaren, which contained skirts with Keith Haring imagery and marbleized cotton lining made to look like the sides of old books. Every collection contained a signature high-collar shirt, often in broken pattern stripes or Renaissance oil painting prints, finished with bizarre buttons – from penises to small dogs.
Few would dispute the idea that without Westwood cutting a swathe through the world of style and establishing British designer fashion internationally, it would have been extremely difficult for fellow Britons like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen or Kim Jones to have achieve the success they did. Jones, the menswear designer of Dior, is even a keen collector of her work, and owns hundreds of iconic Westwood pieces.
In her finale decade, she gradually handed over designing to her third husband, the brilliant, cultured and wild Andreas Kronthaler, who has done an excellent job maintaining and extending her oeuvre. It also allowed her to concentrate on her final overriding obsession - the fight against global warming, which one could follow on her blog and diary. Its name was typically insurrectionary: Climate Revolution.
Erratic financially all her career, Westwood actually filed for bankruptcy in 1983 and fled to Milan, where her genius was more readily recognized. And where her collections have been largely produced by top Italian factories. Before passing, she handed over control of her fashion and property empire – valued at £150 million - to Kronthaler and invited her fellow designer Jeff Banks to sit on its board.
She remained a living legend in Italy, which is where I last spent time with her, accompanying Vivienne to Ischia Global Fest, a celebration of film, art and music on the verdant Mediterranean island.
“We have no choice between a green economy and mass extinction,” insisted Westwood over a vegan lunch.
A three-time winner British Designer of the Year Award, Westwood received her award after a movie screening on a cliff face in a small wooded bay. Suitably, given her commitment to supporting the Rain Forest via the Cool Earth movement.
“We don’t try to buy the forest, but work with indigenous peoples to get them completely legal documents to own their piece of forest where they have lived for hundreds of years. They care passionately about their land and we give them the same amount of money to save the forest that loggers would give them to cut it down. The plan is to save the whole raid forest for one hundred million pounds, very little really. And the Queen has joined in and it’s now working. Every pound saves a tree,” she explained.
The two reigning queens of Punk and the Commonwealth finally collaborating together.
“We have an enormous global problem: our politicians are not listening to our scientists. We have barely 20 years to stop things, otherwise we shall reach a tipping point and we can draw a line across the earth and everywhere below Paris will be uninhabitable,” she predicted, to sustained applause from the audience of some 500 as she received her award.
Leaving me with my final memory of Vivienne, looking exotic and unique and brave, dressed in her own beautiful white écru chiffon sari dress, as in the distant backdrop Mount Vesuvius smoked gently.
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