Known as the Queen of Punk, her irreverence and unique way of interpreting the British style has maintained her position in the fleeting fashion world for over 30 years. By Lina Vaz
Vivienne Westwood is an eccentric: her polemic statements about politics and culture, her marriage with a former student, bisexual and half her age (with whom she continues to live and work to this day), her unconventional lifestyle...
But her free spirit has granted her recognition as a fashion designer. To celebrate the anniversary of her career, the Victoria & Albert museum in London has organised a fashion show and a retrospective exhibition.
She was born in 1941 in Tintwistle, in the north of England. Her carer started in the 70s, when Vivienne Westwood scandalised the world dressing the punk movement. She opened a shop in Kings Road, Chelsea, with Malcolm McLaren, the former manager of Sex Pistols.
The shop was named ‘Let it Rock’ but had many different names such as ‘Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die’ or simply ‘Sex’. You could buy chains, ripped clothing, t-shirts with porn messages and images, adorned with safety pins. “The clothing we did at the time was rebel and heroic, designed with the aim to shock and get people’s attention.”
The turning point was when Vivienne Westwood felt a need for change: “My way of thinking at the time was emotional, I wanted to be more radical and efficient. I’ve always read a lot and looked into history and other societies to develop my own ideas.”
Westwood starts her research on costume history, adopting and reinterpreting cut techniques in her own way, giving them a contemporary touch. Her first fashion show was in London in 1981.
The following year, she presented her collection in Paris, where she continues showing to this day. In 1989, John Fairchild from Women’s Wear Daily in New York published the book ‘Chic Savages’, about six fashion designers and Westwood was the only woman on the list.
In April of that same year, she gets a lot of publicity by being the cover of Tatler magazine, dressed as Margaret Thatcher with the title: “This woman was once a punk”. Her popularity rose in 1990 when she participated in BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Opinions’, with speakers who challenged the status quo.
She opened the programme with the following statement: “My ideas don’t come out of thin air, but from an intellectual curiosity, researching the past and comparing things, gaining a sense of perspective and knowledge. Afterwards you create something unseen before, even if the elements have always been there. This is the creative process and it comes from tradition and technique.”
To Westwood, the most important aspect for a designer is precisely technique. She lectured in Vienna and after a while in Berlin, where she continues to do so to this day.
Her students need to copy historic costumes in a disciplined and repetitive way, so they can understand each stitching has a reason for being there and to nurture their understanding of fashion’s narrative, each piece of clothing should tell a story. This way, they are able to tread their own path.
“You can’t be creative if there’s no connection with the past and tradition. It’s not enough to want to create something new without acknowledging the techniques from the past.” Her meticulous approach has undoubtedly contributed to her recognition as the British Designer of the Year both in 1990 and 1991.
The following year, she caused indignation because she was not wearing any knickers when she collected her OBE from the Queen. Later she said that was not intentional to her biographer, Fred Vermorel.
But what became part of fashion history was the fall of Naomi Campbell during a Westwood show in Paris in 1993, with her renowned high platform shoes. Vivienne Westwood’s work is quite unique.
She has a particular way of interpreting the British style: “London is my home and I’m British so it’s impossible for me to ignore British culture when I work.” She tends to also use fabrics from England, Scotland and Ireland. Her work focuses on two pillars, the body and the fabric. “Fabric should give expression to the human body.”
In a time of mass production and standardised imagery, the most important is to give people the power of choice and of expressing themselves: “I think minimalism is dominant because people would rather not say anything than to show bad taste, so they end up wearing what everybody else wears – jeans and a simple t-shirt. When I design my clothes I give people the freedom of choice and there’s nothing more explosive than that.”
Looking at her career history, Westwood considers herself faithful to her political views. “For you to be really subversive these days, you need to invest on quality and taste.” She loves art and painting in particular. “Looking at a painting is like entering a world. I like the pagan world as seen in the eighteenth century. It’s such a pleasure to look at!”
For her, there are three major geniuses – Boucher, Watteau and Fragonard – but her favourite artists are Titian, Velásquez and Vermeer. “I take my students to a gallery in Berlin and ask them: ‘if there was a fire, which painting would you take away with you?’ This is to test their discrimination power and cultivate their personal opinion. After a few years when you grow older and become more mature, you realise you would take a totally different painting with you.”
To Westwood, the most important is to understand the world she lives in. Although fashion is part of that, she gets involved in many other ways. Nowadays, she presents her collection Gold Label in Paris and Man in Milan. She has also two diffusion lines such as the Red Label and Anglomania.
For the future, she intends to launch a new feminine fragrance, inspired in the East. The bottle is red, reminiscent of intensity and desire and it has a dragon to portrait feminine power. “I believe the Westwood woman is heroic. You have to have a strong personality to wear my clothes.”
She plans to continue working in fashion with the same passion: “I have total creative control of my company. There’s no one from marketing telling me what to do. I love giving a different option to my customers.”
Published by Elle Portugal in April 2004. All rights reserved.