Vivienne, The Punk by Harper’s Bazaar
THE ONLY PUNK LEFT: VIVIENNE WESTWOOD
AN ARTICLE BY HARPER’S BAZAAR
She brazenly mixed Scottish tartans with spiked dog-collar chokers, adorned humble clothes with safety pins, turned bondage gear into high fashion, and received the esteemed Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth for her sartorial achievements while wearing no underwear. (She gave an infamous twirl that was well documented by the paparazzi.) Vivienne Westwood is punk rock’s grande dame.
Westwood’s creative collaboration with her former lover and partner, Malcolm McLaren, spawned a style revolution. Through the 1970s, their notorious Kings Road boutique—variously known as Let It Rock; Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die; Sex; and during the punk era, Seditionaries—was instrumental in introducing the now iconic punk elements to the world. By the time the couple split in 1984, the store, by then called Worlds End (the name it still bears today), had become Westwood’s own.
Even as she continues to move forward as a designer and a rabble-rouser, her original impact on fashion is still evident. On a recent day at her London HQ in Battersea, the 71-year-old head of the global brand, who describes herself as “the only punk left, actually,” is typically engaged, passionate, and opinionated. She is here to talk about her inclusion in the Costume Institute exhibition “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, opening in May. The long overdue exploration of the punk aesthetic and its influence on fashion would, of course, be an all but pointless exercise without including Westwood.
“The Met wouldn’t take my 2004 V&A [London’s Victoria and Albert Museum] exhibition on the grounds that I was alive, so I hadn’t been terribly enthusiastic about the project,” she says. “But the reason I did get interested was the thing I did at the end of the Paralympics because that was punk.” (More on her stunt in a moment.) “The Met will be using lots of pieces from my archive and graphics from the climate revolution, as it shows how I am still using fashion to fight for political and environmental issues.”
Back in 1977, the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” was at number two on the British charts (despite being banned from the radio), and the monarch’s safety-pinned face appeared on the notorious Westwood—Jamie Reid—designed T-shirts during her Silver Jubilee year. In 2012, Queen Elizabeth celebrated both her Diamond Jubilee—60 years on the throne—and the London Olympic Games by “parachuting” into the Olympic stadium with James Bond during a memorable opening ceremony. Meanwhile, Westwood, recently upgraded to Dame of the British Empire, made her own equally unexpected appearance as Queen Boudicca (the Celtic warrior queen who fought the Romans to protect England) at the Paralympics closing ceremony to reveal a banner reading CLIMATE REVOLUTION. With their eye for attention-grabbing stunts, Her Majesty and the queen of punk appear to have much more in common these days. And though McLaren—manager—Éminence grise—impresario of the Sex Pistols and father of her younger son (Joe Corré, of Agent Provocateur lingerie fame; her eldest is photographer Ben Westwood, from her first marriage, to Derek Westwood)—died in 2010, the cultural reverberations of the couple’s collaboration are still being felt.
Famous as creator of the “mini-crini” and the precarious “rocking horse” shoe, Westwood is also the designer of clothes that make women look and feel magnificent. These days, that includes members of the royal family. Princess Eugenie wore three Westwood outfits to the royal wedding, and even Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, has donned Westwood’s frocks.
Lay a Westwood dress flat and it appears to be a piece of origami; on the body it becomes something else. Look too at the oeuvre of any of the great post-punk designers, from Jean Paul Gaultier to Alexander McQueen to John Galliano (the work of all three will be represented in “Punk: Chaos to Couture”), and you will see her influence in action. “I’ve got this spatial intelligence, this geometry—even more than Andreas [Kronthaler, her husband and codesigner]—and that’s what gives the look to my clothes, this cutting principle. I have this rapport with the body, this dynamic. One thing I do, that I thought of, is to get a drape by making a piece of straight fabric travel round a corner.”
The conversation ranges far and wide, creating a Gordian knot of references to art, history, politics, and, yes (if pushed), fashion. Yet Westwood is entirely uninterested in celebrity and pop culture and doesn’t shop much, watch TV, or read the papers, and her current enduring passions are human rights and climate change (the subjects of her blog, activeresistance.co.uk). Talking about her relationship with Kronthaler, who is 24 years her junior, she doesn’t see what the fuss is about. “I’m older and wiser; that’s good for any relationship,” she says. “Before we got together, I lived on my own for nearly 10 years and loved it. When Andreas and I met, we were very attracted. We stimulate and support each other, but this has nothing to do with age. It’s who we are and what we learn from our experiences.”
And how does she feel about punk these days? “Punk folded when the Sex Pistols folded and Sid [Vicious] died,” Westwood says firmly. “I realized that the kids who were interested in it were interested because of the way it looked. They all went on to do other things, and I don’t think any of them had any politics. They just liked having a good time. Others went on to make their whole life around it. There are punk pundits, and Johnny Rotten is still doing his act. I thought highly of Johnny at the time, but to just carry on being ‘Johnny Rotten’ on a kind of pedestal as ‘the token rebel’…” She shrugs. In Britain, John(ny) “Rotten” Lydon is now best known for appearing in TV commercials for butter.
“I was about 36 when punk happened and I was upset about what was going on in the world,” she continues. “It was the hippies who taught my generation about politics, and that’s what I cared about—the world being so corrupt and mismanaged, people suffering, wars, all these terrible things—while Malcolm [McLaren] hated the older generation as a result of his background; he hated any authority. Malcolm was a great talent, but he was not true to himself or to his talent because he was not really interested in trying to understand the world. Therefore he didn’t learn, and I lost interest in his ideas. And I blamed the older generation for what was going on too, so we wouldn’t even accept their taboos. That’s how the swastika symbols came to be used in punk, for example.”
It may come as news to many that the queen of punk is, in fact, a hippie at heart, born and raised in the countryside in the village of Tintwistle, in the county of Derbyshire, who rebels against those whom she perceives as busy running the world into the ground. “I still feel the same way, that the world is run by psychopaths,” she declares.
“That seed was planted by the hippies, and we [punks] took it up. Or I did—let’s leave Malcolm out of it because he’s dead now, poor sod. I just think that the other people weren’t really political and never went on to become political in any way, but that’s always what motivated me and that’s why I haven’t really got any interest in punk now. But,” she adds with a smile, “it looks great.”
Westwood is neither falsely modest nor remotely egomaniacal; she simply knows where she stands on any subject she is knowledgeable and passionate about. For example: “Art should never be sociological; it has got to be timeless. It’s got to be your vision and how you can represent the world you see.” Then how does she square her passion for a climate revolution with being someone who fundamentally makes yet more stuff for people to buy?
“I do think if you aim for quality, it’s not so much about consumerism. The idea is ‘Buy less, choose well, make it last,'” she explains. “Personally, I try not to get new things from the collection unless I feel I have to.”
Wearing her activist hat (albeit at a jaunty angle), Westwood speaks out regularly on the environment. She was a guest speaker at last year’s Friends of the Earth annual conference in London, unveiling her manifesto to help stop climate change by the time of the Rio Olympics, in 2016. There’s “no division between the economy and environment,” she told rallygoers.
“Because of climate change, I do wonder if it wouldn’t be the best thing to close a shop, but that’s very difficult–we’ve got 200 people working for us, for a start,” she says. Meanwhile, as Lady Gaga was photographed wearing Westwood’s Spring 2013 CLIMATE REVOLUTION T-shirt within 24 hours of its catwalk debut last fall, the designer observes, “I get credibility from doing the fashion, which helps me as a propagandist, gives me a voice. People will listen to you. That’s one reason I think it’s important to carry on.”
And I can think of another: There are too few female designers whose clothes are kind to women, glamorous, and empowering. Come the climate revolution, may we all dress fiercely and flaunt it. Punk is dead; long live punk’s eco-conscious Boudicca, Dame Viv.
Read more: Vivienne Westwood Profile – Vivienne Westwood Quotes on Her Life as a Designer – Harper’s BAZAAR
A fabulous article about a fabulous designer by one for my favorite magazines. Worth sharing and reading.
THECONFASHIONARY also recommend the following articles:
- Vivienne Westwood: At 71, Still Not Done Provoking (runway.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Chelsea in London, the Birthplace of British Punk (localnomad.com)
- Vivienne Westwood: Michelle Obama’s style is dreadful (fashion.telegraph.co.uk)