Before I moved to New York I picked up Vivienne Westwood’s authorised biography, written by Ian Kelly in collaboration with the designer, in Fopp. I began reading it in the summer, never really being grabbed by it, then continued reading it once I was home over winter break. That’s when I became hooked. I ended up finishing the book in a few days.
Vivienne Westwood has never been a designer who I’ve been fond of, purely because her clothes don’t appeal to me. They’re not the kind of things I’d want to wear. However, I’ve always been aware of and respectful towards the influence that she has had on fashion over the years. For example, she pioneered punk. You could see that with the retrospective “Punk: Chaos to Couture” exhibition at the Met in Spring 2013. In that exhibition there was a segment set up like her store in London. Besides designing for a whole subculture, Vivienne’s designs had an effect on fashion in the years to come. For example, some Alexander McQueen collections paid homage to ideas presented by Vivienne, and more prominently whilst she was still a small designer with a growing brand, French designers like Lacroix took some of her styles and put them on a bigger stage (the mini puffball skirts for example).
I think in recent years it has been easy to forget that Vivienne is actually a fashion designer just because of all of the political statements that she is known to make. She is big on climate change (particularly in terms of saving the rainforest and the arctic) and human rights issues (especially freeing people who she feels are wrongly imprisoned like Julian Assange). I’m always happy to see people who are in a position of power or celebrity using their status for good reasons. When you’re in a scenario where your voice can be heard and respected, I do think you should use it to speak out for what you believe in and educate others. However, the main focus of this book was Vivienne’s life and work in terms of fashion.
I didn’t realise how much Vivienne and her sons struggled financially whilst her business was taking off. A combination of high costs, an unsupportive father of a child, and a thieving employee meant she struggled to make ends meet, often living without electricity or a phone line. This makes her success all the more impressive to me because she had a true struggle, unlike lots of designers who pick this up as a hobby.
In terms of her career progression, things really picked up when Vivienne partnered with Malcolm McLaren, a man who had a considerable influence on her life, not always necessarily positive. McLaren often receives shared credit for many of Vivienne’s designs, however it always always her own ideas. They established a boutique on King’s Road which still stands today, albeit in its 5th incarnation (most famously called SEX, currently called Worlds End). They both lived the punk lifestyle with Vivienne designing looks for the Sex Pistols, managed by McLaren, and the New York Dolls. It was here that the safety pin looks originated, plus slogan t-shirts, tube skirts, dog collars, chains and spikes, and bondage style clothing. Some of the designs, along with the interior of the store, were so shocking that people called it indecent. Yet it was a sign of the times.
After splitting both personally and professionally with McLaren, Westwood started designing “fashion” collections and taking herself more seriously as a designer. She found a partner in Italy, scaled up production, and started selling to high-end stores as well as retailing through her own King’s Road boutique. She presented collections in Paris to much critical acclaim, becoming one of the most desirable shows of the city. Supermodels like Naomi Campbell would waive their regular exorbitant fees, receiving payment in clothing instead, for the honour of walking in the show and the value which they knew the designs would accumulate in years to come. Since then she has become the designer we all know – the logo with the orb, the tartan. I like how she includes historical references in her collections, often looking back hundreds of years to imitate techniques and styles. For this reason her work has become extremely popular in Japan where they enjoy Western culture and history. Furthermore, her work on tailoring is superb.
I think reading this book has allowed me to have a much deeper appreciation for Westwood as both a person and a designer. I am always intrigued to hear people’s stories of how they made it and the journey which they took. At 75, Vivienne Westwood’s journey is continuing and she shows no signs of stopping.
PS – I learned that her son with Malcolm McLaren, Joseph Corré, is the co-founder of Agent Provocateur. I knew the founders were British but I did not realise it was Westwood’s son. It struck me as funny that after growing up on punk and rebellion that you would produce a line of very expensive, very sexy lingerie.
Anarchy in the UK: A brief history of punk fashion – lots of good images