By Joanne Higgins
Born on the 8th of April 1941 to working class parents Dora (a mill worker) and Gordon, (a factory worker) in Derbyshire, England, Vivienne would grow up to become a distinctive voice in fashion, more appreciated outside the UK than in it. If the music of the 1970’s sought to deny “all social facts,” Westwood’s visionary clothes straddling the Faultline’s between conservatism and dissidence – the synched in reality of worsted tweed suits punctuated by radical cuts, the pirate fantasy of in-the-bath-dyed-at-home skin-tight jeans, biker jackets and chicken-bone adorned slogan t-shirts, set against the romanticism of 18thC corset bodices fileted with plastic rather than whalebone, tutu skirts and crazy rainbow-hued shoes – sought to “change [the fashion] world,” and sent a clear message, “that everything is possible.”
“I always liked the kids that everyone else thought were a pain in the arse. The little rebels.”
And yet her extraordinary career was far from inevitable, dropping out after a semester at Harrow art college, opting for secretarial school instead and ultimately becoming a primary school teacher, marrying Derek Westwood and giving birth to a son Ben in 1962. At times Westwood noted that her ambitions did not extend beyond running a market stall. Vivienne told the Guardian in 2017 that she was ‘an excellent teacher,’ “Except I always liked the kids that everyone else thought were a pain in the arse. The little rebels.”
Rebellion was in her blood and fate took charge when she met and married her second husband Malcolm McLaren, giving birth to a another son, Joe in 1967. His musical and business ambitions fed Vivienne’s creative vision. They rented a shop in King’s Road in London, later rechristened SEX. A 1974 trip to New York saw Vivienne embraced by the Andy Warhol crowd and inspired McLaren to form the Sex Pistols upon his return. Vivienne thus moved into designing costume and greatly admired the working class aesthetic of black bin-bags and loo-chains.
Norah Waugh’s book, The Art of Men’s Clothing, in addition to a deep dive into art history, informed Westwood’s highly successful 1981 collection Pirates. Her first catwalk show took place in 1982, World’s End and she felt confident enough to open a second store, Nostalgia of Mud, two years later in 1984.
It wasn’t long before Carlo D’Amario, an Italian fashion PR wizard, took notice and whisked her off to Italy in search of some major financial backing. But business and financial management were not a Westwood speciality, (also, the global fashion world was not yet convinced), thus despite the success of Mini-Crini, her 1985 show in New York, where Naomi Campbell fell of those legendary 9″ platforms, Vivienne found herself sans-McLaren, broke and borrowing from friends to reopen her London shop. She recalls often working by candlelight when the electricity was cut off.
“people who’ve had a harder life and more dramatic experience … the poor have the status … of having more experience.”
Coming from a tradition of grafters, Westwood remained undaunted. Her 1987 collection paid homage to her Glossop roots with tweed-galore. It seemed that she had carved out an oeuvre all of her own – sharp city tailoring mixed with floating layers of sheer fabric forming romantic gowns – but always with a tongue-out, mid-finger-up rebellious edge.
To generate more income Vivienne began teaching fashion in Vienna. She would marry one of her student’s Andreas Kronthaler in 1993.
Her 1990 Paris fashion show resonated with serious Italian fashion backers, they loved that she posited women as heroes, not Goddesses, whores, or unimpeachable housewives. By then her following in Japan was strong with the Chinese fashion pack not far behind.
“I’ve always been a rebel … punk was a protest, [the clothes] said we don’t accept your taboos, we don’t accept your hypocritical life.”
“If I had really been Thatcher I would have used this wealth to reduce the size of classes in school. Education is the thing that could really enrich our country and surely all those extra teachers would help the circulation of money and wealth. “
The last ten years of Vivienne’s life were devoted to activism. She famously drove a tank to British PM David Cameron’s house in protest over fracking. Her catwalk shows featured models donned in environmental slogans. She stood up for human rights and was a trustee of Human Rights Organisation Liberty and campaigner for Amnesty International. However the reconciliation of her own anti-consumerist stance with the reckless profiteering of the fashion industry eluded her.
From her 2006 Che Guevara inspired outfit, in which she became a Dame of the British Empire for services to fashion, to her 1994 Paris AW show which saw Carla Bruni donning a faux-fur coat and matching bikini G-string, Vivienne will forever be remembered, “As a force of nature.”
“I’ve always been a rebel … Punk was a protest, [the clothes] said
we don’t accept your taboos, we don’t accept your hypocritical life.”