Vivienne Westwood: Rebellious fashion icon and climate campaigner

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Vivienne Westwood: Rebellious fashion icon and climate campaigner
Models applaud as British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood greets the crowd after presenting her Spring/Summer 2006 collection in Paris. © Michel Euler/AP/dpa

“Punk, Icon, Activist”: The title of a documentary gives an insight into the different roles of Vivienne Westwood. The fashion anarchist has always remained true to herself.

London – The political statement was an integral part of Vivienne Westwood’s fashion – at times to the chagrin of husband and co-designer Andreas Kronthaler. “She likes the clothes to have a message,” said the Austrian in director Lorna Tucker’s Westwood documentary. The British woman was married to the 25-year-old man, her former fashion student, for around 30 years. The Queen of Punk, as she was affectionately known in Britain, died on Thursday at the age of 81.

Looking back on her life story and her career seems to have horrified Westwood. “Do we have to discuss all this?” she quipped in the must-see documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, which premiered in 2018. “It’s so boring.” Hardly anything in Westwood’s life was boring. The fashion anarchist and activist caused a stir throughout her life with provocative messages and flashy outfits. Her whole career was built around royal robe-inspired, freaky, glamorous dresses, which helped her break through. Her name stood for the proverbial English eccentricity.

stations of life

The daughter of a cotton spinner and grocer from the English county of Derbyshire had always been a bit unusual. Born Vivienne Isabel Swire on April 8, 1941 in Tintwistle near Manchester, she is said to have even made fashion changes to her school uniform. The good life was not for her. At 21, she married talented dancer Derek Westwood, with whom she had a son, photographer Ben Westwood.

But then she met art student Malcolm McLaren, founder and manager of the punk band Sex Pistols. Westwood’s path was paved. Together with McLaren, she opened her first boutique on London’s King’s Road in 1970. The shop quickly became the heart of the young punk scene. The name changed like fashion: “Let it rock”, “Too fast to live, too young to die”, “Sex”, “Seditionaries” (inciters) and finally “World’s end”.

Westwood created the first outfits for Johnny Rotten and Co. with safety pins, mesh shirts and studded bracelets – and thus created the iconic punk look. Even after she split from McLaren, with whom she also has a son – Joseph Corre, co-founder of lingerie brand Agent Provocateur – she remained true to her rebellious creativity. Above all, inspiration from the fashion of the 18th and 19th centuries was her trademark – albeit in shrill, slanted, eccentric variations.

Vivienne Westwood
Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood was known for her flamboyant taste. © Yui Mok/PA Wire/dpa

“I didn’t consider myself a fashion designer at all, but I found I was very talented,” Westwood says in Tucker’s documentary. “I wanted people to know that the stuff they see on the runway in Paris is mine. And I figured, I need to get into this business and actually sell the clothes, present them to journalists and be a fashion designer. I knew I could do it.”

fashion and human rights

Fashion alone was never enough for Westwood. In any case, she didn’t originally have a career in the industry in mind. “I didn’t want to be a fashion designer,” she clarified in Time magazine in 2009. “I preferred to read and do intellectual things.” She dropped out of art studies after just one semester to train as a teacher – with art as her major. Her plan: “I will try to become an artist. And if I can’t be an artist, I’ll become a teacher.”

Vivienne Westwood
Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood was known for her provocative outfits. © Yui Mok/PA Wire/dpa

For a long time, the punk pioneer with the pale skin was committed to human rights, peace, animal welfare and the fight against the climate crisis. The big show was always part of Westwood’s staging, because it guaranteed her attention. In 2015, she was driven in a white tank to the home of then British Prime Minister David Cameron to protest against fracking gas production. Last year, she caused a stir with a protest for the release of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange: in a bright yellow outfit, she sat in an oversized birdcage in front of a courthouse in London.

British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood
Vivienne Westwood (M) is regarded as a pioneer of punk in the fashion industry. © Ian West/PA Wire/dpa

Initially ridiculed at home and even laughed at on television in the late 1980s, Westwood was named British Designer of the Year in 1990 and 1991. In 2006 she was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. While Dame Vivienne, as she was officially called, was still punk at heart, her fashion had long been part of the establishment. The Queen’s granddaughter, Princess Eugenie, wore a Westwood dress to William and Kate’s 2011 wedding. Even former Prime Minister Theresa May wore one of her pants suits. Nevertheless, she did not become the court fashion designer of the royals. She recommended the style icon Duchess Kate to reduce the number of her outfits – for reasons of environmental protection. dpa