Upon entering the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s wildly popular exhibit Punk: Chaos to Couture, visitors were greeted by spiky-haired mannequins wearing outfits designed by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren alongside couture designer pieces inspired by them. A bit further into the exhibit, a scale replica of their shop at at 430 Kings Road in London (at different times known as “Let It Rock,” “Sex”, “Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die,” and “Seditionaries”). A significant amount of the exhibit seemed dedicated to Vivienne Westwood. Perhaps rightly so. No one has had a more significant influence of the world of punk and rebellious fashion. Westwood is an icon of style who always marches to the beat of her own drum and, as an outspoken activist, publicly fights for causes she believes in.
Born in a small English village in the midst of World War II, Vivienne Westwood (then Swire) grew up in a modest working class household. In her late teens she attended art school, studying fashion and jewelry making for one semester before dropping out. Feeling like there was no way for a girl like her to make a living in the arts, she instead became a school teacher. Not quite ready to abandon her artistic ambitions, however, she started making jewelry, which she sold from a stall on Portobello Road in London. The now-famous surname came about when Vivienne married Derek Westwood in 1962. Westwood designed her own wedding dress. It would still be another 46 years before one of her wedding gowns became a public symbol of love and loss as Carrie Bradshaw was abandoned by Mr. Big at the altar (or Public Library, to be exact) in the first Sex and the City film. The Westwoods had a son, but their marriage, however, was not long-lived. In 1965, Vivienne Westwood met Malcolm McLaren and a new era of her life began.
Westwood and McLaren moved to a council flat, a form of public housing common in the UK, outside of London. She kept working as a teacher and in 1967 the couple had a son, Joseph Corré, who later went on to found lingerie brand Agent Provocateur (Westwood’s older son, Ben, is an erotica photographer). In 1971, they opened the now legendary store on Kings Road. Both were deeply fascinated by London’s burgeoning punk scene. “I was messianic about punk,” Westwood has said. Initially, McLaren served as Creative Director, conceiving the designs, which Westwood made. Inspiration was drawn from bondage, BDSM, biker culture and prostitutes. Leather, spikes, chains, dog collars, tartan, safety pins, razor blades and various distressing techniques were used without abandon to create a look that was outrageous and anti-establishment. Nothing was too shocking.
My aim is to make the poor look rich and the rich look poor.
Westwood and McLaren began designing T-shirts with highly provocative messages. Their clientele loved it, but the government was not amused and the pair found themselves facing prosecution under British obscenity laws. Their response was not to tone it down, but instead produce even more provocative items, eventually also renaming their shop “Sex.” The slogan at the time was rubberwear for the office.
The shop became a center for the punk movement, and shaped the style of bands like the Sex Pistols (who McLaren also managed) and The Clash. As the 80s drew near, the punk movement was fading, and so was Westwood’s relationship with McLaren. Their store, at that point called “Seditionaries,” closed in 1980 and Westwood opened “Worlds Ends” in the same space, selling her clothing under her own label. The pair broke up in the early 80s and Westwood says they did not remain friends. “He tried to destroy everything I had,” she told the British press, “he was not a very nice man.”
Not one to dwell on the past, Westwood looked to the future. Her 1981 “Pirates” collection (conceived in collaboration with McLaren) became a main inspiration for the New Romantic movement — a gender-bending, frilly counter-reaction to the punk years. Though heavily influenced by David Bowie, artists like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Boy George of Culture Club brought the style to the masses and once again put British music, and Vivienne Westwood, in the global spotlight.
In 1991, Westwood was teaching fashion in Vienna and caught the eye of one of her students, Andreas Kronthaler. “I wasn’t looking for a man at all,” she told the British press, but the two became a couple and married when he was 25 and she 50, keeping it a secret because they “didn’t want to make a big fuss.” Kronthaler has remained by Westwood’s side ever since, now serving as the Creative Director of her company. “We complement each other very well,” she says.
We have got to change our ethics and our financial system and our whole way of understanding the world. It has to be a world in which people live rather than die; a sustainable world. It could be great.
Always outspoken and fearless, Westwood has become an avid activist in the last decade. Causes close to her heart include rainforest preservation, anti-fracking, arctic preservation, political reform and climate change. She’s designed numerous cause-driven T-shirt collections to raise money and awareness, often enlisting celebrity friends to model for her.
A recent endeavor is a collection of T-shirts designed by Westwood in support of Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign. She has often said that she feels like the power of celebrity is underrated when it comes to getting important messages out to the public. The Save the Arctic campaign, shot by celebrity photographer Andy Gotts, features George Clooney, Jerry Hall Georgia May Jagger, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin and, of course, Westwood herself. The designer says that she is eager to promote Greenpeace’s work to save the arctic because it helps communicate the threat of climate change, an issue which has become her main priority. “The status quo will kill us,” Westwood says. “People don’t realize how quickly we are marching towards a possible mass extinction.” The T-shirts are available for sale on Westwood’s site.
Her Vivienne Westwood Ethical Fashion Initiative Bags are “Handmade with love” in Nairobi, and produced in collaboration with the International Trade Centre — a joint body of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization — which supports the work of thousands of women micro-producers in marginalized African communities. The project empowers craftspeople to enter the global market, provides a source of income for some of the poorest people in the world and promotes the growth of sustainable business over aid dependency. “This is not charity, this is work,” Westwood says.
In the pursuit of culture you will start to think If you change your life, you change the world.
Her broad views are summed up in a manifesto called Active Resistance to Propaganda, in which she presents her views on how our collective pursuit of art and culture is the antidote to propaganda. She’s declared the human race an endangered species and said that climate change, not fashion, is now her priority.
Westwood says she believes in quality over quantity and says she feels it is possible to represent both high-end fashion and political activism. “What I want people to be able to do is to buy well, by first choosing well and then making it last. And I also believe that if everyone wore just a few beautiful things, there would not be such a climate change problem,” she told British newspaper The Guardian. “In my view it is worse for someone to come out of a shop with an armful of new T-shirts made in a sweatshop, than it is for a rich lady to buy one beautiful dress.” Although the construction of her garments often have zero-waste aspects, she has faced criticism for doing little to improve the sustainability of her own company.
What I’m always trying to say to the consumer is: buy less, choose well, make it last.
Although she recently turned 74, Vivienne Westwood continued to influence fashion and culture and shows no signs of slowing down. Her signature red hair and fiery commitment to climate activism continue to inspire generations of people across the world. In many ways, she is still the enfant terrible of the fashion world.