In this extract from ‘Vivienne Westwood Catwalk’, Alexander Fury offers a glimpse inside the world of this epoch-defining designer. Since her catwalk debut in 1981, Westwood has smashed conventions and brought counter-cultural fashion to the world stage. In 2021, she continues to wield her endless curiosity and punk sensibilities in a ‘crusade against the expected’.
Vivienne Westwood’s contribution to fashion is unique, perhaps unparalleled. She is certainly the most important fashion designer of the latter quarter of the 20th century, and the influence of her designs continues to stretch well into the 21st. Her creations have affected not just the clothes on our back, but culture as a whole: her role as one of the key architects of punk in the 1970s not only defined an epoch, but shaped ensuing generations’ reactions to the world around them, both aesthetic and ideological. Printed across a T-shirt, the slogan ‘Destroy’. The language was writ large: a destruction of the status quo. ‘It was about smashing all the values,’ she said subsequently of the movement, ‘all the taboos of a world that was so cruel and unjust, mismanaged and corrupt.’ She is still a punk. Her life and work have been shaped by an insatiable urge to fight against convention. Westwood frequently quotes the philosopher Bertrand Russell – ‘orthodoxy is the grave of intelligence’. She once added: ‘If you accept that something is right, just because everybody believes it, then you’re not thinking. You have to look at other points of view and then make up your own mind.’ Today, designing alongside Andreas Kronthaler, her husband and creative partner of three decades, she continues that crusade against the expected, the anticipated, the orthodox. She makes up her own mind.
That standpoint is the reason Westwood’s work continues to be so prominent: she has an intense curiosity – about the world at large, about history, art, politics and the environment. It is often reflected in her conversation, and her collections. Westwood originally studied to be a teacher: she educated young children for a period of five years, before her career in fashion began. Even today she seeks, constantly, to impart knowledge, to tell you something, through both her words and her designs. Her love of the graphic T-shirt lies in its simplicity, both as a pure example of design and as a placard for a message. She used it for punk slogans, inciting destruction of the status quo; for Old Master paintings celebrating high culture; latterly, for environmental slogans reflecting her concern over the state of the planet. When you speak with Westwood, you ask few questions, receive long answers.
Westwood studies the history of fashion back to its sources: its history fascinates her. However, if she has ever paid attention to modern fashion – a genuine question, given how singular her work has always appeared – it is only to buck against it and challenge received notions of modernity and beauty. When fashion surged towards minimalism, Westwood designed collections of rich baroque excess; when fashion wanted women to look powerful and masculine and rich in the mid-1980s, Westwood championed the disenfranchised, proposing clothes with soft curves and rounded shoulders, and declared: ‘In Italy they take expensive cloth and make it look boring, but I take basic fabric and make it look timeless. They just don’t understand what I’m trying to do.’ Later, in the mid-1990s, when fashion did understand – when other designers followed Westwood’s path in deconstructing clothes, shredding hems, distressing fabrics – she had already moved on, to tailoring and formality and a revival of interest in French haute couture. It was a volte-face that would, ultimately, shift the entire industry on its axis, again. Maybe Westwood didn’t even notice: though she has always been enamoured with the fashion of the past, from Hellenistic chitons through Tudor slashing and farthingales to the haute couture of mid-20th-century Paris, the work of her contemporaries is of little or no interest. It is a view that is not reciprocated. In 1989, the publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, John Fairchild, cited Westwood as one of the six most important designers in the world in his book Chic Savages. ‘From them,’ he wrote, ‘all fashion hangs by a golden thread.’ Westwood, he argued, ‘is the designer’s designer, watched by intellectual and far-out designers … she is copied by the avantgarde French and Italian designers because she is the Alice in Wonderland of fashion and her clothes are wonderfully mad’. At that point, Westwood was the only one of Fairchild’s six who was not a multi-millionaire; she was also the only woman.
Fairchild’s statement is all the more remarkable given that Westwood’s catwalk debut occurred in 1981, with the ‘Pirate’ collection designed alongside her business partner and onetime boyfriend, the music impresario Malcolm McLaren. She had been working in fashion since 1971, but underground – forging the subculture of punk, which would bubble up in the 1980s. That is another of Westwood’s legacies: bringing avantgarde and counter-cultural fashion to international attention, by presenting her clothes on the podium of the catwalk. By 1989, she had still only presented a dozen collections officially – although she had worked in fashion for almost twenty years. But within that narrow timeframe, Westwood’s outlook had changed fashion irrevocably. A brief summary of the inventions she wrought through those catwalk shows: New Romanticism; the introduction of streetwear to high fashion through graffiti-prints and the first trainers on a catwalk; perhaps the first collaboration between a contemporary artist and a fashion designer, in Westwood’s work with Keith Haring in 1983; the mini-crini, which became the puffball skirt that defined the fashion of late-eighties evening wear; the ‘Principal Boy’ look of leggings under tailoring; ‘underwear as outerwear’, with the revival of the corset and a brassiere worn outside of a sweatshirt, shown almost a decade before Jean Paul Gaultier proposed the same for Madonna. In short, almost the entire canon of late 20th-century fashion, created by one woman, working hard in small London studios, with determination and grit.