Vivienne Westwood 1941-2023

13th January 2023

Late last year saw the passing of legendary fashion designer, Vivianne Westwood. Westwood was best known for her eponymous fashion brand and for helping to shape the look of not only punk, but also the New Romantics of the 1980s.

Art Lives: Vivienne Westwood is avalible on DVD

Westwood grew up in Tintwistle just outside Glossop, Derbyshire in a working-class family; her mother had worked in the mills and her father was a factory worker. She attended Grammar school but in 1958, her family moved to Harrow after buying a post office business in the area. Westwood briefly went to Harrow Art School (now the University of Westminster) but left feeling intimated by the art world and worried about future career prospects. A world away from punk and the Paris runway, she became a primary school teacher and married Derek Westwood, a toolmaker at the time but re-trained to become an airline pilot. They had a son together, Ben, in 1963, but separated and divorced in 1966, whereby Westwood moved back in with her parents and began to make jewellery that she sold in Portobello Market. She would meet Malcolm McLaren soon after when she shared a flat with him and her brother, Gordon. McClaren and Westwood subsequently became a romantic couple and had a son together Joe, born in 1967.

Westwood and McLaren in 1971 opened up a boutique on the King’s Road called, Let it Rock. It would go through several name changes, including Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, before it gained the name that would enshrine it into British cultural history, SEX. It was in the iteration of SEX, where Chrissie Hynde and punk icon, Jordan, both worked, that Westwood and McLaren would help define what the punk movement looked like. Perhaps no more iconic than the Destroy T-shirt, that featured the word ‘DESTROY’ above a swastika, a 1p Royal Mail stamp, and an inverted crucified Christ. John Lydon famously wore it in the “God Save the Queen” music video, and has gained a more contemporary relevance and loss none of controversy with Playboi Carti wearing it on his self-titled album with the swastika removed and Slowthai wearing a similar t-shirt last year performing at a music festival in Canada and drew criticisms for wearing it from people who missed the ‘DESTROY’ message.

Westwood encountered financial and personal issues in the 1980s, her and McClaren would open up another shop, Nostalgia of Mud that closed in 1984, that followed the couple splitting up in 1982. Her artistic identity solidified around use of Harris tweed, tailoring and romantic gowns and also saw the Westwood logo emerge; a cross between Saturn and a coronation orb. Despite this, Westwood struggled financially and in 1989 she started teaching fashion at the Academy of Applied Arts in Vienna for two years. It was here she met Andreas Kronthaler, who she considered her best student and whom she started a relationship that would end with her passing.

Despite her financial situation in the 1980s Westwood had carved out a significant following outside of Europe, chiefly in Japan and had started to build in, what was then, the new market in China. Indeed, Westwood’s influence could be seen in the work of Rei Kawakubo, Kawakubo’s own protégé, Jun Takahashi, and Yohji Yamamoto. One such example of this can be seen in Westwood’s “On Liberty” 1994 runway show, that incorporated heavily distressed knitwear and absurdly exaggerated curves that distorted the wearers body, came just three years before Rei’s celebrated “Lumps and Bumps” collection. While the admiration between Yohji and Westwood ran both ways, with Westwood who walked the Japanese designer’s autumn-winter menswear show in 1998, saying “If you’re a good designer, you appreciate and love the work of another good designer, because they do something you don’t do and that’s what you really like about it.”

Our film on Vivienne Westwood, was produced and directed by Gillian Greenwood in 1990. It offers a fascinating glimpse into how she worked and tells her story with the help of Malcom McLaren and numerous fashion experts and insiders.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *