Vivienne Westwood’s continual exploration and reinterpretation of history, combined with a tireless individualism, cemented her reputation as the UK’s most culturally significant fashion designer. Her expansive body of work traced the socio-economic and cultural climate of Britain over the past four decades, and a cursory glance through her archive also highlights the paradox of her career: an ascent from teenage rebellion through luxury and decadence to global commercial success.
Vivienne Isabel Swire was born in Glossop, Derbyshire, in 1941. Although she made her own clothes and experimented with her looks from an early age she had little access to the high culture of art galleries, art books and theatre which was to inform her later career. At the age of 16 she moved with her family from northern England to Harrow, Middlesex, where she embarked on a silversmithing and jewellery-making course at Harrow School of Art. Impatient to earn a wage, however, she left Harrow abruptly, completed a typing course and found a job as a secretary. It was not until her mid-thirties that Westwood returned to fashion, by which time she had started work as a primary school teacher, married her first husband, Derek Westwood, and had her first child, Ben.
In 1965 Westwood met Malcolm McLaren, with whom she had a second son, Joseph (who founded the underwear label Agent Provocateur) and who re-triggered her interest in fashion and experimentation with her image. McLaren, a dynamic and radical character who Westwood regarded as ‘fascinating and mad’, introduced her to a plethora of new political and artistic ideas, which continue to influence her work until her death. Their partnership flourished both professionally and as a romance: McLaren had his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture and Westwood the creative flare to translate his ideas into clothing.
The continually evolving vision of Westwood and McLaren was brought to a wider public in 1971 when they took over a now legendary shop at 430 Kings Road, London. The site was a work in progress with a frequently changing name and merchandise that switched style continually as it reflected and launched London’s subcultural currents. The first incarnation, Let it Rock, modelled itself on the 1950’s Teddy-boy aesthetic. In 1973 Let it Rock ceded to Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die in tribute to James Dean’s untimely death, and stocked fetish wear previously only available by mail order.
Westwood and McLaren’s ambition to bring the dark world of sexual adventure and fetish to the streets of London was made explicit when they re-branded the shop SEX in 1975. SEX (later named Seditionaries) became synonymous with the most culturally significant street style of the second half of the 20th century, Punk. It was famous for its sexually crude and evocative garments: ‘bondage’ trousers and T-shirts emblazoned with provocative phrases like ‘Cambridge Rapist’ and ‘Paedophilia’ which caused controversy and outrage in the mainstream of British society. One particular T-shirt, ‘Two Naked Cowboys’, got their friend, the artist Alan Jones, arrested; while McLaren’s newly formed Punk band, the Sex Pistols, were a highly effective promotional vehicle for the shop and its owners’ ethos.
As Punk gradually began to influence the mainstream, the couple looked towards romanticism, heroism even, in fashion design. Westwood had dressed the Punks; now her Pirates collection (1979–1981) was adopted by musicians labelled the New Romantics. This work brought to the fore the habit for which she became renowned: raiding history for ideas. Adam and the Ants and Spandau Ballet wore billowing, lavishly printed gold, red and orange shirts inspired by Westwood’s study of 18th Century men’s clothing but flamboyantly fused with North American Indian and pirate styles. The collection released a rakish and androgynous sexual overtone that took 1980s Britain by surprise and was available for sale in the shop newly (and still) named World’s End.
In 1981 Westwood and McLaren consolidated the Pirates collection, which had been evolving organically in the shop, and launched it on the catwalk in London. This was Westwood’s first foray into the arena of established fashion.
Although her work had featured in i-D and The Face, the UK’s leading street style bibles, Westwood continued to struggle for recognition in the mainstream press. In Italy, however, her work was hailed with reverence, and financial backing from business mogul Carlo D’Amario was secured.
By 1983, with a second London shop, Nostalgia of Mud, the business ran into financial difficulties. Westwood broke ties with McLaren and continued to work from Italy with D’Amario who was now a lover as well as a business partner. D’Amario successfully negotiated a business deal with Armani which, alongside substantial financial backing, produced and marketed Westwood’s label. No longer constrained by McLaren’s vision, Westwood turned the subcultural inspiration of the street into a deeper relationship with historicism. It was during this time that Westwood pioneered ‘underwear-as-outerwear’, in collections that revelled in the corset and the crinoline.
Supported by meticulous research, the Mini-Crini collection of 1986 featured shortened 19th century-style crinolines with Minnie-Mouse prints, polka dots and stars and stripes worn with rocking-horse platform shoes. In a period when other designers empowered women with shoulder pads, Westwood placed the emphasis firmly on the hips. This collection exaggerated the feminine forms and accents of historical clothing to create a sexually-charged vision that was outrageous and almost absurd. Ten years later, the sexually confrontational Vive la Cocotte collection of 1996, which featured large bum-cushions and padded busts, again inspired by 19th century dress.
By 1986, Westwood’s romantic relationship with D’Amario had come to an end, as well as her partnership with Armani. Although D’Amario continued to manage the business, she moved back to London and began to take an interest in the clothes and fabrics of the British establishment. Her Harris Tweed collection of 1987 was named after the woollen fabric woven in the Western Isles of Scotland and took its inspiration from Savile Row tailors, incorporating a variety of tweeds, including the traditional Tattershall check and red barathea. Affectionately parodying the establishment, these clothes evoked the aristocracy, boarding school and country houses; hunting, shooting and fishing; and in Westwood’s interpretation, inevitably declared sexuality under the constraint of British understatement.
Westwood was also inspired by 18th century paintings, ceramics and literature and spent time studying the paintings of the Wallace Collection and the Victoria & Albert Museum’s archive in London. In Portrait (1990–1), Westwood used a photographic print of Francois Boucher’s Shepherd Watching a Sleeping Shepherdess on corsets and shawls. Always On Camera (1992–3) contained the Gainsborough Blouse which mimicked the delicate brushstrokes of the 18th century British portraitist’s work. Her considered reinterpretation of tradition came through again in Anglomania (1993–94). Westwood created her own clan (the traditional extended family and social unit of Scottish society) and tartan (the woven wool check identified with that unit), MacAndreas, named after her third husband and collaborator, Andreas Kronthaler. That McAndreas is displayed at Lochcarron Museum of Tartan in Scotland alongside time-honored traditional tartans is a very significant accolade to be bestowed on a contemporary designer.
Today, Westwood is a global empire which comprises the semi-couture line Gold Label, a ready-to-wear line Red Label, Vivienne Westwood Man and the diffusion line Anglomania. She has perfumes — Boudoir, launched in 1998, and Libertine, launched in 2000 — as well as successful ranges of knitwear and accessories. Winner of British Designer of the Year twice, in 1990 and 1991, honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 1992 and made Dame Vivienne Westwood in 2006, she drew uncommonly wide acclaim from the extremes of the street and the establishment.
In the 2000s, Westwood became almost as well known for her political activism as for her designs, campaigning on a variety of issues including climate change, civil liberties and nuclear disarmament. However, whether ridiculing the ruling classes, shocking the public or drawing attention to her chosen cause, Westwood continued to sustain the ultimate design contradiction until her death on 29 December 2022: producing the unexpected while defining the spirit of the decade.
Born in Glossop, Derbyshire, to a father who worked as a shoe maker and a cotton weaver mother
Moved with her mother and father to Harrow in North London where she briefly studied at the Harrow School of Art
Studied to become a primary school teacher and worked in schools around South London
Met her first husband, Derek Westwood, at a local dance hall
Met Malcolm McLaren and began a romantic and business partnership with him. This marked the beginning of her experimentation with fashion design
McLaren and Westwood took over a shop at 430 King Road, London, and called it ‘Let it Rock’. The shop sold 1950’s Teddy-boy clothing
The shop became known as ‘Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die’ and sold second-hand jeans, customised leather jackets and ‘Dominator’ and ‘Triumph’ T-shirts
Once again renamed the shop ‘Sex’, became a mecca for the Sex Pistols and the punk-rock generation
The shop is branded ‘Seditionaries’ and sells sexual fetish clothing
Met Canadian painter, Gary Ness, who introduced her to literature, painting, and classical music
Westwood designed her first collection, ‘Pirates’. 450 Kings Road is renamed ‘World’s End’ and remains so to this day
Westwood and McLaren open a second shop, ‘Nostalgia of Mud’ in St Christopher’s Place, London and shows her collection of the same name in Paris, the first English designer to do so since Mary Quant
Met Carlo D’Amario, her current manager and one-time lover
‘Nostalgia of Mud’ shop closed due to financial problems. Moved to Italy, with business partner D’Amario and designed ‘Hypnos’ at his house in the Alps. ‘Hypnos’ was subsequently shown at Hanae Mori’s ‘Best of Five’ global fashion awards
‘Mini-Crini’ collection designed and shown at the Cour du Louvre, Paris, and the Limelight nightclub, New York.
Westwood returns to live in London
Designs ‘Harris Tweed’ collection inspired by the clothes of the British establishment
Opens a second London shop in Mayfair
Awarded Fashion Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council
Designs ‘Slash and Cut’ menswear collection
Awarded Fashion Designer of the Year for the second year running
Shows designs at the Tokyo Fashion Summit alongside Christian Lacroix
Awarded an OBE. as well as being made an Honorary Senior Fellow at the Royal College of Art
Opens a shop at 43 Conduit Street, introduces wedding gowns to her collections and creates a watch for Swatch, called ‘Putti’
Commissions her own tartan, ‘Mac Andreas’ (after her husband) for the ‘Anglomania’ collection
Designs ‘Orb’ for Swatch
Wins the first Institute of Contemporary Art Award for Outstanding Contribution to Contemporary Culture
Marks the founding in 1783 of the carpet company Britons by designing Ancien Régime costumes in carpet
Designs ‘Vive la Cocotte’, a collection that reworks the ideas from her last five collections; it particularly emphasises the interchange of fashion influences between France and England
Launches ‘Man’, her menswear label, in Milan
Designs all the costumes for the production of The Three Penny Opera by Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill, performed at the Burgtheater, Vienna
Launches ‘Boudoir’, her debut fragrance
Awarded the Queen’s Award for Export in recognition of the company’s growing export market
Launches the Red Label in the United States to coincide with the opening of her first shop in New York
Introduces accessories lines, such as the Eyewear collection
The Museum of London holds the exhibition ‘Vivienne Westwood: the collection of Romilly McAlpine’
Opens a shop in Hong Kong
Awarded the UK Fashion Export Award for Design
Opens a shop in Milan and Liverpool
Vivienne Westwood retrospective opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Joins the board of trustees for Liberty and designs a T-shirt in defence of liberty and human rights
Made Dame Vivienne Westwood. The ‘Anglomania’ exhibition is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Presented with a Lifetime Achievement prize at the British Fashion Awards
Launches her manifesto, ‘Active Resistence’
Returned to London Fashion Week to show her Red Label collection
Dedicates one of her collections to US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning
Dame Vivienne Westwood dies aged 81 in London
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