Grande dame of fashion, co-founder of punk, outspoken campaigner — Vivienne Westwood has seen it all. But at 73, she wants to set the record straight.
The British designer’s authorised biography, published this week, gives her take on life with legendary Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, who died in 2010.
“Vivienne Westwood” catalogues their dysfunctional relationship and creative partnership which, in the 1970s, helped shape the look and sound of the punk movement.
Using her own words and contributions by friends and family, biographer Ian Kelly charts how Westwood turned from revolutionary into the founder of a global fashion house.
Her eye for a striking image is a recurring theme but so too is her childlike enthusiasm, some would say fanaticism, for new ideas and social action through art.
Westwood continues to work full-time in fashion, aided by her second husband Andreas Kronthaler, who she met in 1989 when he was 23 and she was 48.
But she increasingly uses her wealth and public platform for her political and environmental campaigns.
“Ideas make me happy,” she said.
– Not just Malcolm’s seamstress –
Westwood’s legend began with McLaren, who she met in 1965 when she was 25 and he was 20.
In 1971 they opened their shop at 430 King’s Road, “Let It Rock”, later “SEX”, a scandalous source of fetish wear and strange new looks that attracted everyone from Chrissie Hynde to Iggy Pop, Adam Ant, Jerry Hall and Charles Saatchi.
It was from the shop that McLaren put together the Sex Pistols, the band which gave voice to Britain’s disenchanted youth and which rocked the establishment with the release of “God Save the Queen” in 1977.
Punk is still known as much for its look — the ripped t-shirts, printed slogans and spiky hair — as its music.
The book argues that Westwood should take most of the credit for this, designing the clothes and sewing them herself in their flat in Clapham, south London.
But for years she lived in the shadow of her partner, who once described her as his “seamstress”.
McLaren “had this thing where he couldn’t leave the flat until he’d done that, until he had made me cry”, Westwood recalled.
She said that sometimes it was “simpler to give in, to give way to the tears so he would stop. Real tears have never come back for me”.
Asked why she stayed in the relationship, which occasionally turned violent, Westwood said simply: “I liked his ideas, and the journey of discovery he was on I wanted to join.”
Eventually his temper and his jealousy became boring — as did the seemingly unchannelled rage behind the “Sex Pistols”.
“When I turned around, on the barricades, there was no one there. That was how it felt. That they were just still po-going. So I lost interest,” Westwood recalled.
– ‘Always punk’ –
Westwood and McLaren had a child together, Joe Corre, but he left Westwood to raise him and her son by her first marriage, Ben Westwood, effectively as a single mother.
Westwood and McLaren broke up in 1981 and she began designing alone.
Brought up among textile workers in Derbyshire, Westwood had always made clothes but had no formal training — she dropped out of art school after a few months and initially worked as a schoolteacher.
She taught herself by taking apart old clothes to copy the patterns, and now makes sexy, bold garments that are instantly recognisable by her use of traditional tartans and tweeds and historical designs.
Over the years, she has been credited with styles as varied as the introduction of the corset into modern clothing, the slogan printed T-shirt, the platform ‘pedestal’ shoe, unisex fashion garments and wearing underwear as outerwear.
Westwood was honoured for her achievements first with an OBE and then by being made a Dame — although she proved she had not quite joined the establishment by turning up to Buckingham Palace both times wearing no knickers.
Now a grandmother, Westwood still uses every fashion opportunity to promote her campaigns to save the rainforest and free WikiLeaks source Bradley Manning.
“What I’m doing now, it still is punk — it’s still about shouting about injustice and making people think, even if it’s uncomfortable. I’ll always be a punk in that sense,” she said.