Dame Vivienne Westwood obituary

Fashion designer who from punk origins created an international brand with a dissident edge

No fashion designer ever had a Paris show like the one staged by Vivienne Westwood in 1991. Although she was by then 50 and had been making clothes for sale for 20 years – and the British Fashion Council had named her designer of the year – she stitched much of that collection on her own sewing machine in her shabby south London flat, hand-finishing it in the van that transported her, and the models, to France, where the couturier Azzedine Alaïa had invited her to guest-show. Despite those limitations, the collection was a major success.

The life of Westwood, who has died aged 81, was like that, both rackety and responsible. She went on behaving as an eternal student, although she had dropped out after one term at Harrow Art School because, as a working-class teen, she had no idea how to make a living from art. She was candid with biographers and interviewers that her real, worldly education came from relationships, usually with men for whom she was the practical back-up, paying the bills or totting up the till receipts.

Westwood handcrafted the rips in her punk gear; when she was appointed OBE in 1992, she went to Buckingham Palace in a finely tailored suit, but wore no knickers beneath. She never had any intention of becoming an international designer – running her own market stall would have been enough – let alone Dame Vivienne Westwood, eminence and brand, “dowager empress of the west”, as she was known in China. It had all been one pragmatic response after another to chance and exigency.

Vivienne Westwood with the model Sara Stockbridge at the British Fashion Awards in 1990, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, where she was named designer of the year.
Vivienne Westwood with the model Sara Stockbridge at the British Fashion Awards in 1990, at the Royal Albert Hall, London, where she was named designer of the year. Photograph: Richard Young/Rex

She was born in Tintwistle, just outside the mill town of Glossop, Derbyshire, the daughter of Dora (nee Ball) and Gordon Swire. Her father was a factory worker; her mother had been in the mills and appreciated a length of good wool worsted – although everything was in short supply during Viv’s childhood. Her education at Glossop grammar school ended in 1958, when the Swires saved enough to buy a little post office business in London, and moved to Harrow. Viv soon left her art school course, frustrated that it prohibited sewing. Her own style was beehive hair, pencil skirts, stiletto heels – all the music-allied experiments of London’s first teen generation.

She became a primary school teacher and in 1962 married Derek Westwood, a toolmaker with ambitions, which he achieved, to be an airline pilot. Their son, Ben, was born in 1963, but the couple separated soon after, divorcing in 1966. She returned to her parents, and began to make jewellery for a stall in Portobello Road.

Among those sharing a rented flat with her brother, Gordon, was a charismatic art student, Malcolm McLaren. Westwood and her son moved in, too, and she became McLaren’s first girlfriend, soon pregnant with their son, Joe, who was born in 1967 – but only, Westwood claimed, after she had decided against an abortion and spent the money on a cashmere sweater instead.

McLaren, far into situationist politics of consumption and display, fizzed around the leftist landscape, trying to reach Paris in revolutionary 1968, while Westwood and her sons decamped to live in her parents’ holiday caravan. When McLaren wooed her back, they moved to a small, worn flat in an art deco block off Clapham Common, to a life neither romantic nor domestic.

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in 1977. The clothes sold by their shop Seditionaries on Kings Road, Chelsea, were attributed to both of them.
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in 1977. The clothes sold by their shop Seditionaries on Kings Road, Chelsea, were attributed to both of them. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Their first collaboration was flogging vintage rock records, as McLaren promoted music, and when they were left with unsold T-shirts from a concert, Westwood reworked and embellished them as fashion. Her original ideas about appearance came out of an instinctive understanding of the early, brief, sexual appeal society traditionally permitted to working-class women. As she told her biographer Ian Kelly, they were “people who’ve had a harder life and more dramatic experience … the poor have the status … of having more experience”. Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel had had a similar revelation around 1918.

In the late 60s, No 430 Kings Road, located just where Chelsea swerves towards Fulham, had been the cartoony Mr Freedom boutique, before being let to a fading jeans store, where McLaren began selling his records at the back. In 1971 Westwood borrowed £100 from her mother and rented the whole place, contracting a partnership with McLaren, and running up stock on her machine to supplement the bought-in goods. They called it Let It Rock, changed within a year to Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, selling biker jackets and Westwood’s tough T-shirts. These she printed with slogans and lewd images, gay and straight; she distressed and adorned them, dyed them in her bath and stitched on chicken bones boiled clean in the kitchen.

McLaren, who grasped publicity better than politics, regularly revamped the shop according to the zeitgeist. Its next incarnation was as SEX, in 1974, with Westwood sourcing its stock of rubber fetish-wear through the pages of Exchange & Mart. To promote the business, McLaren and Westwood visited New York, where he got hooked on rough new music, while she was picked up by Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, a sexy eccentric with hair like a bleached loo brush, who pub-talked radical politics.

Back in London, McLaren recruited his own punk band, the Sex Pistols, with Westwood encouraging their creative destruction in music, gigs and clothes. She did claim the credit for some Pistols’ lyrics, but never for punk’s emblematic safety pin, though, as a craftworker, she appreciated all the young punks’ improvisations, their black bin bags and loo chains. SEX morphed into Seditionaries during the Pistols’ short, sensational career, making Westwood spokeswoman for punk at its gobby height in the silver jubilee summer of 1977.

Vivienne Westwood’s Pirates collection at Olympia, London, 1981.
Vivienne Westwood’s Pirates collection at Olympia, London, 1981. Photograph: David Corio/Redferns

The shop’s clothes were attributed to both McLaren and Westwood, although both later furiously disputed ownership of ideas. As Seditionaries drew international attention, it needed stock to be manufactured rather than sourced and worked over, so Westwood found a tailor, cutter, sample machinist, and a few specialist hands, and began producing on a small craft scale. McLaren went full-time into music management.

Westwood acknowledged McLaren’s early awareness that clothes were turning fantastic and theatrical, and that he gave her the keywords “romantic” and “pirate”. Further inspiration came from a historical pattern handbook, Norah Waugh’s The Cut of Men’s Clothes, and volumes about art history. This homework provided the basis of her Pirates collection of 1981, saved from being fancy dress by Westwood’s feeling for the erotic potential of period detail. It was her first catwalk collection, shown at Olympia, and sold in 430 Kings Road, which again had been revamped melodramatically and renamed Worlds End; in 1982, Westwood and McLaren tried a second London shop, Nostalgia of Mud. They also began a protracted split that left her without cashflow.

Westwood accepted an offer of management from the fashion PR Carlo D’Amario, and they travelled to Italy to seek backing for a label of her own. He showed Westwood, whose parameters had been the Clapham flat and teeny tatty premises in Camden, how Italy managed its high-tech, craft-based production, yet no big deals happened, and they lived as renegades, commissioning sample lines for collections that had guest showings in Paris and Tokyo.

Westwood was discovering that her work was known, and admired, more outside Britain than in it. After the economic turmoil of the 1970s, international couture had turned towards ostentation and ready-to-wear towards conservatism, so she was a rare surviving rebel.

Vivienne Westwood at Buckingham Palace in 1992 to receive the OBE medal.
Vivienne Westwood at Buckingham Palace in 1992 to receive the OBE medal. Photograph: Martin Keene/PA

Nostalgia of Mud closed in 1984, and, still on the run, she staged a 1985 show in New York, the “mini-crini” collection – tutu-skirted, body-fitting clothes, with shoes far madder than the winklepickers she had worn as a teen; Westwood loved platforms, and later elevated them so high that the model Naomi Campbell fell off 9in soles on her catwalk.

By this time Westwood was broke, but with practical help and a modest loan from family and friends, reopened the shuttered Worlds End, lit by candles after the electricity was cut off, and easily sold her limited supplies.

The Harris tweed, tartan and barathea of her collection of 1987, again sewn in the flat, recalled Glossop’s stout wool stuffs, respecting tradition yet radically cut. Other ideas, such as an 18th-century-style corset bodice with Rigilene plastic instead of whalebones, came from her favourite London museum, the Wallace Collection. Westwood acknowledged the help, too, of her friend Gary Ness, who for years advised her on what to look at and for, and what to read.

The Harris tweed and later, far wilder, Brit collections gave Westwood her second, and permanent, fashion identity: London tailoring plus romantic gowns, with a dissident edge, labelled with her logo, a coronation orb circled by Saturn’s rings.

Her finances remained unsound. With introductions from rag trade friends, she moved incrementally into bank loans and business funding to pay off the debts of Worlds End, and to buy rather than rent her second shop, in Davies Street, Mayfair. Westwood earned where she could, teaching fashion at the Academy of Applied Arts, Vienna (1989-91), and the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin (from 1993). In the Vienna lecture room, she fell in love with her best student, Andreas Kronthaler. He moved to London, then into her flat, and they married in 1993.

Westward’s 1990s Paris shows attracted Italian backers who realised that her core belief in women dressed not as dreams or goddesses but as heroes already had a following in Japan and was building another in China’s then very new market. Over time, her agglomerated business was structured into a global company with headquarters in Battersea, south London. Her own clothing preferences had become a genre in which other staff, especially Kronthaler, could work, and with her encouragement, he showed his first independent collection in 2016. Although Westwood kept the old Clapham flat, she and Kronthaler moved in to a Queen Anne house on the other side of the common.

Vivienne Westwood’s catwalk show at London Fashion Week in 2017.
Vivienne Westwood’s catwalk show at London Fashion Week in 2017. Photograph: Neil Hall/Reuters

Westwood’s politics, unstoppably advocated, were anti-establishment, whatever the current establishment might be, and settled in the direction of Green party-pro-environmentalism, although there were problems over her company’s tax-related fine for undervaluing its assets, and its corporate tax wriggles. She never resolved the conflict between her personal disapproval of consumerism and fashion’s worsening profligacy. Still, by the time she was made a dame in 2010, she had matured into a national institution.

Kronthaler and her sons survive her. Joe, who used his father’s maternal grandmother’s surname, Corré, founded a lingerie business, Agent Provocateur, inspired by his mother’s outrageous bra and corset designs.

• Vivienne Isabel Westwood, designer, born 8 April 1941; died 29 December 2022


Veronica Horwell

The GuardianTramp

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