Dame Vivienne Westwood was a very British kind of genius. She was as down to earth as she was flamboyant, a former primary school teacher who came to shape punk culture.
Her clothes were bracingly modern – rips and safety pins, latex and androgyny – but steeped in a love of history. (She had a particular weakness for kilts and corsets.) Her clothes were worn by everyone from Theresa May to Chrissie Hynde, from Princess Eugenie to Pharrell Williams.
She was a rebel, but never without a cause, working tirelessly to raise awareness of the climate emergency many years before it was fashionable.
The last time I had lunch with Westwood, a couple of years ago, she wore a chic silk scarf at her throat, which she fastened with an Extinction Rebellion badge. She was immaculately made up, and ate pizza with a knife and fork, popping the daintiest pieces into her mouth so as not to smudge her bright coral lipstick.
I was supposed to be interviewing her about her fashion legacy, but she was not remotely interested in discussing clothes. Instead, she fixed me with a steady, birdlike gaze that brooked no interruption and talked passionately in her dry Derbyshire lilt about the inequity of modern capitalism, and of the threat posed by populist politicians to progress in protecting the environment.
Westwood’s heart had moved on from fashion in the last decade of her life, which she devoted to political causes. But fashion never fell out of love with Vivienne Westwood.
As one of the chief architects of punk, she was the fairy godmother of how every subculture since has used clothes to define its tribe. That streetwear has leapfrogged haute couture to become the leading edge of the global fashion industry owes a great deal to a seamstress from Glossop, Derbyshire who partnered with her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren, to open a tiny shop on King’s Road in London in 1971.
The shop tore through two initial identities – Let It Rock sold Teddy Boy looks, while Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die pivoted to a rocker aesthetic – before it found fame as Sex in 1974.
Westwood’s genius was to capture the energy and iconoclastic spirit of punk, and give it a visual expression. Westwood’s clothes were an explainer to the world which showed what punk was. Bondage trousers were a two-fingered salute to polite society. Safety pins were a celebration of anarchy and flux. Costumey historical flourishes were a rejection of the establishment narrative that capitalism was the route to progress for everyone. The Sex Pistols showed the world what punk sounded like, Westwood showed the world what it looked like.
Amid the tortured souls of punk, Westwood carved out her own path, one that was full of humour, beauty and joy. Her clothes – like her worldview – were anti-establishment, but never nihilistic. They were deliberately off-kilter – partly by dint of being ahead of their time – but they were always elegant.
Her Pirates collection of 1981, the first to be shown at London fashion week, celebrated a dandy aesthetic that presaged the glamorous androgyny not just of the New Romantics, but of Harry Styles. Her Portraits collection, a decade later, put corsets and pearls back in fashion for the first time since the 18th century – three decades later, teenage girls are still saving up for iconic Vivienne Westwood gold-orbed pearl chokers.
There was not a dull moment in Westwood’s five-decade career. She was invited to Buckingham Palace to be awarded royal honours twice – in 1992, when she was given an OBE, and in 2006 when she was made a dame – and went knickerless both times. (On the second occasion, however, she declined to twirl for the cameras.) She told reporters that she simply preferred not to wear underwear when wearing a dress. But the anti-establishment spirit of her decision to go commando seemed simply too perfect a vignette of clothes-as-theatre to have been a mere accident.
A true original, Westwood was impossible to pigeonhole. She said to me when we had our last lunch that “I’ve always been a rebel … punk was a protest, [the clothes] said we don’t accept your taboos, we don’t accept your hypocritical life.”
But in an industry where exciting new talents burn out quicker than matchsticks, she built a fully independent fashion label which has avoided bankruptcies and buyouts, and employs hundreds of staff. And for all her countercultural, defiantly anti-traditional image, she lived that most old-fashioned of lives, a happily married one, for 30 years since marrying Andreas Kronthaler, an Austrian 25 years her junior whom she met while teaching at art school in Vienna. The couple were long a familiar sight around Clapham, where they lived in the same beautifully restored Queen Anne home for more than 20 years.
Three months ago, Westwood was noticeably absent from her Paris fashion week show. The collection has for some years been designed by Kronthaler, but she remained figurehead and muse, and each show would end with her husband presenting Westwood with a bouquet and taking her hand for a joint bow.
Her absence this time prompted concern for her health, but news came down the rumour mill that the designer had decided to skip Paris fashion week in order to join an XR protest march in London. This explanation was entirely plausible, being very much aligned with Westwood’s fashion week priorities.
For the past decade, her catwalk shows have been headlined by Climate Emergency slogan T-shirts, along with protests against austerity, fracking, private land ownership and the protection of rainforests.
For all her apparent eccentricity, Westwood had a very clear-eyed view of what mattered in life – and she knew that it wasn’t clothes. She had moved on from fashion long ago, but fashion will be in thrall to Westwood for a long time to come.