When it comes to fashion legends, to omit the Queen of anti-establishment fashion, Dame Vivienne Westwood, would be a serious crime. Westwood has been an inspiration for generations of designers, artists and musicians. Along with her former boyfriend Malcolm McLaren, she orchestrated a revolution felt far beyond the fashion industry, and has been leading it for over 40 years.
In 1971, McLaren and Westwood opened “Let It Rock,” a boutique offering a radical take on the biker fashion craze sweeping through post-bohemian Britain. Westwood, once a primary school teacher, tested her creative mind and flexed entrepreneurial muscle for the first time. There was no better place to do this than on London’s trendy King’s Road, made famous in the 1960s by Mary Quant as a hub for sartorial genius.
In just a few years, Westwood would become the exemplar of fashion we know today. This shift toward notoriety came in 1976, when McLaren became manager of one of the most ground- breaking groups in British musical history: The Sex Pistols. An amalgamation of anti-establishment fury, antagonism and sheer otherworldliness, they were the perfect vehicle for McLaren and Westwood to initiate the marriage of music and fashion. This was no shotgun wedding; music and fashion had been intimately linked since the 1950’s Teddy Boy explosion called Elvis Presley its poster boy.
Together, McLaren and Westwood executed a vision in which style wielded as much strength as music in perpetuating an extreme new subculture. Known as “punk,” Westwood went all out in her influences to create a collection of truly shocking garments. Having previously experimented with biker fashion and fetish wear, she turned the fetish element up several notches, melding elements of sex work, BDSM, the military, and outrageous makeup. It was something no one had seen in fashion’s history. Westwood has said, “I was messianic about punk, seeing if one could put a spoke in the system.” Rechristening the King’s Road boutique “SEX,” the time was ripe to launch punk style across the UK. Attention came swiftly, with the BBC and various newspapers up in arms over what they deemed the systematic degradation of Britain’s youth.
This cleverly constructed sartorial and musical creation bewitched young people alienated by popular culture. Punk didn’t just give pop culture a kick in the backside, but bit its ear off and spat in its face. Westwood and McLaren did what no one in fashion had – brand an international cultural revolution that would change the face of pop music forever. Westwood’s vision, rooted in disruption of conformist society by celebrating individualism, earned her fame she hadn’t imagined. From working-class Northern girl with little creative experience to global fashion sensation who sparked a cultural movement and became a living legend, one of Westwood’s most memorable quotes sums up her raison d’être: “Fashion is very important. It is life-enhancing and, like everything that gives pleasure, it is worth doing well.”
In the years since punk subculture made its mark, Westwood has continued to explore and experiment. Her famous foray into “New Romanticism” (defined by Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet) ditched the sneering, confrontational attitude of punk in favour of 18th century-inspired menswear accessorized with lipstick and eyeliner, turning a feral beast to flamboyant Lord Byron. Her famously tongue-in-cheek redefinition of the high heel mixed Barbarella dominatrix style with fairy-tale giants. These keenly adopted inspirations, whether historical, futuristic, or downright obscure, made her a force to be reckoned with in an industry that too often has stale moments.
Westwood’s recent collections have been described as “gloriously crazed” by all corners of the fashion press. And they’re right: Westwood continues to create madcap fashions that brim with childlike fantasy. A medieval tone swept through the Spring/ Summer collection she debuted at Paris Fashion Week, a theme Westwood dubbed “Pilgrim’s Progress”. One could class it Game of Thrones chic, the palette shifting from strong Plantagenet blues, reds and greens to rustic tartans and more earthy colours. Co-designed by husband Andreas Kronthaler, the couple concocted a wild dream sequence of gowns fit for notorious medieval women, but with a modern twist. tangled nests of lace perched precariously atop models’ heads and a spider’s web of chiffon cascaded from shoulders to ankles. Prints and patterns were inspired by the countryside; traditional garden herbs and flowers mixed together, quintessentially English. This collection was not solely a regal affair; the medieval shepherdess and tavern wench inhabited Westwood’s spotlight too. Ripped bodices and coquettish frocks nipped in at the waist provided magical explorations in femininity. Striking pink, gold and apricot punctuated the collection, giving it that Westwood trademark.
Westwood’s Fall/Winter collection explored 19th century grandeur, pinpointing couturier Charles Frederick Worth as inspiration. Patterns alluding to psychedelic dreams and Ancient South American prints added an extra pinch of creativity that few others would think to mix in. Many dresses seemed to drip like honey from a spoon, more constrained than usual for Westwood, who layered contrasting fabrics and colour schemes and topped looks with sashes and militaristic headbands. Outerwear was key in this collection, with flowing coats descending like fierce clouds in a violent rainstorm. Westwood’s palette was as gloriously schizophrenic as ever – sage green with pastel pink, stark black against vivid red. Like all of Westwood’s collections, it was a magnificent marriage of art, eccentricity and boundary-pushing conceits.
At seventy, Westwood still shows other designers how things should be done, and that fashion is about protest and creativity, never conformity or fear. The word trailblazer seems a trite platitude, but there is simply no other way to describe her. The ability to conjure beauty from such disparate inspirations is the essence of Vivienne Westwood.
Article by Ben Mirza for The Untitled Magazine “Legendary” Issue 7