Dame Vivienne Westwood

A Desire To Be Different

20th September 2019

Violet Wilder meets our ultimate fashion visionary – still working at 78 – to find out more about the influences that shaped her career and her motivation to succeed…

The iconic Dame Vivienne Westwood needs little introduction – in attempting one, a journalist of even the highest calibre would struggle to come up with enough adjectives to do justice to one of the most important doyennes the fashion industry has ever encountered: a design behemoth.

Her humble beginnings could not have predicted such a career. Her father was a factory storekeeper and former greengrocer; her mother a housewife, both happy with village life in Tintwistle, Cheshire. A move to Harrow with her family at the age of 17 opened up more opportunities – including a term studying silversmithing at Harrow School of Art – but her early adult life was what you might deem sensible. She worked in a factory, trained as a primary school teacher and married Derek Westwood, a Hoover factory apprentice, in 1962. Despite having a son, Ben, in 1963, the lure of a life with more pizzazz soon became evident.

“I think I always had that passion in me,” she begins. “It was a desire to be different, to go about making things and designing stuff. I think I first noticed it when I was 13 or 14. Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets was at the top of the charts, and there were all these ‘Teddy boys’ mooching around, some of them in my village – we were, by then, living in Derbyshire… Not only did they look good but they were overturning buses and ripping the seats out and we wanted some of it.”

As a girl back then, she recalls, it was all about getting pencil skirts and little velvet bopping shoes plus high heels. “It was the most incredible time as it coincided completely with me being a young girl, turning into a woman. That’s how you would see yourself; as the most desired thing on the planet at that age.”

By the time her marriage had failed and she had moved in with art student Malcolm McLaren in his council flat in Clapham, her desire to “be someone, be anyone”, as she puts it, was unrelenting.

The couple had a child, Joseph, and Westwood carried on teaching until 1971. By the mid 970s, their mutual pursuit of fame led McLaren into managing the Sex Pistols while his effortlessly stylish partner capitalised on the ‘anything goes’ attitude in the punk era by putting together collections that were sharp, edgy, brave and non-conformist.

“I started making clothes and quickly realised we were where it was at. Malcolm wanting to rework the fifties and I had some really nice ideas about how fashion could be embedded in music, because no-one was really doing that. There was a lot of customised clothing with straps, safety pins and bondage. We were just experimenting. Johnny Rotten leapt onto the scene and it was at that point we all really believed this could be something big.”

Westwood’s iconic shop on King’s Road soon doubled as a cultural reference point for punk era fashion, and even when the Sex Pistols imploded in the aftermath of Sid Vicious’s death in 1979, her ability to craft styles that were reflective, forward-thinking and yet completely in touch with trends saw her stand alone in contemporary London fashion throughout the 1980s.

“For me, I’ve always felt I had a ‘sixth sense’ of what is going to sell… you just know,” she says. “You do that little corset and it gives that something that nobody has seen since the 1800s, and you just know that you are onto something. Sadie Frost was the first person to wear that on the catwalk and the photographers just died!” she laughs. “Their eyes were crossed; they just couldn’t believe it…. But it’s always been like that for me. I don’t doubt I have been incredibly lucky along the way, but I know I have something in me that really spots this stuff.”

What also makes Westwood such a cultural icon is her often brazen, nihilistic approach to convention. She doesn’t pander to fools and is as outspoken as anyone on the circuit, even at the age of 78.

“Let’s be clear,” she begins, “the 20th century was a mistake and it preached the idea of smashing the past, something that we call iconoclasm. It’s like telling a scientist to throw away his laboratory, which means that he is destroying all his technique, all his skills. We found ourselves throwing away the people in the past who have been geniuses and now we don’t want to know about them because everything comes from us, apparently. I’ve said it for years, but it’s only those who don’t throw away the past that can have any culture.”

Does that mean the Dame wants people to hold on to her, many decades after she’s gone?

“Well you’ve got me there,” she laughs. “I am not really interested because within ten years of my death I’m pretty certain nobody will remember me anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

Generations of fashion aficionados may beg to differ…

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