Batty but brilliant, the Dame who could give Kate some edge: As Vivienne Westwood stuns Fashion Week, Liz Jones says it's high time this eccentric genius got a Royal commission
11:29 GMT, 18 September 2012
National treasure: Designer Vivienne Westwood wearing an outlandish outfit on the catwalk during her Red Label show at London Fashion Week
One of the first pieces of designer clothing I ever bought was by Vivienne Westwood. It was a T-shirt, pretty badly finished, and pricey for a student on 20 a week, but it had the squiggle print, from the landmark Pirates collection, shown in 1981. I still have it.
I wish I hadn’t made it see 20 years service as a duster, and instead had preserved it in cold storage, to be auctioned at a later date.
Who would have thought that Vivienne Westwood would not only become collectible, but would still be going strong in 2012 And so mainstream that the ‘squiggle’ design now features on a rug selling for thousands of pounds.
But the punk least likely to succeed is having the last laugh: her privately-owned company, which produces four clothing lines, now has annual sales of about 245 million.
Vivenne Westwood is that rare thing: a true eccentric whose glorious individuality makes one proud to be British. She is an example to all of us, too, in that she is still working hard at the age of 71, when all most women her age expect to look forward to is being plonked in a care home.
The sight of her on Sunday at her London Fashion Week show, in piratical make-up and trademark orange hair, wearing hot pants, chunky socks, clumpy platforms, all topped off with a spangled helmet, surely inspires women not to hide away apologetically.
The front row applauded wildly as she strode past, though no one for a second imagined the look taking off on the High Street.
Her show on Sunday, for her ready-to-wear RED label, was typically housed in a bastion of the Establishment: in Sunday’s case, this was the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, but in the past she has chosen the Royal Courts of Justice.
A Westwood show is always mischievous. To live music from muse Sara Stockbridge, and with her long-time fans in the audience — on this occasion dressed as a snakes and ladders board game —she still somehow delivered her sanest show in years.
She may have been striding the catwalk in one of her most bizarre ensembles ever, but her designs on the catwalk were remarkably restrained, all ladylike Fifties hour-glasses and cardigans.
Backstage, she pointed out that she wants women to return to an earlier age, when consumerism was not rife.
And although her trademark crazy make-up was still in evidence on her models, it was suddenly much easier to see exactly why Westwood is so good at what she does: the clever draping that no other designer seems able to replicate, it hides the tummy, adds inches to the bust, enhances the buttocks and lengthens the thigh.
Her gift for cutting means she has fans from Sarah Jessica Parker to Nigella Lawson, Christina Hendricks, Meryl Streep and of course her biggest (smallest) fan, Helena Bonham Carter, all of whom know that Vivienne, as a woman, knows which parts of the anatomy we want to disguise, and which to enhance.
As she once told Harpers & Queen: ‘My clothes make you feel grand and strong’. Compare that to today’s designers, who only want us to look young and thin.
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Westwood wants a woman to wear the dress, not for the dress to wear her. As her long-time collaborator, milliner Stephen Jones, told me: ‘She said something rather wonderful about my hats. That when a lady walks into a room in one of my designs, everyone says how amazing she looks. It’s not all about the hat.’
As another fan, Twiggy, added: ‘I’ve
seen 16-year-olds in Westwood, and I’ve seen 60-year-olds wearing her.
She has made age irrelevant.’
'She gave us punk, and sent platforms into the stratosphere… If only Vivienne Westwood had made the Royal wedding gown'
Dame Vivienne Westwood, daughter of a Derbyshire greengrocer, studied art at Harrow, but left after a term. After working in a factory and as a teacher, she started selling jewellery at a stall on the Portobello Road in West London.
She married a fellow factory worker, and had a son, Ben, now a photographer. But in 1971, she met Malcolm McLaren, an encounter that ended her marriage (they had one son together, Joe Corre, who co-founded lingerie brand Agent Provocateur) and began a glorious partnership in crime.
They opened a series of boutiques on the King’s Road, at number 430, variously calling them Let it Rock, Sex, Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, and Seditionaries, with its famous backwards racing crazy clock face above the door. Today it’s called World’s End, and still sells her wonderful creations.
Unique: The quirky designer chose to hold her show at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in front of a star-studded audience
Disappointed: Vivienne Westwood was reportedly upset not to be chosen to design Kate Middleton's wedding dress
She and McLaren split up, with Vivienne marrying one of her students, Andreas Kronthaler, 25 years her junior. At McLaren’s funeral, in 2010, Westwood wore a headband that read ‘Chaos’, a T-shirt that read ‘Love’, and carried a prim Margaret Thatcher-esque handbag, dabbing at her tears. And while Westwood is credited with forging new eras in fashion, from punk to pirate to new romantic, referencing as she does the distant past (the court of Marie Antoinette, for example), she has been groundbreaking in other ways, too.
She has always used more black models on her catwalk than any other designer, and models of different shapes and ages, too, decades before the likes of Dove. She co-opted Savile Row tailoring for womenswear aeons before anyone else.
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Her passion for campaigning co-exists with her dressmaking, a career that has given us not just punk but the mini crini, the puffball, the exposed zip, and sent the platform shoe into the stratosphere when in 1993 she put it on Naomi Campbell, who promptly toppled to the floor.
When I first met Westwood, in New York, she was obsessed with freeing from jail a Native American called Leonard Peltier.
Today, she is obsessed with global warming. She held up a banner with the words ‘Climate Revolution’ at the closing ceremony of the Paralympics, and on Sunday afternoon the same slogan was writ large on her raggedy old t-shirt.
At one of her shows in Paris she tried to square her anti-consumerist principles and her business by leaving a dressmaker’s pattern on every gilt chair, to encourage us to make our own clothes. Many fashionistas dropped the patterns as litter on the boulevard.
To salve her conscience, Dame Vivienne’s advice when buying fashion is simple: ‘Only ever buy something we really love, and then we should wear it and wear it and wear it until it falls apart.’
The truth is she cares more about the world outside her atelier than the vast majority of her colleagues who tend to be male, obsessed with money, and who care little for the women who buy into their ‘vision’.
It’s interesting that only women designers seem to have a social conscience: the Katharine Hamnetts and Stella McCartneys. The ethics of all three have held them back from global dominance, given they eschew exotic skins, sweatshops and the nasty bullying that goes on at most fashion houses.
The campaigning apart, I can see a conflict within Vivienne Westwood these days. She is a maverick, but you can tell a part of her wants to be accepted. She has come up with the inevitable perfume, Boudoir, but the tag-line must give the men at Boots palpitations: ‘This perfume smells of sex.’
She was reportedly upset not to have been chosen to make Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. But perhaps that late Seventies photo of Westwood, naked buttocks mooning to camera, had not been forgotten by royal advisers. Which is a pity because I’d love to have seen the trademark tartan draping on the Duchess of Cambridge, softening that rather rigid, straight up and down profile a little.