As a stylist Vivienne Westwood has remained peerless for decades. From co-founder of the punk style to Dame of The British Empire, it’s been a long road out of Tintwistle to the international fashion arena and back again. She managed to tuck some big names under her belt during her travels too, like Wedgwood. And a few best designers of the year awards as well.
Vivienne doesn’t waste her breath giving lip service to originality and individuality, she lives and breathes them. Just a glance at her credentials will reveal this to be true and allay any doubt of her ability to stay ahead of the pack. At sixty six her mind remains young and vibrant in spite of her aging body. And she doesn’t wear knickers even when accepting her DBE, now how original is that?
Vivienne Isabel Swire was born in Glossopdale, Derbyshire, on 8 April 1941. Her mother had been a weaver in the local cotton mills and her father came from a family of shoemakers. Her parents ran a sub post office in Tintwistle before moving to north-west London in the 1950’s
She left grammar school at 16 and briefly attended Harrow Art College, studying fashion and silversmithing, but left after one term.
Vivienne always enjoyed 'cutting a dash'. As a teenager in the 1950s, she customised her school uniform to emulate the fashionable pencil skirt and made many of her own clothes, including a long, fitted 'New Look' dress. She made sleeveless shifts, with a single seam and darts, from exactly one yard of fabric.
In 1965 she met Malcolm McLaren together they went on to become one of the most creative partnerships in history, similar to the Tommy Nutter, Sexton coalition. Westwood and McLaren revolutionised fashion, and the impact is still felt today. Their working relationship, which lasted from 1970 until 1983, launched Punk, the style was later epitomised by The Sex Pistols.
Punk clothes were never cheap, but the Punks improvised their own gear and the look spread rapidly. It provoked open hostility and is still potent today. Westwood viewed it as 'a heroic attempt to confront the older generation', but inevitably it was absorbed and disarmed by the mainstream. Westwood, then in her early forties, turned her attention to subverting the Establishment from within.
Now Vivienne has an impressive range of silk ties and cufflinks they’re as cool and refreshing as a sea breeze on a hot stuffy summer’s day. There’s her tongue tie, displaying a large print of an open mouth with full, rounded lips, framing a wet tongue: “tongue tied” “get it”? And then there’s her oops tie, with what appears to be stains near the tip of the blade. Now chaps how many times at the dinner table have you stained your tie and then said “oops”? Far from being categorised as garish novelties, they are works of art. Perhaps other designers will take head and stop flogging dead horses.
A return to punk style would be fruitless, there’s no gain in reliving the past and revivals are often short lived, but we can learn from the past without patronising it. Designers often extract elements of past styles and modernise them, Vivienne is a master in this field. Westwood worked historical factors into her collection by using 17th-18th century original cutting principles and modernising them.
The first major retrospective of her work was shown in 2004-2005 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the National Gallery of Australia. The exhibition is made up of around 145 complete outfits, grouped into the themes which have dominated her work from the early 1970s to the present day and were drawn from her own personal archive and the V&A's extensive collection. They range from early Punk garments to glamorous 'historical' evening gowns. The retrospective is touring the world and is set to continue until 2008.
Vivienne Westwood accepted a DBE in the 2006 New Year's Honours List "for services to fashion", She has won the award for British Designer of the Year three times. In December 2003, she and the Wedgwood pottery company launched a series of tea sets featuring her designs, testimony to her versatility and maturity and the respect she has garnered, a far cry from Punk.