Vivienne Westwood opens up about punk, politics and McLaren

The pioneering fashion designer reveals some hard truths that chime with her motto, ‘the living deserve respect, the dead deserve the truth’. Malcolm McLaren does not come out of it well

 

Julian Assange calls Vivienne Westwood “a sartorial agitprop artist”. The co-founder of Wikileaks is in a good position to describe Westwood, what with both of them being mouthpieces for cultural revolt and sharing the ability to lasso the effects of social agitation for maximum publicity.

From time to time Westwood visits him at his temporary home at the Equadorian embassy in London, while he battles an extradition order to Sweden in connection with an alleged sexual assault.

Assange is not the only controversial beneficiary of Westwood’s largesse. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, the US army soldier convicted of leaking classified documents to Wikileaks, and Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist controversially convicted of a double murder in 1977, are also people close to her conscience.

In 2013 Westwood wore one of her creations, an iridescent, seashell-coloured gown, to the Met Ball in New York. She was one of the largest public draws at the opening of the exhibition Punk: Chaos to Couture, where much of her genre-defining work was on show. She wore a picture of Bradley Manning pinned to her bodice, so she would have an intelligent answer to the stock question: “So, who are you wearing?” One could almost forget that Westwood was (and is still) one of the world’s most high-profile fashion designers and not a PR maverick, or a political polemicist or, indeed, a sartorial agitprop artist. Then again, that’s the way she likes it.

Before the activism and before she was hailed as an architect of punk, Westwood was Vivienne Isabel Swire. Born in Derbyshire in 1941 to shopkeeper parents, she was a wartime child brought up on food rations and a pragmatic keep-your-chin-up, make-do-and-mend mentality. A picture of the designer aged four is undeniably Westwood, the direct, even-handed stare a portent of things to come even if her handknitted Fairisle jumper was not.

 

London life

Growing up, there were few career options open to her. “There was being a schoolteacher, a hairdresser or a nurse, or most likely a secretary. I think that was it. I can’t think of anything else that was discussed for anybody,” says Westwood.

A love of art and a fateful family move to London changed the course of her life. She married, had a child and got divorced before the age of 25. She later began a tangled, fractured relationship with a mercurial art student, a friend of her younger brother Gordon. His name was Malcolm McLaren. Together the pair would lease a small shop on the King’s Road in London, selling the avant garde designs that Westwood put together on a Singer sewing machine in her flat in south London.

“The living deserve respect. The dead deserve the truth.” This is Westwood’s motto. With the co-operation of Ian Kelly, the award-winning biographer of 18th-century cultural agitators Beau Brummel and Giacomo Casanova, she has once again subverted a long-standing norm. Vivienne Westwood, the first authorised biography, is an attempt to lift the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia by revealing her unexpurgated thoughts about one of the 20th century’s most important social shake-ups, punk.

McLaren, who died in 2010, no longer has any need of Westwood’s protection. In her biography, he is transformed from the popular impression of an eccentric, self- obsessed curmudgeon into something resembling a pro-social psychopath. Westwood’s revelations are discomfiting, as are her children’s.

Her sons, Joe Corré and Ben Westwood, remember weeping and screaming arguments. Westwood was subject to unrelenting verbal – and occasionally physical – abuse. Once the couple split, Westwood recounts numerous occasions when McLaren attempted to burn her business. She is degraded by McLaren even at her own son’s wedding: Corré calls it a “Jerry Springer” experience.

For the casual observer, the Westwood story stops at punk. However, what happened after Sid Vicious died and the majority of angry voices faded into disillusionment is much more important to the designer. Between then and now, she went from one-woman to multinational brand – and she doesn’t even own a mobile phone.

McLaren is the first in a line of male mentors she credits for this development. Carlo D’Amario, chief executive of Vivienne Westwood Inc, opened her business up for European expansion in the early 1980s. The artist and social critic Gary Ness, a self-described “intellectual personal trainer”, helped Westwood to distil her subsequent design ideas.

Her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, has had a hand in designing her collections for more than two decades. Kronthaler, who met Westwood when he was a 23-year-old student and she his 48-year-old lecturer, has become an integral part of the Westwood brand. “I would like to see Andreas credited more,” says Westwood. “I am the public face of ‘Vivienne Westwood’. But it’s his story now too.”

Driven designer

Westwood has so much more to talk about, from making a television series (despite not owning a television) and ecological activism to film screenings for her studio staff. Even in print, she is a constant source of kinetic energy, relentlessly moving from place to place and cause to cause while somehow managing not to come off as a dilettante. Even now, well into her 70s, she has no intention of stopping.

 

Vivienne Westwood is published by Picador

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