Provocative, controversial and original, the British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who has died aged 81, may be remembered as the godmother of punk who used fashion to express her political and environmental beliefs throughout her life. “Fashion is the strongest form of communication there is. I use [it] as an excuse to talk about things in broader cultural terms because that’s where my interests lie,” she said.
Her opinions on everything from fracking and climate change to Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, made as many headlines as did her dresses for Sex and the City, Dita Von Teese and a host of world celebrities.
Her innovations – slashed jeans, frayed hems, mini crinolines, safety-pin decor, pirate dress and deconstruction – challenged conventional notions of dress and led the way for the conceptual Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des Garcons, the Belgians Martin Margiela and Ann de Meulemeester, and the British designer Alexander McQueen, among others. She always knew how to go too far, as Cocteau once said of the great Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli.
Her greatest strength as a designer, according to her biographer Jane Mulvagh, was her “lateral, instinctive and unschooled inspiration as opposed to linear and tutored thought”. In other words, unbridled creativity.
Her research into fashion history and historical cutting techniques influenced her 1996 “Watteau” evening dress, her 18th-century corsets and her 10in platforms – Naomi Campbell was memorably caught by the Irish photographer Niall McInerney falling down on the catwalk in those shoes at the debut of Westwood’s Anglomania collection in Paris, in 1993, a brilliant subversion of British sartorial traditions.
That year, when she was 52 and he was 28, she married her former fashion student Andreas Kronthaler, who remains creative director of the Westwood’s company. Her flamboyant opinions were expressed in her own very distinctive and fearless sartorial style. A year earlier, for example, after receiving her OBE from Queen Elizabeth, she did a twirl for photographers that revealed she wasn’t wearing underwear.
We met at a lunch at the Westbury hotel when Westwood came to Ireland to judge a clothing competition in 1993. I was expecting a firebrand with strong opinions; instead she appeared serene, was unfailingly polite, and expressed a strong interest in Georgian architecture.
In September 2020 an Irish model, the Dubliner Vita Byrne Carty, was one of the last to work with Westwood and Kronthaler, in London, on a video for the 2021 spring-summer collection. Already ahead of the pack, Westwood had, three years previously, eschewed the catwalk for digital presentations; the collection was photographed on an iPhone with four models, including Westwood, Kronthaler and Sarah Stockton, Westwood’s long-term muse. It was a “meditation on spring” with music, poetry and fashion; Byrne recalls that Westwood “chose all the poems for us to read and cast me because, she said, I looked like a Celtic bard – and when she heard I played the harp she rented one that I could play. I had to pinch myself, it was so amazing.”
In her later years Westwood was a gifted teacher and professor of fashion in Berlin. Original right to the end, she will be remembered as one of the world’s most influential and respected designers. “She brought fashion into another dimension, captured our imagination, and we wondered at her clothes,” says the Irish milliner Philip Treacy. “It isn’t easy to be an edgy designer for 50 years, and she was steadfast. Two queens died this year, the queen of England and the queen of fashion.”