Vivienne Westwood's autumn/winter 14 collection was inspired by the Father of Haute Couture, Charles Frederick Worth, but as always with her own Queen Viv twist. Models walked out with Climate Revolution war paint, anti-frakcing messages on tops and a victoriana twist shown in exaggerated top hats, high collars and bouffant sleeves. Ladies and gentlemen, all hail... the one, the only Dame Vivienne Westwood.
See all the looks from Vivienne Westwood autumn/winter 14 here.
The cab driver has already driven past the door when I spot the discrete Westwood Studios nameplate. The building is functional post-war industrial. There’s no neon sign, or loud billing as I enter the reception, only the iconic Westwood orb in gold on the frosted glass door. I am a little nervous as I take the lift to meet Britain’s Queen of Punk.
Born in Derbyshire in 1941, Vivienne Westwood is a British institution. Ever since she opened her first shop, Let It Rock, on London’s Kings Road in 1971, she has challenged conventions, and rewritten the rulebook. Together with her then partner Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne took the shop through two further incarnations - Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die (1972), and Sex (1974) - before refitting it and renaming it Worlds End, a name it has kept to this day. One of Britain’s most original and influential designers, Vivienne’s appeal continues to gain momentum with the years, and today she is as much loved by new fashion fans discovering her for the first time as those who have followed her career since the start.
Despite her anti-establishment stance, Vivienne is an integral part of the British fashion industry and has been widely recognised throughout her career. She was awarded British Designer of the Year in 1990, 1991 and 2006, honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 1992 and made Dame Vivienne Westwood in 2006, famously accepting her royal honour from the Queen wearing no knickers. Today her global empire includes the semi-couture line Gold Label, a ready-to-wear line Red Label, Vivienne Westwood Man and the diffusion line Anglomania. Vivienne has always designed clothes for real women. Her contribution to the world of fashion has included towering platform shoes, crinolines, corsetry, safety pins, bondage straps, tweed, squiggles, tartan and bustles, to name a few. A unique sense of Britishness permeates everything she does. As I enter the third floor studio, I find Dame Vivienne Westwood sitting at her workbench, perched on a stool with her high-heeled feet resting on a lower shelf. She is wearing a dusty pink jersey dress, with red Aztec print. Her flame red hair is tied in a loose ponytail behind her neck, her lips are painted red and two jewelled orbs hang delicately from each ear. Like a school headmistress, Vivienne doesn’t look up immediately. She is engrossed, concentrating on the treasure trove of fabrics piled high on the desk in front of her. As the sun pours in through the open window, the light shines on their bright colours. There’s no technology on view - just a room full of paper, patterns, sketches and ideas spread over the worktable and tacked to the walls. A full-length mirror faces the door and I notice a crown perched on the corner. “Come and sit on a stool, would you like a drink?” Vivienne asks, removing her glasses and inviting me into the room. “Let’s take our cappuccinos onto the deck outside.” Vivienne’s studio is a ten-minute bike ride from Worlds End on the Kings Road and five minutes walk to Prince Albert Bridge - one of London’s prettiest bridges to walk across when it’s lit up at night. One window of her studio faces south, while the north-facing window overlooks the architectural headquarters of Norman Foster, a giant silver donut of a building. The Vivienne Westwood HQ used to be a film studio and Vivienne has recently added a third floor studio, which has had the thumbs up from a Feng Shui expert. As we settle into our chairs on deck, I tell Vivienne I would love to discuss her much publicised fight against propaganda. Vivienne is a notorious critic of contemporary culture. She does not watch television, read newspapers nor magazines, while her manifesto has debated everything from global warming to modern art to nuclear disarmament. Today she uses her fashion shows as a platform to showcase her cultural and environmental concerns. An active supporter of the environmental charity Cool Earth, Vivienne recently donated one million pounds to help save the rainforest and stop climate change. Here’s the conversation that unfolded...
I’d like to discuss the issues you’re tackling today, and how you use fashion to open people’s eyes...
I’d like to start by saying I don’t use fashion to open people’s eyes. I use fashion as a medium to embody my ideas. It’s useful. I like graphics and I enjoy putting them in fashion shows, on T-shirts and bags... and for the last eight years I’ve used the press to talk about climate change and the need for culture. As to what my ‘agenda’ has been politically, as a punk I was upset by all the corruption, torture, suffering and death that was going on in the world because of our political system. I was inspired by Aristotle and his belief that, ‘The acorn is happy to become an oak.’ Aristotle was very interested in form and the fact that everything in life is always changing. What constitutes happiness is when people fulfil their potential. They become who they are. I love that. As punks we thought the older generation were responsible for making this mess and we hated them for it. We didn’t need leaders. We didn’t need their mismanagement, nor their power trips.
Did Malcolm [McLaren] share your belief system?
Malcolm was against everything for no particular reason. He absolutely hated authority. I cared more about trying to change the world and make it a better place. I’ve always had that. So I designed all these T-shirts thinking, ‘What would I tell young people today?’ That’s what Punk was about - young people figuring out what they wanted from this world. The first thing they have to realise is that they are all victims of propaganda. The only way to do that is through culture. Culture is the antidote to propaganda. A great painting is true - it’s not a lie. So I started to think a lot about culture and I wrote a manifesto [Active Resistance to Propaganda, 2007] that was a search for art. It’s also a criticism for what passes as art these days.
What, in your opinion, constitutes art today?
The stuff that passes for art today is art that can be appreciated by our consumer society. It’s called conceptual art - it’s nothing whatsoever to do with skill or telling the truth. It’s just people on an ego trip. My question to today’s artists is, ‘How can you be so satisfied?’ You’re all made up. You think you’re an artist. Forget it, you don’t have a clue - Leonardo Da Vinci, there’s nobody more modern. Great art should make you think, ‘My God, how did anybody do that?’ It’s incredible what human beings can do. Absorb the illusion of reality. All art is abstract - that’s how humans understand art. They can’t understand the world, it’s too big, but they can make it abstracted. In my manifesto I call it ‘a little microcosm’.
You are also an active campaigner against climate change...
I had a terrible shock about climate change. I hated the rainforest being chopped down and the fact that it was getting worse and worse. I couldn’t believe we were letting it happen. I was shocked, and then I got really shocked about the urgency of it all - and I’ve told this story before, it was in an interview with James Lovelock, and he thought that by the end of this century there would only be one billion people left. Most of life as we know it won’t exist anymore. The consensus at the moment is that we have ten years to do something... James Lovelock thinks we’re already too late but he thinks we’re so stupid we’ll probably just try to do the same thing again.
We’re not in control.
We don’t want to be. We just want to believe what keeps us ticking. People should read John Pilger, he’s brilliant. He spent his whole life revealing the terror and corruption perpetrated by the holy powers. Holy because they pretend they’re holy. It’s shocking what goes on, and all this information is completely covered up. I’m so worried about the terrible killing, torture and distress that the world is oppressed by.
What does John Pilger suggest?
John Pilger talks about all these horrendous massacres, all kinds of terrible genocides, they’re in declassified files and nobody has access to them. The thing about John Pilger is it’s incredible how he remembers all these things. I forget what happens, news goes through me. You hear it one day and one week later you’ve forgotten it - you’re listening to the next story being pumped in.
It’s a strange world we live in.
It’s exactly like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. People are programmed to enjoy themselves, to consume and not to question. We’re programmed not to desire anything more than we’re given. We don’t make people do things; we just let people do what they want. In the case of Huxley, they tampered with people’s intelligence and emotions in the test tube before they were born. Brave New World is a satire, it’s a mirror of the world we live in - we’re all consumers, we’re all brought up to be happily consuming and that’s what Pilger is saying. That’s what’s happened to us, not in the test tube, but by the media. We’ve never been forced into it, which is what George Orwell’s 1984 is saying. 1984 is about power for the sake of power. It’s very cruel and it’s still going on in rendition camps. Young people should read these two books and they should realise that both of them reflect what is happening today. They were the greatest books of the 20th century. Read Orwell’s 1984 and you can be sure that somebody is being tortured just like Winston right now. Recently I talked to two people who were on Big Brother and they had no idea that ‘Big Brother is watching you’ came from Orwell. Society is becoming more and more Orwellian by the day, this distorted world where the opposite of what you’re being told is the truth. Where language is constantly being reduced.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
I’m a born optimist like everybody is. One has to pretend that there is a chance, even if you don’t believe it. I don’t need to pretend. I just have to hope. Without hope, we wouldn’t do anything. Brave New World is organisation for the sake of organisation. There’s no free will in a Brave New World. You’re organised and not in control and not actually using your own free will at all.
Have you heard of the writer Naomi Klein and her book The Shock Doctrine?
Yes, I’ve read a bit of it. In fact, I sent her some of my graphics. Sorry if I’m talking too much, you wanted to say something and you can in a minute... I sent her a T-shirt that was called ‘Cockroach Propaganda’. I quoted something she’d said about consumers being like cockroaches. They get immune so you have to spray them with even more fierce propaganda, all the time.
You’re already an icon, but if you were Queen for the day would you have a different utopian vision?
I’m going to answer that in a bit of a long way as always... I went down to St. Paul’s the other day to talk to the occupiers there. There was one man who was very intelligent and articulate. He was a climate change doubter. He was very political against the financial scam and trying to encourage people not to believe everything they’re told. He wanted people to rise up, exercise their judgment and not listen to others because he believed we were being manipulated. Everything is wrong, including climate change, because people are going to make money out of it - that was his argument.
Which is true.
I don’t think swapping carbon points will help though. People might be discussing climate change because of it but that doesn’t mean anything’s being done about climate change. It’s just a way for people to swap points and make money. In a large part it’s a con. So in a way, I kind of agree with him that we shouldn’t believe in that. To quote Aristotle, “To realise your potential, you get out what you put in.” A little baby might be aborted or blown sky high the moment it’s born, or people can have a very rough deal and their brains and emotions are destroyed. Happiness is to do with realising your potential. I have summed up what I think that better world should be in The Family Tree [an illustration to accompany Vivienne’s spring/summer 12 Gold collection]. It could be a very exciting world...
Do you still consider yourself an anarchist?
I’m still an anarchist in the sense that I want people to take control of their lives and not listen to what’s going on. If you’re a political person you can get very disheartened. Tom Stoppard’s plays often address how young people start life fired up but by the end they become like everybody else. They’re living nice lives and their wish to change the world has been exhausted. They just carry on. People need to question how the world could be made better? That’s what culture is about. It makes you understand the world you live in. It makes you understand human genius and just what the human race can do. Which is pretty exciting when you think about it.
What could we do to make a difference?
The first thing I would do is something I’m doing already. I would try to preserve the human race. The first thing I’ve focused on is this amazing charity called Cool Earth. I believe they will be able to save the rainforest for hardly any money because it’s a bottom-up programme, working with people who live in the forest to protect the forest and stop the loggers getting in. I would also concentrate on education. I would make schools the centre of the community so people have a sense of belonging. Every one of my policies would start from the subject of climate change and how we must try to live in harmony with the world if we are to survive. You should read the two books I mentioned. We are all being so manipulated. We don’t have any chance unless we motivate popular opinion.
How did you meet Andreas [Kronthaler, Vivienne’s husband and design partner]?
I was teaching him and we liked each other a lot. He came to work for me here and eventually we got together and we married. A year or so ago he agreed that he should also be the public face of the company. He’s the most incredible, talented person and he’s built this business up more than I have. I’ve got my concepts, but he’s cleaned everything up. Today everything is so well made. He designs as much as I do, in fact we all end up helping him put the collections together! He’s constantly doing things... We’re nearly at the point of working on the Gold Label collection and he’s already thought about shoes and bags. I wouldn’t even have shoes ready in time... He puts everything in motion. I want the public to understand that if I’m to be praised and commended for being a fashion designer, then he must share that space with me because he’s equally responsible. He really is a phenomenal talent.
I know you both do yoga, but how else do you keep fit?
Health is so important. Once your health goes... I go to yoga and there’s a class of older people in the class after me. One lady takes oxygen before she goes in. It makes you realise people do so much want to be well. Once one little thing starts to go, it can all go quite quickly.
Do you still smoke?
No, I don’t. I was never a heavy smoker. I enjoyed it but now I enjoy not smoking. I’m not puritanical about smoking, in fact when I’m 90 I might start again. I used to love smoking and drinking cocktails and talking, that was brilliant, but Andreas wanted me to give up. He was an incredibly heavy smoker and he was trying to quit so I said I’d help him. I never said I’d stop. I thought maybe I’ll stop smoking or I won’t smoke for a couple of days. I didn’t think I had any willpower! Now I very much enjoy being healthy. I eat a lot of raw food and it’s really, really delicious and very easy and convenient to prepare. I only eat vegetables. I don’t eat any meat or fish.
How long have you been following a vegetarian diet?
I stopped eating meat and fish a year ago because I like vegetables so much. Somebody once said to me Chinese people are so aspirational they want to eat hamburgers like we do. And I said the most aspirational food is the food I eat. I’m a privileged person and I can eat what I like but I choose to eat these vegetables. Just grated carrot, or a little bit of dressing on lettuce - it’s so delicious. For convenience I steam quite a few vegetables too. I put root vegetables together for a bit of bulk.
When did you first dye your hair orange?
Most of my life I’ve tried to put a bit of blue in it to get it silvery. But when it started to go grey I suddenly decided I didn’t want it to go silvery anymore! [Laughs] So I dyed it orange.
Historically people are more wary of people with red hair.
I’ve got a friend with red hair. I think it’s dyed, but she’s got such a lot of it. She’s a Leo. Once she was in the country and she didn’t have a car, she was in this field and this crow was looking at her. She got really interested in this crow. She thought there was something magical about it... She kept looking at this crow until the crow came over and attacked her. It was really hurting her, she was screaming.
They can get really vicious.
It was something to do with her red hair obviously. She managed to get out of the field with this crow chasing her. It was really making her bleed. She ran in front of a car, stopped it and they let her in. The crow was at the window trying to get in after her!
It sounds like a Hitchcock movie. Karl Lagerfeld has a fear of birds too, but he thinks it’s from a previous life.
Oh right. So what are your activities regarding spiritual or intellectual input? The first thing everyone must do is inform themselves. Really, it’s peculiar that people don’t.
It’s much more positive to have a generation that does engage with something... something like gardening. Every child should learn gardening.
If you live in the country, children should learn the names of the trees. You start to know the world when you start to know their names. If you live in the city, it’s wonderful to visit the museums. Start by going to the British Museum - that’s probably more interesting than an art gallery to a child. Culture is social cement but it also provides stability.
Where did your orb logo come from?
When I did the Harris Tweed collection I wanted to do this Fair Isle sweater - not by hand, but by machine. It was a parody on Englishness and English fashion. It had roses and shamrocks on it and it was the kind of sweater Prince Charles might wear if he went hunting, shooting or fishing. Part of the design was an orb that was a bit futuristic looking, while still being traditional. The motifs were all English - roses and crowns, lions and stuff like that. It had the words ‘deep sky’ written on it for some reason and Carlo [D’Amario] said to me, ‘Use that as your logo - tradition and futuristic together.’ So we did.
Have you ever allowed anyone to photograph inside your space?
Yes, many times. [Vivienne reaches for a crown perched on top of the mirror] It’s a brilliant hat. Look, it’s very simple, you just put it on... You can take a picture of me in it [poses for camera]. It’s a great hat. It looks lovely with an evening dress.
We should have given it to the Queen for her Diamond Jubilee. Would you like to design the Queen a new crown?
No, no, I wouldn’t.