Very few people are true rebels. Most people are simply too scared to be. An off-the-cuff, irreverent remark does not a maverick make. A rebel is someone who defies the status quo consistently, with everything they say and do. Their independent spirit and outlook on life dictate their actions, and their mere existence makes the earth tremor with impact, and the world is instantly a more interesting place. On April 8, 1941, one of the few true rebels, Dame Vivienne Westwood, graced the planet and fashion was never to be the same again.
Walking into her sleek headquarters in London’s Battersea, it’s easy to forget the brand’s beginnings as outfitters for the outsiders, but the history is all over the office walls, in her manifestos and mantras and the literature strewn on desks. “I just happen to have this on the table,” she says as she thrusts a map of the world in my direction. “Red is uninhabitable, the green bit is all that’s going to be left once it gets five degrees warmer. Can you imagine the suffering?” Westwood is talking about the current crisis of the rising global temperature, just one of the causes close to her heart. She is exactly how I envisaged her to be and is softly spoken, with a gentle Midlands twang. 74 years young, she wears her own designs and carries herself with confidence. She speaks with the passion of a staunch dissident. Her art and activism go hand in hand, one informing the other, and a political thread is always present.
Born in Derbyshire, Vivienne Isabel Swire led an unassuming existence (picking up the second name Westwood via a brief marriage to her first husband Derek) until she met Malcolm McLaren, who would go on to manage the Sex Pistols. Together they ran the boutique SEX on 430 Kings Road, and birthed a spiritual home for punk fashion that served as a landmark for the emerging subculture in the 70s. Its followers, like the generation rent of today, were disenfranchised and disengaged youth, who were frankly disappointed in a government that they felt didn’t deserve them. The fashion, or more accurately anti-fashion, acted as a two fingers up at a stiff upper lip establishment and a powerful visual representation of the movement. Westwood went on to cement herself within the fashion industry with her and McLaren’s Pirate collection in 1981, their first catwalk show, her 1982 – 83 Buffalo Girls collection, (yes, the one that spawned #Pharrellhat) and the subsequent autumn/winter 83 – 84 Witches collection, inspired by Keith Haring and the emerging hip hop scene that NYC’s underground spawned. It was these formative years that set up the DNA of the label and gained her worldwide acclaim as a designer. She influenced a generation of her contemporaries, introducing innovative shapes and cuts that broke new ground. Her ideologies, whilst born from her punk roots, resonated with the mainstream, and would go on to underpin her eponymous label for the next 30 years. “You can wear anything today. In my day you couldn’t. If you walked down the street in full punk, people would turn and watch and look at you. When I started with Malcolm, the ideas we had, they’d not been touched,” she reminisces on her influence, and how fashion has changed. “Like walking down the street dressed in rubber, and my shop assistant Jordan, with her face painted like the Nuba people and wearing a see-through mac! Now there’s no stone that hasn’t been turned over. There’s nothing new to discover, now it’s how you do something. I would say that my influence has been an awful lot to do with the cut of clothes. Andreas [Kronthaler, Westwood’s husband and co-designer] and I, the way we cut clothes has influenced the high street, it’s influenced all kinds of things. You wouldn’t be surprised if you saw a dress with no hem, or a torn hem, so I think it’s ever so much to do with the way we cut the clothes.”
From pioneering catwalk shows with diverse models on the runway to her tireless work as an activist, Westwood’s impact on culture is immeasurable. She compels those who come into contact with her and her brand to challenge the status quo and make themselves as informed as possible — a luxury aided by new media and an opportunity that she believes this generation isn’t taking for granted. “I’m really impressed with young people and how they do know what’s going on in the world today. There seemed to be a big gap in the 80s and 90s when you just thought people didn’t know anything,” she says. “They were so apolitical. I used to tell Terry [Jones], you ought to use your magazine as a platform, you know you ought to be giving information out to people.”
In 2015, Westwood is a fashion behemoth, as British as a red phone box. One of the most iconic designers on the planet, she’s as irreverent as ever. Her DIY approach underpins the belief that anyone can make a difference. To call her a dilettante does her no justice, she believes in her causes and champions them like a true activist, urging you to take action: “We’ve got to believe that we’ve still got a chance to save the world. But it’s so urgent, we have to do it now.”
Dame Vivienne Westwood is a woman who has called for a climate revolution, going green, the fall of fracking and active resistance, and she vehemently believes in “buying less, choosing well and making it last”. “I realised that my company expanded too quickly, it’s too big for me and our product is too much, I’m trying to concentrate and reduce things,” she says. “I make clothes that I like, and if the public likes them, then I continue, and that’s why I have continued. But there’s no point in me making something I don’t like. I’m not just trying to make clothes, I think I’m trying to give people a wonderful choice to express their personality. And that has got to do with rebellion, it’s quality not quantity. That’s true rebellion to me.”