“One of the best things about my work is that I have the most incredible clothes to wear,” Vivienne Westwood once said, with characteristic immodesty – the one thing about her that isn’t terribly English.
“Just don’t let me near a washing machine. I hate washing.” The idea that Westwood should put any of her fantastic and often fantastical creations on anything as mundane as a spin cycle may seem anathema both to the perceived glamour of fashion, and of her reputation as something of an eccentric.
But then Westwood cycles to work each morning, cooks each evening for her husband, and sometimes they go to the Festival Hall together for a concert.
It paints a picture of unexpected domesticity for the fashion designer who went knickerless to receive her OBE from the Queen and, in her floaty skirt, did a twirl for the paparazzi outside – revealing more than her pride.
She has recently put her stamp on another award, having redesigned the Brit statuette. Yet the unexpected is what Westwood has always been about. To call her an eccentric – as she often is – is somehow to belittle her talent. No doubt about it, if she was Italian or French (like her fashion hero Yves Saint Laurent) she would be hailed as a national institution.
Instead, while her fans are both legion and dedicated, her designs are too often dismissed by the middle brow as shocking or unwearable.
Her business figures sing a different tune – off the back of her many shops from Paris and Milan to Moscow and Seoul, diffusion brands, fragrances, sunglasses and cosmetics, homewares for Wedgwood, wallpaper for Sanderson, a diamond jewellery collection and an atypically profitable couture line – has seen her sales top £60m.
What is more, all of that is Westwood’s. She has never had any backers. It’s not bad for someone who never trained in fashion – she started to, but dropped out of Harrow College after a few weeks, convinced that London’s middle-class arts scene would find no place for her.
Crucially, this independence has given Westwood the freedom to pursue her own design agenda, one that is founded more in ideas and concepts than controversy.
Westwood, an ex teacher, is an extreme bibliophile and museum groupie – and one who has never sought to slot neatly into seasonal trends.
Indeed, Westwood has repeatedly set the broad sweeping trends that define an era: punk, new romanticism, underwear-as-outerwear, asymmetrical layering, conical bras, tube skirts, bondage trousers, vertiginous shoes (an exhibition dedicated to them is now touring the world)...
Westwood was there with them all. Not that Westwood’s designs are as outré as many perceive them to be.
A cursory summary of her most influential collections might not support this statement: Pirates (1979), for instance, gave us the frills and Regency splendour; Buffalo Girls (1982) saw petticoats aplenty, worn with bowler hats and bras over blouses – dressing-up box looks that actually transcended the catwalk and influenced mainstream fashion in a way that, with the exception of a tiny clutch of designers, modern fashion, with its monolithic bland brands, seems unwilling to do.
But for all that, Westwood subverts the very forms she references – she is actually an arch traditionalist, with precision pattern cutting at the heart of it all and a belief that to do something new is not to dispense with the techniques or conventions of the past.
She looks forward only by looking back and reinterpreting.
Westwood, as she puts it, “composes on the body” (she rarely sketches) and her designs very much relate to the body they swathe.
“Eventually,” the designer has noted, “people buy clothes in order to wear them.
That’s why, in spite of designers’ efforts or revolutions, the traditions of fashion should be taken into account.
One can’t neglect customs.” Ardent feminists may not approve of the overtly sexy, almost restrictive femininity of her designs – many of which make an eyepopping highlight of bust and bum, set upon the pedestal of high-rise clumpy shoes – but it is by reinventing historical dress that she takes fashion forward.
Bustles, frills, corsets, petticoats, voluminous skirts, bubble skirts, mini-crinolines and kilts, tweed remodelled as medieval armour, 18th century costume reconsidered for the 21st century, have all become signatures of her collections. “I certainly think that people wouldn’t look the way they look or think about clothes in the same way if I had never lived,” she has said. It is a statement of some grandeur, but no less true for that. She has not been alone in recognising her talent. Women’s Wear Daily, the US industry bible, claimed that she was one of the six most important designers of the 20th century, alongside those of more established reputations as giants, Yves Saint Laurent and Giorgio Armani.
The V&A had started collecting her work as long ago as 1983. It must all seem a long way from her native Glossop, in Derbyshire, where Vivienne Isabel Swire was born in 1941 – her mother a sausage factory worker, her father a greengrocer – a long way from selling her own design jewellery on London’s Portobello Road market, as her first foray into fashion would be, and a long way from Let It Rock.
This was the shop opened on London’s Kings Road in 1971 by one Malcolm McLaren – and he needed Westwood’s then rocker style clothing to fill it.
She gave up ideas of going to university to make clothes – record-making consecutive British Designer of the Year awards followed.
Both the shop, and what was on the rails, would go through many permutations over the coming years: renamed Too Fast To Live, Too Young to Die; Sex; and then Seditionaries in 1976, it was to be the birthplace of punk.
Although from 1981, with her Pirates collection, McLaren’s professional and personal influence ceased, even today she works closely with her husband Andreas Kronthaler whom she met when he was a fashion student.
He effectively designs her menswear collections on her behalf, shunning, with old fashioned values, any opportunity to take the credit for it.
He is 25 years her junior, and maybe that is what keeps Westwood’s energy at a peak – certainly Westwood has said that she has no issues with ageing.
She even revels in gently mocking her industry’s obsession with it.
But, unless Kronthaler takes over some day – Westwood has spoken of retirement in order to write (indeed, her recently launched Get A Life website is packed with essays on everthing from the environment to culture) it is Westwood’s name that will be part of fashion history.
Her own history is already in demand. One only has to attend fashion auctions at the likes of Sotheby’s – where pieces from her best collections go for as much as £2,500 each, many times their original price – to get a final measure of Westwood’s enduring influence. Her clothes shape fashion, but also defy it – they remain as current now as they did when they were designed, as they would have had they been designed three centuries ago.
“You have a much better life if you wear better clothes,” Westwood once said. “And the last thing I’m interested in is keeping up with the times. If you keep up with the times you’re always just missing something.“ Clearly that is a sentiment that her many dedicated followers agree with.