Now You Know: A New Biography Reveals That Vivienne Westwood Is Still Fashion's Fiercest Rebel
Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one easy read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now. Enjoy!
Diving into Vivienne Westwood this week, the new 460-plus-page biography and memoir about the woman who brought punk into the mainstream in the 1970s and who has been rioting on the runways ever since, I felt a strange sense of compassion for her collaborator, the writer and actor Ian Kelly. Drawing information out of Westwood isn’t easy. It requires the patience of a saint, something of which I was reminded on the very first page, as Kelly describes himself sitting beneath a rack of clothes, backstage during the preparations for her spring 2014 runway show, at 3 a.m., as Westwood evades his questions.
“Don’t talk to me now, Ian, I’m really, really busy,” she says.
While a glut of designer biographies are hitting shelves this fall, including new tomes on Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, plus books by Diane von Furstenberg, Jeremy Scott, Tory Burch, and Valentino, the one I had been most eagerly awaiting is Kelly’s book on Westwood (currently only available in the U.S. as an audio book). She is a living legend in fashion, her collections endlessly referenced (or downright copied) by designers who are half her age. And at the age of 73, she has shown little sign of slowing down or giving up fighting for any number of causes, from climate revolution and human rights to Leonard Peltier and Julian Assange (who has modeled a T-shirt of her design to promote WikiLeaks). Westwood can make people uncomfortable with her politics, including anyone who ever dared to ask about her history, only to discover she would rather talk about what is wrong with the world today.
In that regard, she remains fashion’s ultimate rebel, the only punk to truly fit any definition of that word. In fact, when she began creating clothes for the Sex Pistols, and collaborating with Malcolm McLaren, she did not even consider herself to be a fashion designer, but was using fashion – shredded, torn, safety-pinned or perverse – as a way to express her resistance to the status quo. But, as with any movement in fashion, we have largely romanticized the history of punk, and that of Westwood herself. This she seemed to recognize in agreeing to an unvarnished biography, of which she says, “The living deserve respect. The dead deserve the truth.”
The truth is that Westwood was born during the Second World War, raised in Derbyshire during rationing, and didn’t even have a banana until she was 7. “Didn’t like it when I did,” she writes. But it is not hard to see how a childhood of austerity and do-it-yourself fashion influenced what would later become her signature style during the punk years, when clothes were hastily assembled from whatever was lying around, even garbage bags.
She talks openly in the book about her teenage years, the difficulty of her family’s move to suburban London, a first marriage that ended in divorce and her subsequent relationship with the young McLaren, well before the Sex Pistols. They met through her brother Gordon, when she was making jewelry for income, and though she did not immediately sense an attraction, her descriptions of McLaren’s charisma are graphic: “This is what he looked like when I met him: he had a big red hole in a white face; that was the impression of his mouth.” Perhaps the biggest revelation of Vivienne Westwood is how controlling and needy McLaren had been in their relationship, taking credit for the potent punk styles they would eventually create together, sold in small shops on King’s Road. It was McLaren’s apparent dismissal of her contributions that sparked Westwood to describe in such great detail the early days of Let It Rock and SEX (their store was described as “specialists in rubberwear, glamourwear & stagewear”), down to the inspiration for studding and customizing T-shirts and Teddy Boy jackets, putting cigarette burns on them and covering them with provocative slogans: because otherwise they didn’t sell.
From the chaotic days of McLaren, Kelly transitions into the far more orderly and pragmatic relationship (in terms of business, anyway) of Westwood with Andreas Kronthaler, her companion since they met in the late 1980s when he was a design student. Their creative output together has led to some of Westwood’s most well-received work, moving the designer from a punk outsider to one of the most revered on the world stage. “The mid nineties became Vivienne’s ‘moment’ in PR terms,” Kelly writes, in sometimes seemingly endless detail, right down to the impact on Westwood’s global profile of Naomi Campbell taking a fall while wearing oversize platforms on her runway.
She does tend to go on, and on, in the book. But, at last, there is some real sense of order in her story.
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