The queen of fashion punk, the creator of the extreme and one of the world's most revered designers, we honour the life and work of Dame Vivienne Westwood
If the fashion world could describe Vivienne Westwood rather simply, she'd be known as a designer who always coloured outside the lines. Yet, this reference hardly does justice to a fashion icon whose legacy endured for more than half a century, not once wavering, but only going from strength to strength. Since bursting onto the scene in the 1970s, championing all things punk, to dressing supermodels on the runways of New York, Milan, Paris and London and then going on to earn an OBE and being made a dame, Vivienne ruled until her passing in December 2022.
For a designer whose creations were quite larger-than-life, she came from rather humble beginnings. Born in an English town on April 8, 1941, Vivienne Isabel Swire's parents instilled a sense of relentless work ethic in her at an early age. Her father descended from a line of shoemakers, while her mother, a cotton weaver, used to make her own clothes. Growing up, she first discovered her love for fashion when her mother allowed her to pick her own clothes – a tight skirt and high heels being one of her first choices.
When she was 17 years old, the Swires relocated to London to run a post office in Harrow. Vivienne enrolled in Harrow Art School briefly but soon dropped out because sewing wasn't part of the syllabus. Instead, she took up the post of a primary school teacher before marrying Derek Westwood. While the couple separated soon after, she would later go on to meet Malcolm McLaren, another art school dropout, with whom she opened her very first boutique called 'Let It Rock'. Together they sold their collection titled 'Clothes for Heroes', which featured the likes of leather dresses, zipper shirts, drape coats and snug trousers.
Drawing from the biker culture of the 1970s and the punk music scene, their creations evolved into torn T-shirts held together by safety pins and tie-dye items. What followed is a series of retail experiments that caught Britain's attention. But the dawn of the 1980s saw the duo shift focus from retail concepts to couture collections. And so, in 1981, Vivienne presented her first show – the Pirate collection – at London's Olympia, establishing herself as a fully fledged fashion designer.
Malcolm and Vivienne soon dissolved their partnership, each going on to create their own identities in the industry. In the decade that followed, Vivienne went on to present her collections in Paris, attracting investors who were impressed by her vision of dressing women not as goddesses, but as heroes. Before long, she became a global brand, garnering interest as far as China, Japan and beyond. And over time, her business expanded into a global company, headquartered in South London, with boutiques growing the world over.
For Vivienne, British history, culture and politics served as a constant source of inspiration, which resulted in her unorthodox fashion sense. Some of her creations featured political messages, highlighting issues like the climate crisis and the struggle for human rights. In fact, she was one of the first designers to start talking about sustainability in fashion – as early as the 1980s.
Although she fully belonged – and ruled – the industry she was part of, she often publicly disproved consumerism and the profligacy of fashion. This explains why she often opted for relatively uncomplicated outfits to go with her distinctive orange-tinned hair and alabaster complexion. But perhaps, it was this streamlined approach to her own life that empowered her to pour everything into her creations, allowing her work to be the element that truly stood out!