Although today marks Vivienne Westwood’s 73rd birthday, the British fashion designer still retains the rebellious punk spirit that thrust her from a life as a schoolteacher to one of the world’s most iconic designers of our era. In celebration of this quirky, successful and inspirational woman, we look back at her road to fashion royalty.
Vivienne Isabel Swire was born on April 8, 1941 – just two weeks after the outbreak of World War II. At 17 she moved with her family to London. Initially she wanted to pursue a practical and creative career and enrolled in a fashion and silversmithing course at Harrow School Of Art, which was part of the University of Westminister. However, after only one term, she grew disillusioned and left because, “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world.” She settled into a ‘conventional life’ as a factory worker and later became a schoolteacher. In 1962 she married factory worker Derek Westwood – she made her own wedding dress – and in 1963 she gave birth to her first son, Benjamin.
For most people the story would stop there, but it is clear today that Vivienne was not content with this simple life. In 1965 she met Malcolm McLaren, an art school graduate, who was obsessed with fashion, Rock n Roll and rejecting the pervading soft ‘hippie’ look at the time. Their acquaintance brought about the demise of her marriage to her husband. Westwood saw in McLaren all the things she had believed were unavailable to her. She said: “I felt there were so many doors to open, and he had the key to all of them.” In 1967 their son Joseph Corré was born (he is the cofounder of Agent Provocateur).
But it was in 1971, when McLaren decided to open a shop at 430 Kings Road that sparked Westwood’s rise to fame although ironically first through notoriety. The store initially named Let It Rock was a subversive embracing of maligned, subcultures such as Teddy Boys and later Punk (the two would clash in street battles in the spring of 1977 on the street outside of their shop by that stage provocatively named Sex).
Westwood initially helped McLaren realise his designs, but soon became an equally important, if not more, creative in the business. Borrowing stylist elements from the street looks such as safety pins, dog collars, chains and razor blades coupled with outrageous hairstyles and make-up, this was not fashion for the timid or ordinary. Jordan, the shop assistant, embodied these looks and apparently on her daily commute to work British Rail put her in a first-class compartment for her own protection.
During this period Westwood also started using historical references (styles, fabrics and cuts) in her designs, but found ways of subverting them through unconventional cutting, draping and accessorising. This would become an important element in her solo career. Towards the end of the 1970s and early 1980s the mainstream began to absorb the once subversive elements that Westwood and McLaren had promoted and so the duo felt it was time to push their brand of rebellion from within the confines of the establishment. Their first catwalk collection was in 1981 and called Pirate. McLaren said: “We wanted to get out of that underground tunnel feeling of England, that dark feeling. Do something romantic. Look at history.”
Their partnership latest until 1983, and since then Westwood has gone on to create collections that have pushed boundaries right up until today. Westwood has broken up her career into several different periods, namely 430 Kings Road, The Early Years, The Pagan Years (a shift to parodying the upper class. the Harris Tweed A/W 1987 collection was one of her most influential), Anglomania (Vivienne believes that fashion is a combination and exchange of ideas between France and England) and Exploration (Westwood puts historicism to one side, returns to a more asexual cut, explores the natural dynamic of the fabric by treating it like a living mass).
But perhaps what makes Vivienne Westwood so iconic as a fashion designer is the fact that all her designs are firmly rooted in time and place. Right from the beginning she has been inspired by the world right on her doorstep. She weaves a story through time and distills it in clothes that express her understanding of society – from the ignored subcultures, policy makers and politicians to regents and royalty.
She has never shied away from voicing her opinion on topics close to her heart such as mass consumerism, and most recently the global climate crisis and environment policy-making. The 73-year-old recently shaved off her hair in protest of fracking. She will always be the face of Punk and Rock n roll.
Here’s wishing Dame Vivienne Westwood a happy birthday and many more to come.
Main image: Getty