The reign of Vivienne

Queen of subversive fashion continues to court controversy

by Martin Webb

From being prosecuted under Britain’s obscenity laws for her risque punk fashions to twirling pantyless after receiving an honor from the Queen whose image she once defaced with safety pins, Vivienne Westwood has always had a habit of causing controversy.

But while she achieved punk icon status through confronting the establishment, her reputation as an influential and highly innovative fashion designer was acquired through exhaustively researched reinterpretations of the corsets and bustle dresses worn by European courtiers from centuries past.

It is a transition that took years of toil to realize, but which has won her enormous respect among the fashion cognoscenti. She is now hailed as a pioneer of subversive fashion who not only looks to the future but also to the past.

Westwood’s first steps down the road to fashion, fame and fortune were taken in partnership with Malcolm McLaren, who would later became manager of The Sex Pistols. In 1971, the pair opened the store Let it Rock on Kings Road, then London’s most fashionable strip, selling bondage gear and T-shirts with swastika prints and revolutionary slogans. Their creations quickly became the uniform of the punk-rock movement and symbols for a disenfranchised generation. The boutique was later renamed Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, then Sex and later Seditionaries before being rechristened in 1979 as World’s End, the name it retains to this day.

Westwood, now 64, has come a long way since the days of “Anarchy in the U.K.” Like most fashion giants, this rebellious creator has built up her business through license deals, and the Westwood name is lent not only to the Gold Label catwalk collection line, but also to the more affordable Red Label, Anglomania and Man brands, as well as two fragrances and recently launched jewelry and cosmetics lines. Besides six boutiques in the U.K. and six in Japan (operated in partnership with Itochu Corporation), there are 23 Vivienne Westwood boutiques worldwide, most of them in East Asia.

It is here in Japan, however, that Westwood has found her most receptive, and free-spending, audience. Mari Ito, owner of boutique Faline in Nagoya, remembers being at the epicenter of the “Bibian craze” at its peak some 10 years ago when her store was devoted entirely to Westwood’s creations.

“It was a massive movement,” says the self-confessed “Vivienne victim.” “Everybody had to own a Vivienne Westwood something — whether it was a bag, purse, socks or just a handkerchief. So many big stars were wearing it; there was even a magazine dedicated entirely to the brand and its fans.”

Was a revolt against the conformist nature of Japanese society the reason for the huge popularity of Westwood’s subversive designs? The archetypal fashion revolutionary, dressed — as always — to shock in a purple minidress emblazoned with the word “Propaganda,” answered this and other questions amid the comfort of a suite inside that Japanese establishment, the Okura Hotel.

You visit Japan on regular basis. Do you enjoy coming here?

I said recently that I didn’t want to travel anymore, and that maybe I would never come to Tokyo again. But yesterday I went to the National Gallery, which I always visit when I’m here, to look at the Chinese paintings. They have the most incredible archive of perfect works and there’s always a display of about 15 of them, which they change on a regular basis. This trip was worth it just for that — it was just incredible. So I said to myself, “OK, maybe just one more time.”

Your work has found strong and lasting resonance here. Do you feel an affinity with Japan?

I think that without the Japanese customers, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now. Right from the very beginning they were among the first people who came to take my clothes overseas. Our shops do incredibly well in England and an awful lot of that is due to Japanese people. My studio is in London, so we’re creating in England, we do shows in Paris, produce in Italy, and Japan is the market. It’s always been an incredible market for me.

Do you think Japanese people use your clothes as a way to rebel?

Maybe they do rebel and maybe the English idea of rebellion is not rebellion at all. All this “let it all hang out and do what you want” — to me, that’s not rebellion. That’s acquiescing to the status quo of a consumer society.

One of the things I think might have something to do with people dressing up and not worrying about it here in Japan is the Confucian principle of good behavior. You can walk down the street looking extremely unusual and people don’t comment on it. They’re pretty good in England, although I do get “Look at the state of that!” now and again, but it’s better than it was. Maybe that’s because with fashion there’s nothing new to invent — people have seen everything.

But, I remember the first time I went to Paris, people were so rude. I think they still are. I remember going there and walking down the street across from this man who was sweeping the road when a woman grabbed hold of him and screeched, “Look at that woman! Look at her!”

After 35 years in fashion is it still as fun now as it was when you started?

Actually, until about 10 years ago I absolutely hated it. I was always thinking, “When I’ve finished this pair of trousers, I can go and read my book.” It was like a chore, I really never wanted to do it. I started working with Malcolm [McLaren]; he needed some help, and at a certain point I realized that I was good at it and I shouldn’t be a little Dolly Daydream from the North with ideas that other people can exploit. I told myself, “Be a fashion designer. You’re good at it. Make it work, get the recognition for it. Understand the world better through doing it.”

That was my main motive. But about 10 years ago, my husband Andreas — we work together — took me into the park near our office and he said, “You don’t like your job. You shouldn’t do it if you don’t like it. Learn to like or pack it in,” and I thought “He’s right. I still don’t like it, it’s still a problem for me.” But [on reflection] it gave me all this credibility and a voice to talk about all my reading and all my ideas. And I realized that you don’t get that many chances in life to tap a potential that you might have, and work with it, and I had already got this great achievement, so there was no reason why I shouldn’t carry on doing it.

How do feel about being heralded as a woman who politicized and thereby democratized fashion?

With punk rock, we thought we were being political. But after I stopped doing punk I realized that what we had done was not anti-establishment at all, but that we had just given a whole load of marketable looks, goods and ideas to business. It all just became marketed — even the idea that “We have a free society — look, aren’t our rebels great?” I don’t know how political it all really was, but I think it was great for people to have spiky hair and wear rubber negligees in the street. It was driven by the idea of anarchy and wanting to destroy everything.

For me, my motivation was what I would sum up as rock ‘n’ roll, what essentially rock ‘n’ roll was about, and that was “See you later Daddy, you’re too square. The youth know better than you.” So to me it was a very heroic exercise, saying, “We want to confront the establishment.” But in the end, we didn’t confront the establishment. It was almost kind in a way, you know, saying the queen, too, can be a punk and let’s put a safety pin on her face. It wasn’t necessarily so anti-monarchy. It was about smashing all the values and all the taboos of a world that were so cruel and unjust, mismanaged and corrupt.

Do politics or rebellion still play a part in your work?

My last two collections have been political. In the punk days, fashion was sort of a secondary thing, and in between punk rock and these recent collections, the extent to which my work was political was just that it offered a choice in an age of conformity. That’s always been a great privilege for me, and my work was rebellious in the sense that people could express their individuality through these very strong, avant-garde clothes.

What happened with these last two collections was that I wanted to reactivate the World’s End shop, which has always been my forum, so I wanted to do some T-shirts. But I didn’t want to re-hash the old “Destroy” or “Anarchy in the U.K.” slogans because I don’t believe in those things anymore.

So I did these new graphics, and graphics rather lend themselves to overtly political statements. For example, one of them is taken from an old engraving and it has a flag with lots of insects around and a cockroach pointing to a slogan, which is a quotation from Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” referring to marketing people who see people like cockroaches — you spray them so much that eventually they get immune.

I liked the T-shirts so much that I decided to put them in the collection, which I called Propaganda. It’s based on an essay by [Aldous] Huxley in which he said that the world suffers from three evils: “Nationalist Idolatry,” which has taken the place of religion; “Organized Lying”; and “Non-stop Distraction.” Huxley thought the greatest evil was non-stop distraction because if you have your head filled you’ll suck up the lies and won’t even know that you’re doing it. You couldn’t find a better definition of what propaganda is.

Isn’t it hypocritical for a fashion designer to be making anti-consumer statements?

People have said that to me, but what I mean is “be discriminating.” Think about your consuming. What I’m really doing is saying to people “Switch off.” Don’t just sit in front of the television; don’t keep running around in search of the latest thing.

You’re wearing a necklace that reads, “I’m Not a Terrorist — Please Don’t Arrest Me.” How do you feel about British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s recent defeat over the terrorism bill?

I think it’s absolutely brilliant. It was a courageous vote that has restored faith in British politics. There are people under arrest who have not been told why they’re there. They are usually people who have applied for asylum and the only way they can get out of jail is to go back to their country where they might get tortured and killed

They’re trying to do away with habeas corpus — it’s an incredibly dangerous thing — they’re taking away our liberties. Blair has become a tyrant. You can’t have civilized society if you take away the keystone of justice before the law. It has to be built on the idea of people being able to express themselves and individual rights.

Unlike many fashion designers, you have always been your own boss. How has that affected your work?

The reason why my clothes are what they are is because I have always been the judge of them myself. The only criterion that has ever been employed is whether I like them or not. I’ve never had businessmen telling me what to do. I’ve never had the horrible trauma of opening hundreds of shops all of which have to make a profit. In fact, the problem I’ve always had is that I have never really been able to supply the demand. We have people ready to sell more of our stuff as soon as we are logistically able to supply them with it.

The validity of my work has been reflected by the fact that people have continued to buy it. It was good for me to start in that little shop where I had direct access to the public and I didn’t have a producer saying you can’t do this, that or the other. I’ve been able to build [my business] up with what I like by using a direct relationship with the customers. I’ve been able to do what I like and develop my technique.

Now I have a very strong method of designing. You can’t get that by just pressing buttons. It’s something you have to build. I used to want to find somebody to back me, but it’s a strength when I look back on it that I’ve never had to kowtow to men in suits.

From World’s End to world domination

From controversial punk style icon to pioneering (and controversial) catwalk designer, Vivienne Westwood has enjoyed more than her fair share of media attention during her ascent to the pinnacle of fashion achievement.

Hype, of course, is an essential ingredient of any brand-building exercise, but Westwood has earned her status as an anti-fashion heroine through more than just her outlandish personal style and provocative public statements.

The retrospective now showing at the Mori Arts Center Gallery in Roppongi, covers the 35 years since Britain’s most famous female designer made her debut as supplier of threads to London’s emerging punk-rock generation. First launched at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2004, the exhibition is traveling to 11 cities across the world, with Tokyo as its fifth stop. Having been extended due to popular demand in London, the organizers hope to replicate that success here in a land where “Bibian,” as she is affectionately known, has long since been a household name.

Westwood’s seditious story is told here chronologically in three chapters: the 1970s, when Westwood was discovered by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren; the 1980s, during which she made the transition from street fashion to the catwalks of Paris; and 1990 to the present, which shows the steady evolution of her brand into a global cult.

Visitors are invited to follow this timeline through over 500 wow-inducing creations. Besides 150 mannequins clothed in often seemingly unwearable creations, we are treated to painful-looking shoes, inventive (and sometimes potentially offensive) accessories, photos displays and excerpts from interviews with the notoriously candid designer.

While the Mori’s recent Mercedes Benz- and American Express-sponsored exhibition of fashion designer Giorgio Armani came under criticism for lack of artistic content, we aren’t being subjected to an elaborate sales pitch here. And rather than simply hauling items out from the designer’s archives, this show incorporates a large number of pieces of art and historical costume that have influenced Westwood’s work, and which are positioned so as to highlight relationships between the originals and the creations derived from them.

Prime examples here are a corset adorned with an image from a portrait by Frans Hals and a coat splashed with a pattern taken from an 18th-century English watercolor, both of which illustrate Westwood’s passion for classical painting — a fixation that she has repeatedly incorporated into her work. The influence of painting extends beyond just prints. For example, the exaggerated platforms that became one of Westwood’s trademark designs were apparently inspired by the pedestals that portraitists traditionally had their subjects stand on when posing.

Also on show here is a good deal of content from the V&A’s extensive archives. Westwood made the shift from punk rocker to influential fashion designer by reinterpreting traditional techniques and fabrics for the modern age, and this is made explicit through examples of how historical costumes influenced her work. Opulent ball gowns and elaborate corsets a la “Liaisons Dangereuse” are contrasted with pieces that parody the traditional costumes of the British aristocracy, most notably a crown made from Harris Tweed (1987) of which the designer said “I like to keep it on when I’m eating dinner.”

Although these historical elements add a weighty, educational sense to the tour, undoubtedly the best part of the exhibition is the documentation of the famous outrageous moments from Westwood’s career. There’s a T-shirt worn by Sex Pistols front-man Johnny Rotten; pieces from 1983′s “Witches” collection, which incorporated graphics by Keith Haring and was the first ever catwalk show to feature sneakers; and the 25-cm blue platform shoes that famously sent Naomi Campbell tumbling down on the runway in 1993.

Although many of Westwood’s more shocking works — a T-shirt with the word “F**K” spelled out in chicken bones; defaced images of the Queen and breast-baring tops — is conspicuously absent, there is still much to shock, arouse, amuse and titillate here.