The decade of the 1970s is historically known as the dawn of platform shoes, leisure polyester suits, the craze for disco and the punks.
Punk started as a representation of an ideology that centered around rejecting mainstream dictates of society and choosing the freedom to be who you wanted to be, to carve your path, be loud, and be different and is popularized to date amongst rebels. Clean-cut styles went out of the window and the world was introduced to unkempt appearances – ripped jeans, DIY, graphic t-shirts, leather jackets, bold makeup, accessories and bizarre hairstyles. The punk rock culture evolved into sub-genres with hardcore punk, glam-punk, goth-punk, pop-punk, garage-punk, and street punk.
One name synonymous with the rebellious 70s was that of Vivienne Westwood – an avant-garde fashion maverick embodying the free-spirited and non-conforming movement of punk. Referred to as the creators of trendsetting punk fashion of the 70s, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren co-owned an ‘anti-fashion’ store “SEX” which was later rebranded to “Seditionaries”. Even the eccentric interiors and décor of the store emphasized their adage to punk rock and interested the patronage of infamous bands like “Sex Pistols.”
Here’s a feature retracing the success of Vivienne Westwood and how her legacy as the prima donna of punk, lives on today.
British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood also titled Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood, née Vivienne Isabel Swire was born in Derbyshire, England on April 8, 1941, and departed for the heavenly abode on December 29, 2022 (aged 81) in Clapham, London. Her net worth at that time was estimated at $50 million.
Over the years, Vivienne Westwood garnered more spotlight for being provocative than any other profit-generating acumen. Between getting detained by the London police in June 1977 for discombobulating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee to earning her Damehood from the same monarch 25 years later in 2003, Westwood was a hallmark of an unabashed political couturier as one of Britain’s biggest names in fashion.
Vivienne was allured to fashion and left her humble home in Harlow at the young age of 17 to attend Harrow School of Art (presently the University of Westminster), where she studied fashion. After graduating, she first adopted teaching and taught elementary school classes.
Westwood tied the nuptial knot with Derek Westwood in 1962. After bearing a son, Benjamin Westwood, Vivienne parted ways with her husband in 1965 and as a self-taught designer, she met and moved in with Malcolm McLaren (future manager of punk band Sex Pistols). Soon after, they became business partners, coalescing the influence of the 70s punk music into eclectic fashion. In 1967, she had another son, Joseph Corré with McLaren.
Together, they started selling 1950s vintage clothing from a second-hand store named Let It Rock alongside McLaren’s rock-n-roll record collection. Influenced by his eccentric ideas, Westwood designed fetish clothing and customized T-shirts and pants which were ripped and emblazoned with safety pins, shocking graphics and anti-establishment slogans. This led to prosecution under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act to which they responded by rebranding their store to produce t-shirts which featured even more hardcore imagery.
In 1974, they became proprietors and established their boutique Sex on 430 Kings Road, London which defined the street culture when it was renamed from Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die to Seditionaries. The renowned store became a youth fashion mecca and its interiors were decorated with barbed wires and studs. In London’s era as a forefront of cultural trends, the store showcased quite erotically-charged and rioting pieces which infuriated Britain’s right-wing press. The partners used the platform as a weapon of protest to construct garments that made political statements and trademarked unconventional design strategies. Towards the end of the seventies, Westwood was considered a pioneer and a symbol of the British avant-garde.
The 80s were a game changer for Westwood’s tryst with success. The store was renamed to Worlds End which is its present-day identity, when Sex Pistols collapsed and punk was adopted by the mainstream, leaving Vivienne disenchanted.
In 1981, Westwood and McLaren debuted their catwalk seminal presentation which was a commercial ready-to-wear collection entitled Pirates in the Autumn-Winter collection at Olympia in London, which was quite novel and gained atypically polarized opinions.
The swashbuckling collection cast a debonair of highwaymen, buccaneers, pirates and dandies. McLaren’s inspiration was from his travels and experiences in contrast to Westwood who was ignited by her earnest technical research into history.
“My stimulus will always be intellectual.”
While their relationship ended in the same year, Westwood and McLaren remained to maintain their professional partnership for an additional five years.
Westwood established her identity as an independent designer and built her eponymous fashion empire. Every show henceforth was contemplated around a theme: ‘Pirate’, ’Savage’, and even a Blade Runner-inspired collection named ‘Punkature’.
Facing an erratic financial career, Westwood filed for bankruptcy in 1983 and relocated to Milan, Italy where her ingenuity was more venerant.
A turning point in Westwood’s lunge to success was her Spring-Summer 1985 collection. She soared to popularity after debuting a “mini-crini” design which was a thigh-grazing crinoline – a blend of both cotton and tweed.
Westwood’s career swiveled into a radical directional change when street style and punk ceased to be her only major. She started referring to the traditional tailoring techniques of Savile Row encompassing 17th and 18th-century art and British fabrics. She was captivated by what was viewed as sexually attractive in the past and reconstructed the clothing harmoniously.
Between 1984/85, her ‘Clint Eastwood’ collection was inspired by Tokyo’s neon signs and consisted of body stockings and fluorescent colors and was an unprecedented success.
“Sometimes, you need to transport your ideas to empty landscapes and then populate it with fantastic-looking people.”
– Westwood on her Clint Eastwood collection.
In 1986, a logo ‘orb’ was released which represented taking tradition into the future.
Westwood’s Autumn-Winter 1987 Harris Tweed collection was one of the most influential collections of all time.
“My whole idea of this collection was from a little girl I saw on the tube, one day. She couldn’t have been more than 14. With a little plaited bun, a Harris Tweed jacket and a bag with ballet shoes, she was an epitome of cool and composed.”
In 1988, Vivienne (47) was teaching at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna when she fell in love with 22-year-old Andreas Kronthaler and his Renaissance-style gowns. He quickly became her muse and long-time design partner.
In 1989, Vivienne Westwood had become incomparable when she made it to the list of the World’s top six designers including Armani, Karl Lagerfeld, Yves Saint Laurent, Lacroix and Ungaro, in John Fairchild’s book, ‘Chic Savages.’
The 90s proved to be milestones in Westwood’s career. She was felicitated with the Designer Of The Year award by the British Fashion Council in both 1990 and 1991. One of her most-revered collections, “Anglomania”, inspired by British and French cultures, was designed during these years.
“The English have tailoring and an easy charm. The French side has that solidity of design and proportions that are never satisfying because something can always be done to make it more refined.”
– Westwood on Anglomania.
In 1992, Westwood was welcomed to Buckingham Palace to receive an Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal from Her Highness Queen Elizabeth II for her contributions to art and fashion.
In this decade, she created her first men’s collection.
In 1993, Westwood wed Kronthaler and their fashionable fusion was on the rise.
In the Fall-Winter 1993 show, she dressed supermodel Naomi Campbell who fell from her 12-cm heels, quite memorably. Her 1994-95 collection did not fail to surprise critics when she brought out outdoor corsets.
The first Vivienne Westwood New York boutique paved the way to greater success in 1999. Her collections took shape from classical origins such as notable paintings of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, François Boucher, and Thomas Gainsborough,
Westwood was eventually operating plentiful boutiques and designing two menswear and three womenswear collections annually. Her brand expanded into various business ventures, including Red Label and Gold Label lines, partnering with Giorgio Armani and also creating the menswear brand Boudoir and scents of Libertine. Her empire then also began consisting of shoes, hosiery, scarves, bridal wear, knitwear, cosmetics, perfumes and ties.
Vivienne Westwood’s fashion designs were critically acclaimed and Kronthaler went on to become the creative director of the Vivienne Westwood brand. Curators were eager to exhibit Westwood’s collections in their museums while the official e-commerce site, viviennewestwood.com was launched in 2001.
In April 2004, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London hosted an impressive retrospective of her creations of Anglomania to celebrate 34 years of Westwood in the fashion industry – the largest exhibition devoted to a British fashion designer. She was then honored with the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire, the female equivalent of a knighthood, in 2006 by Prince Charles.
While her days of rebelling with punk had concluded, Westwood’s love for fighting the system had evolved into fiercer political engagement. Throughout her campaigns of “Chaos” and “Destroy”, she was lauded for her revolutionary expression through positive activism. With the new shift to striving for a greener planet, her messages were now replaced with “Climate Revolution” and “We are not disposable”. Refusing to use real fur in collections, Westwood demonstrated powerful speeches and signs on her catwalk models, regularly imprinting political manifestos onto her clothes. Vivienne never tired of ecological crusading by bringing attention to the effects of climate change.
“It’s a war for the very existence of the human race and our planet. The most important weapon is public opinion: go to art galleries and start understanding the world we live in. You become a freedom fighter just by doing that.”
Alongside being a trustee of the human rights organization Liberty and Patron of Reprieve, Westwood had continually campaigned for Amnesty International and also for clemency for the controversial case of Leonard Peltier.
The charity initiative of CoolEarth.org was actively supported by Westwood for her passion to save the rainforests and stop climate change. Amongst being a benefactor to various other charities such as Environmental Justice Foundation and Friends of the Earth, Westwood had collaborated with the Ethical Fashion Initiative (EFI) of the International Trade Centre. This initiative produced Westwood bags stamped “Handmade with Love” from Nairobi, since 2010. In support of EFI and Artisan Fashion, Westwood collaborated with this segment of the United Nations, publishing Made In Kenya tags. The EFI body promotes thousands of women micro-producers which contribute immensely to the income of marginalized African communities and creates sustainable stability amongst impoverished dependent communities by empowering craftspeople to access the international value chain.
As a staunch political fashion activist, Westwood inaugurated the Climate Revolution at the 2012 London Paralympics closing ceremony, where NGOs joined forces to rally against disengaged leaders and businesses.
“The fight is no longer between the rich and poor or the classes, but purely between the idiots and eco-conscious.”
While the Made In Kenya initiative was initially set up by EFI, since 2015 the Kenya-Artisan enterprise became a successful independent business due to the heavy influx of Vivienne’s production. Designing high-end accessories by upcycling canvas, roadside banners, leather offcuts and recycling brass cast from the slums of Kibera, Westwood gave ample opportunities to the lesser-developed city of Nairobi to produce African-inspired unisex rucksacks, hand-beaded clutches, patchwork drawstring bags and key rings.
Being an ambassador for Greenpeace.org, Westwood designed their official logo for “Save the Arctic” in 2013 and even launched a global campaign against drilling and fishing in that area in 2015. With the Environmental Protection Agency (EPF), she worked to revive the crippled forests of Europe.
In 2013, despite her efforts, sustainable luxury fashion publication Eluxe Magazine accused Westwood of shielding her company on the pretext of the green movement. Some of her accessories lines were allegedly produced in China and used harmful materials such as PVC, rayon, viscose and polyester. The publication even incriminated Westwood for producing nine collections a year in contrast to a mere two from other designers, where in reality she was advocating people to buy less.
In 2017, her first line titled “Vivienne Westwood Gold Label” was renamed to “Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood” to highlight her husband’s significant contributions as the creative director. Kronthaler designed together with Westwood for over 25 years, always extending her oeuvre and she wanted it to be reflected in public perception.
“To add my name is to emphasize and clarify the differences between both our lines. It will bring a new direction and I am happy and excited for the future.”
For her 2020 Spring-Summer collection, Westwood models wore sustainable outfits without the usual fashion show flamboyance. Westwood’s long-standing motto was to advise people against overt consumerism and made a pleasing fashion proclamation for people to Buy Less, Choose Well.
Written in all the glamor and glory, Westwood’s surprising perspective on the people, ideas and events of her life that shaped the career spanning over five decades, her honest personal memoir, co-authored with award-winning Ian Kelly influenced millions of people.
“The only reason I am in the fashion industry is to destroy the world “conformity”. Nothing interests me unless it’s got that element.”
– Her words in the memoir.
Westwood also wrote her ideas in a Manifesto named “Active Resistance to Propaganda” as a call to people to wisely save the planet for future generations.
A documentary titled, “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and chronicled the savvy business traits of Westwood pioneering Punk and Corsets. It showcased the perseverance that Vivienne underwent before becoming a success, her antisocial and reclusive personality, and Westwood’s dauntless-centric decisions.
Showing no signs of retiring, Westwood held steadfast to her designs and was not swayed or wavered by comments.
“This woman is not going to stop. She’s writing, running the biggest independent female-led fashion house in the world, designing and trying to change policies. She’s driven by an urgency to save the world.”
– Lorna Tucker on Westwood
Vivienne’s designs have adorned the likes of well-known personalities for a long time. Some of them include Dita Von Teese, Pharrell Williams, Princess Eugenie, Marion Cotillard, and Dua Lipa and Westwood’s most iconic feature is designing Carrie Bradshaw’s wedding dress in the 2008 film adaptation of Sex and the City, which was sold out in mere hours of real-time releasing.
The National Portrait Gallery displays over 18 photographs of Westwood taken between the span of 1990 – 2014.
Before her demise, Westwood handed over the reins of her £150 million empire to Kronthaler.
While her company owns over 63 flagship stores around the world, Westwood products are sold through 700 points of sale, across the UK, Italy, France, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Lebanon, Australia, Russia and the USA.
The success story of Vivienne Westwood corroborates her impact as a trailblazer in the fashion industry for over 50 years, who remained loyal to her political convictions. At the forefront of the androgynous movement and a harbinger of punk fashion, Westwood’s legacy will continue to inspire the fashion industry for decades to come.
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The Rise of a Rebel: Retracing Vivienne Westwood Success Story – Industry Leaders Magazine
The decade of the 1970s is historically known as the dawn of platform shoes, leisure polyester suits, the craze for disco and the punks.