Q&C Icons: Vivienne Westwood
CULTURE SPECIAL: JAMES WILKINSON
The inimitable Vivienne Westwood’s new book Get a Life is a bold and frank excursion into the fashion designer’s love of literature and art as well as an impassioned plea to save the planet before it’s too late. Our Editor-in-Chief recently spent an evening in the company of this unique and unequalled doyenne of high fashion, and profiles her for our first Q&C Icons special.
Last week while in London for work I got the chance to enjoy an evening with Vivienne Westwood, the punk grand Dame, provocateur, political activist and icon of British fashion.
Westwood was giving a keynote speech on issues close to her heart at the Southbank Centre. The talk delved into her love of great literature, exploring her life involvement in the realms of culture and the arts, and her unwavering commitment to politics and most significantly, the environment.
The event was to celebrate the release of Get a Life, a collection of her own diaries which began as a series of online posts back in 2010. Billed as a ‘fresh, unpredictable look at the life of one of the most influential artists and campaigners of our times’, the book spans six years of climate revolution, touching on her activism and legacy in the world of fashion. The book has just the right amount of rebellion, provocation and shock value you’d expect from the woman that pioneered the punk fashion phenomenon.
She’d said in the run up to the book’s release: "My diaries are about the things I care about. Not just fashion but art and writing, human rights, climate change, freedom. I call the diaries Get a Life as that's how I feel: you've got to get involved, speak out and take action."
It was these themes which formed the basis of her thought-provoking and at times bonkers talk at the Southbank Centre. Amidst an international audience of fashionistas, culture vultures and eco-warriors, Westwood's entrance generated a rapturous and extended applause, befitting of a woman whose indelible stamp on fashion and popular culture has inspired generations of artists over four decades.
Born Vivienne Isabel Swire in the sleepy village of Tintwistle in Derbyshire in 1941, she rose to prominence in London in the late 1970s when her early clothing designs not only helped shape the look of the punk rock movement but brought new-wave fashions into the mainstream. She has lived by the principle that her work should “put a spoke in the system.” There’s no better example of this than her boutique SEX on the King’s Road which she run with boyfriend and manager of the Sex Pistols Malcolm McLaren, a shop ‘unlike anything else going on in England at the time’. It even carried the slogan ‘rubber-wear for the office’. She has since been the architect for the type of high-fashion and outrageous style tropes that the industry is now famous for, earning Westwood the description as one of the most unconventional, eccentric and outspoken designers in the world.
Age hasn’t dimmed her resolve, or eased the extremity of her contrary opinions and sartorial daringness which were still all evident at the Southbank and still coming from a very punk sensibility. She arrived on stage wearing her trademark killer punk platforms, sequinned blazer, funky stockings and slogan t-shirt (Buy Less), while brimming with attitude and humility before the adoring crowd.
Everything is connected. It’s a phrase she uses often and describes how everything we do has an effect on something else, particularly given our place on the planet. Her views on environmentalism are inspirational and her take on culture and the arts fascinating.
“Culture is an evolution of human beings becoming even more and more wonderful than they are. It’s an intellectual evolution of the human race,” she claims. And throughout the evening she recited poems and discussed passages from novels which have inspired and influenced her; from Chinese literature to modern day classics.
She remarked on her unparalleled legacy in the world of fashion, bringing to life some of her most iconic fashion collections and bold style statements which have borrowed from a wide range of inspirations including pirates, buffalo girls, Petrushka, ragamuffins, ‘Tatler’ girls, prostitutes, witches, Greek Gods and Clint Eastwood.
References to her work abound on the streets, in shops, in business and throughout popular culture, whether it be the Virgin Atlantic crew uniforms, to Carrie Bradshaw’s wedding dress in the Sex and the City movie, or Edina’s platform boots in the Ab Fab film. Never a retiring wallflower, let’s not forget this is the woman who once collected an OBE from the Queen wearing no knickers. The Queen, apparently, was amused.
But it is Westwood’s activism on environmental issues which now concerns her above all else. She has campaigned for nuclear disarmament, joined forced with the British civil rights group Liberty and is an ambassador for clean energy. She throws out numerous facts and figures about climate change through the evening, one of the most sobering being that by the end of the century the earth south of the equator will be largely uninhabitable and only one billion of us left on earth - unless we take action now.
She continually makes a call for people to read more, to get engaged in politics and world affairs. In a world destabilised by political unrest, fake news and climate change denial, her plea is for people to educate themselves about the impact we as humans are having on the world.
A vocal opponent against what she describes as the ‘drug of consumerism’, she says: “My maxim is buy less, choose well, make it last. All this consumption is superficial, and it’s not a real choice.” And it’s a call for action which she hopes will ensure happier and contented generations to come, as well as the survival of the planet.
Icons aren’t flawless however, and Westwood is no exception. Over the years she’s faced calls of hypocrisy for her environmental activism when she herself makes no concessions to making her clothes or her business fully eco-friendly.
Sustainable fashion magazine Eluxe claimed certain Westwood fashion and accessories are made in China, and were found to include PVC, polyester, rayon and viscose, deriving from harmful chemicals. Further, she’s been accused of using unpaid interns and making them work 40-plus hours per week, not to mention the claims of dubious off-shore tax activities.
And while she says people should ‘buy less’, her company produces nine collections a year compared to other designer’s two. In true Westwood style, she has made no apologies for not being “pure enough.” Responding to the allegation that anti-consumerism and fashion contradict each other, she has also said: “I don’t feel comfortable defending my clothes. But if you’ve got the money to afford them, then buy something from me. Just don’t buy too much.”
Despite such complaints, her enduring activism is to be applauded. Her desire for green awareness has been a constant through her later career, and echoes the ethos of this very magazine Queen and Country. The countryside holds great communities, where many strive for and work at being more sustainable and thus enjoying a better quality of life. It is essential we work together to achieve these common goals.
We can all make a real difference. Whether it be buying locally grown/sourced organic food, recycling, up-cycling, switching to a more eco friendly energy provider, traveling less, flying less and only making the journeys we have to, we too can play our bit, no matter how small. And as Westwood demands, read more! Only by educating ourselves can we really have the power to change ourselves for the better, and the world we live in.
‘GET A LIFE’ is out now and is available from all good book-stores and retailers.