Dame Vivienne Westwood is seventy-seven today. God bless her and who sail with her. I had the privilege to interview Vivienne many moons ago when she launched Vivienne Westwood couture for the Financial Times. I spent over two hours with the Dame watching her dress a maquette just as mesdames Gris and Vionnet used to draping onto the body of the small model before super sizing to the model.
Even at that time, Dame Vivienne was more interested in politics than fashion. She declared that Tony Blair was a turd and that she’d gone up to ‘that Cherie Blair’ and said she wasn’t speaking to her because her husband had taken Britain into the Gulf War. I couldn’t print those comments but wished in a way that I had. She had more political know-how than Robert Peston.
The last time I interviewed Dame Vivienne was when her husband Andreas had taken equal billing as co-designer for the label. Vivienne was not present until the end of the interview when she walked in from the lift looking like a baby bird. She recognised me but went off on several monologues about not seeing enough of her friends while barely looking at the mood boards behind Andreas.
It is my theory that Dame Vivienne had done everything that she ever wanted to. She had set the pace for international fashion for thirty years and had better things on her mind when every Tom, Dick and Harry had raped her collections for inspiration.
Lest we forget, it was Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren who re-branded their Kings Road shop on a seasonal basis as they became enamoured of Teddy Boys, Bikers, Fetish and pirates. This was the era of Let It Rock, Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, Seditionaries, Buffalo Girls and Witches in which Dame Vivienne introduced obscene logo T-shirts, underwear as outerwear, recycled junk and Wikka symbols as well as customised white trainers, Hip-Hop and neon signs influenced by the cityscape of Tokyo.
I believe Dame Vivienne came into her own when she parted company with McLaren and designed the Mini-Crini in which she was influenced by Queen Elizabeth II as a child. It was all about the Princess line and Harris Tweed. The Harris Tweed collection for Autumn/Winter 1987 was the season Dame Vivienne introduced the Harris Tweed crown made by Stephen Jones and the body stocking stitched with a single fig leaf.
What I appreciated about Dame Vivienne’s collections was her absence of references from contemporary fashion and her journeys into fashion’s time machine. Her Time Machine collection was inspired by the Watteau Rococo paintings in the Wallace collection, the Ballets Russes and Commedia Dell Arte. Who can forget the Boucher corsets and the bustle-backed tartan skirts?
The Watteau collection was the first time I encountered Dame Vivienne when she launched a Swatch watch using Boucher paintings. It was launched at the Hurlingham Club and I missed out on a goody bag that would be worth tomorrows these days. I also wore a lot of Westwood: liquid gold spray dyed denim as well as the Marlene Dietrich print denim shirt and jeans. Her clothes made one feel subversive, gay and badass.
Dame Vivienne is a self-taught fashion historian. She can take the Tudor ‘Cut and Slash’ school of cutting and create something entirely contemporary out of 16th century tailoring. She can channel Queen Elizabeth I by way of Margaret Thatcher and create innovative tailoring that competitors can only put down their cutting shears and despair.
Though I am loath to call it a diffusion line, Dame Vivienne’s Anglomania collections pushed fashion forward at an even swifter pace. Anglomania for Autumn/Winter 1993-1994 was inspired by the exchange of ideas between pre-Revolutionary French court dress and English tailoring of the Beau Brummell era. She rocked it out further with Cafe Society for Spring/Summer 1994 and Viva La Cocotte in Autumn/Winter 1995-1996. Who can forget the high platforms that Naomi Campbell fell off the have since inspired every designer from Vuitton to Alexander McQueen?
To me, Dame Vivienne has done her dash hence passing the baton to the lovely Andreas. She still takes her bows at the runway shows but you feel her mind is on global activism and the causes she has chosen to support rather than fashion. It seems incredible to me that Dame Vivienne’s fashion wasn’t half as criticised as her role as an ambassador for good causes. Perhaps like Prince Charles, the world will catch-up with Dame Vivienne’s causes.
I know that Dame Vivienne didn’t like one of my Times profiles of her when I named her ‘a national treasure’. She didn’t want to be in the same category as Vera Lynn and Miranda Hart. But I maintain that Dame Vivienne is a national treasure on a par with Marmite and Quentin Crisp. She is magnificent in her ostensible barminess and steadfast in her mission to puncture hubris and shockingly shit fashion design.
Dame Vivienne did for me what no other designer could do. She showed me the way in how to look back to look forward. I am in awe of her talent and am assured that hers is the title greatest British fashion designer of the late 20th century. If she never designed another stitch, Dame Vivienne’s legacy is secure. So here’s to her, who’s like her? Damned few. Until next time…