remembering Dame Vivienne Westwood, British fashion icon


Dame Vivienne Westwood, the designer hailed as the ‘undisputed queen of British fashion’ has died at the age of 81.

Westwood was known for her punk fashion creations and even more punk spirit. She was the fashion designer who made the political slogan go wild in Britain, the dame who accepted her OBE sans knickers and the Londoner who could always be seen on her bike, cruising the capital in impeccable style — a representation daily life of his staunch climate activism.

From her humble beginnings to her unlikely friendship with Julian Assange, here’s a look into the life and work of the London “Dame Punk”.

A working class girl with a creative dream

Westwood was as much an activist as a designer. Born Vivienne Isabel Swire, she got her first taste of the creative world as a teenager when she attended a jewelery and goldsmithing course at Harrow Art School, now known as the University of Westminster.

Though she excelled in the class (she took her creations and sold them at Portobello Market), Westwood was intimidated by it: “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could make a living in the art world,” mused several years after.

Westwood in 1999 (PA)

Westwood in 1999 (PA)

Instead, she chose to pursue a secretarial qualification and went on to become a primary school teacher, which she enjoyed (“except I always liked kids that everyone else thought were pain in the ass. The little rebels” , he told The Guardian in 2007) — even if it wasn’t enough to fill the void that creativity had opened.

Rise with a cause

When she turned 20, the young rebel met her first husband, Derek Westwood, the man responsible for turning Vivienne Swire into Vivienne Westwood, at least in name. Her surname became hers, and the designer would go on to keep that moniker for two more marriages, following the breakup of her marriage to her first husband. The couple were married for three years and had one son, Benjamin Westwood, but split after Vivienne met the man who would become her second husband: Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren.

He and Westwood worked together to open a boutique on the King’s Road, Let It Rock, selling 1950s memorabilia, teddy bear pants, mohair sweaters and a few items designed by McLaren, but made by Westwood. Eventually Westwood started designing herself, and McLaren began dressing members of the Sex Pistols in her creations, which caught the attention of the budding stylist.

In 1981, Westwood and McLaren designed their first ever collection, ‘Pirates’, which still has a runway influence 40 years after its debut. This joint collection planted Westwood firmly in the fashion world, and she hasn’t walked away since.

Indiscipline and OBE

Westwood would go on to become one of the biggest names in British fashion, winning British Fashion Designer of the Year three times — in 1990, 1991 and 2006 — and being honored for her contributions to fashion by the Queen in 1992, where she collected her OBEs without underwear. “I wanted to show off my outfit by twirling my skirt,” she said of the celebratory photographs, which were meant to be blurry: “It didn’t occur to me that since the photographers were practically on their knees, the result would be more glamorous than than i expected.

Vivienne Westwood without underwear at Buckingham Palace after receiving her OBE (PA)

Vivienne Westwood without underwear at Buckingham Palace after receiving her OBE (PA)

Westwood was unruly above all else. In fact, this same word is the one Westwood stitched onto Stella Moris’ wedding veil as she prepared to marry jailed activist and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Assange’s imprisonment and extradition was a cause close to Westwood’s heart, and the two were close friends.

He had previously demonstrated this by posing in a human birdcage, dressed in canary yellow, brandishing the “I am Julian Assange” placard, before the Old Bailey Criminal Courts. But when Assange decided to marry his longtime partner and mother to his two children, Stella Moris, Westwood wanted to help him in a more delicate way, by designing Moris’ wedding dress.

Westwood protest outside the Old Bailey in 2020 (PA)

Westwood protest outside the Old Bailey in 2020 (PA)

“[Vivienne] came on Julian’s 40th birthday when he was under house arrest […] and they made an amazing friendship,” Moris told the Evening Standard following Westwood’s death. “They love each other’s company. She was incredibly intelligent and creative, and she was constantly thinking about what she could do to the world, what to do about Julian’s imprisonment, about climate change. He was always brainstorming… and he was a lot of fun.

Moris worked with Westwood and her husband Andreas Kronthaler to create the dress she would wear to her wedding to Assange, which took place at HMP Belmarsh in March 2022. in prison – that was the starting point – and what could we to do, and what was possible.

Stella Moris in her Westwood designed wedding dress with her children in their Westwood gowns and kilts.  Assange also wore a matching Westwood kilt (Stella Moris)

Stella Moris in her Westwood designed wedding dress with her children in their Westwood gowns and kilts. Assange also wore a matching Westwood kilt (Stella Moris)

It was supposed to be a wedding dress like no other. Westwood changed the traditional boning of the bodice to an alternative material, instead of the usual metal, so that it could pass through prison metal detectors. She also added a rose to her chest to represent a bouquet, as Moris wasn’t allowed to carry a bouquet through prison security. And on her veil he embroidered words written by Julian Assange, in the handwriting of her and Moris’ loved ones, including a word added by Westwood herself: rebel.

Today, Assange himself made a rare statement to honor his friend’s death, calling her ‘Britain’s best’. Speaking from within Belmarsh, the activist said: “Vivienne was a woman and a pillar of the anti-establishment. Bold, creative, thoughtful and a good friend. The best of Britain. She will be terribly missed by me and many others”.

Punk checkers

Another cause that Westwood was very fond of was climate change, and he demonstrated it as much in his everyday life (cycling, pedaling all over London even at the age of 80) as in his catwalks, where he dressed the models with slogans T-shirts or equip them with protest signs to hold up.

She was also responsible for some notable more apolitical runway moments, including the moment when her purple python platforms outwitted supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1993, and when a nearly nude Kate Moss walked the runway wearing only a miniskirt and heels, while chewing on an ice cream cone.

Kate Moss and Vivienne Westwood together in 2009 (PA)

Kate Moss and Vivienne Westwood together in 2009 (PA)

Moss’ stylist James Brown is just one of many fashion figures mourning Westwood today, whom he affectionately calls “Dame Punk.” “She will be remembered for his rebellious nature,” Brown told the Evening Standard today.

She also shared a story of her only run-in with Westwood, when she was just 18: “One day in Covent Garden I saw her pass me on her bicycle. I screamed and ran towards her shouting ‘Vivienne I love you!’ she stopped but looked at me with her very mischievous smile,” she recalls. “I didn’t say anything, and neither did she. It was the only time in my entire life that I was speechless. I could not believe that she was in front of me, my idol.

Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, both dressed Westwood, sat together during London Fashion Week 1993 (PA)

Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, both dressed Westwood, sat together during London Fashion Week 1993 (PA)

“I stared at her, no words were exchanged for years, but I was literally head to toe in her clothes so she knew I was slightly overwhelmed to meet her. That day and every single day for years and years I wore her clothes religiously.

Many others have joined Brown in sharing their favorite Westwood stories since his death. Designer Marc Jacobs wrote on Instagram: “You did it first. All time. Incredible style with brilliant and meaningful substance. I keep learning from your words and all your amazing creations,” while singer Boy George tweeted: “RIP to the great and inspiring Vivienne Westwood who guided us through punk and beyond […] Without a doubt, she is the undisputed queen of British fashion.

Her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, has pledged to continue her legacy. “I will continue with Vivienne in my heart,” he said. “We worked our way through to the end and she gave me a lot of stuff to move forward with.”

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