Following the year marking her 80th birthday and the 40th anniversary of her first catwalk show, Vivienne Westwood is still an influential force in fashion, and vintage pieces are all the rage among archivists. Charting the lineage of her punk, thought-provoking attitude, we invited Nigerian designer Mowalola and her crew to model the British designer’s most iconic collections—clothes of protest and queer resistance, where nothing is taboo.
What does rebellion look like? The blueprint for transgressive fashion can be laid at the feet of one person, Dame Vivienne Westwood. Heretical, individual, unafraid, innovative—Westwood never went with the grain of society. Instead, she shaped it. In fashion terms, she helped to define the humble t-shirt as an iconic placard for politics and resistance. Every piece of deconstructed knitwear, fetish- wear, and clothes of queer resistance reflect her influence. This year marks the 40th anniversary of her first catwalk show, and her 80th birthday, an apt time to invite Nigerian designer Mowalola and her crew to explore her archive. Westwood’s approach to cut and style influenced everyone that came in her wake: Rei Kawakubo at Comme des Garçons, Alexander McQueen, Rick Owens, and John Galliano would not exist in the same form without her. Grunge would never have happened. Eckhaus Latta’s knitwear and Matty Bovan’s graphics both reflect her influence. Kim Jones (Dior and Fendi), Jun Takahashi (Undercover), and Hiroshi Fujiwara each have notable private collections of her work from the 1970s. Takahashi, who was a member of the tribute band Tokyo Sex Pistols, and Hiroshi, who worked for Westwood in the ’80s, even collaborated to create a publication bringing together their carefully preserved collections of over 350 Seditionaries items. This kind of idolatry and fascination in fashion is truly rare.
What makes Westwood such an enduring and fascinating figure is the fact she is much more than a fashion icon. She has had a true effect on the contemporary way of thinking. Westwood has stated that protest was at the heart of everything from day one. She was born in 1941 in a Derbyshire village, in the North of England, before moving to London at the age of 17, where she briefly worked as a teacher. She left her husband for art student Malcolm McLaren in 1965, and the pair had a street stall selling her DIY clothes and highly unfashionable ’50s rock-and-roll records. McLaren’s fascination with Situationism, anarchism, and provocation was always present, as author Greil Marcus notes in Lipstick Traces. “Thrilled by the May 1968 revolt in France, McLaren had helped foment solidarity demonstrations in London and later sold t-shirts decorated with May ’68 slogans,” Marcus explains. “I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.”
The pair opened their own boutique, Worlds End, in 1971 at 430 King’s Road, at times living in the back. It was a small space at the wrong end of the street in the working-class end of Chelsea—all council blocks, grimier pubs, and depressed tearooms for local pensioners. Westwood and McLaren’s shop was always in flux, changing name and content at yearly intervals. The proto-rockabilly Let It Rock (1971–73), was followed by Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die (1973–74) which focused on biker gear and leather, before SEX (1974–1976) with its flesh pink sign and rails of rubber and fetishwear. McLaren used the shop to help recruit members and form the Sex Pistols, alongside its fourth incarnation, Seditionaries (1976–80).
“Every time we did a new collection we changed the name of the shop,” Westwood explains in her published diaries Get A Life. “Seditionaries—that was when we did punk. Punk was a culmination of previous collections. We were trying to form a band of rebels who would topple the system.” Nothing was taboo. Swastika armbands, t-shirts with images of serial killer Myra Hindley, the Cambridge Rapist, gay porn illustrations, naked female breast, anarchy symbols. Westwood’s clothes forced people to confront their complicity. “Boredom, to the Situationists, was a supremely modern phenomenon, a modern form of control,” Greil Marcus notes. There was nothing boring about Westwood.
Vivienne created garments that exuded aggression. She wrote slogans on old shirts with bleach in her kitchen. Statements like “Only anarchists are pretty” and “Destroy.” The clothes sat somewhere between worn underwear of guerrilla bandits and straitjackets, and the perverse pleasure of fetish clubs, and working-class peacock culture. She appropriated the then unapproachable. Here clothes truly mixed aesthetics and ideology. “It was about smashing all the values, all the taboos of a world that was so cruel and unjust, mismanaged and corrupt,” Westwood explains.
Dick Hebdige in Subculture: The Meaning of Style highlights how subcultures expressed “a fundamental tension between those in power and those condemned to subordinate positions and second-class lives.” Westwood’s clothes, and punk by extension, used the vulgar, gruesome, and nasty to raise questions about power. “A pin, a plastic clothes peg, a television component, a razor blade, a tampon could be brought within the province of punk (un) fashion. Anything within or without reason could be turned into part of what Vivienne Westwood called ’confrontation dressing’ so long as the rupture between ’natural’ and constructed context was clearly visible (i.e. the rule would seem to be: if the cap doesn’t fit, wear it),” Hebdige notes. “Punk did more than upset the wardrobe. It undermined every relevant discourse.”
When Sid Vicious died in 1979, Westwood sidestepped punk and went in search of the new. Her relationship with McLaren was straining and would soon dissolve, but her individuality, skill, and innovation as a designer would not. “At the end of punk rock, I realized that it was really just a marketing opportunity for people to do more product, but it was also a marketing opportunity for the idea of the free society,” she later explained. Her first catwalk show was later known as the “Pirates” collection. The shop changed to resemble a 17th-century pirate ship with a sloping floor and giant clock on the front with numbers to 13—the look it has retained to this day. Westwood clothes also began to chime with a new generation of the underground. Westwood’s pirate boots, graphic rope motif, and historic inspiration were a perfect fit for the dressed-up New Romantics dancing to Kraftwerk and early electronica at clubs like Blitz.
“They opened Worlds End in 1971. It was a small shop, always in flux, often changing name and content. McLaren used it to help recruit members and form the Sex Pistols.”
Over the coming decade, Westwood would repeatedly lead shifts in fashion. Her catwalk shows were spectacles.
She put graffiti on the catwalk after Keith Haring gave her a piece to use in 1983. She was the first person to use sportswear as high fashion in the sweatshirts and hip-hop influenced “Witches” collection. She began to delve deep into history, developing a uniquely British, sexy, decadent take on tailoring and throwing herself into art history. “I realized that there is no progress in art: great art is perfect and timeless, original, and alive,” she writes in Get A Life. “I continued to research history for my fashion ideas... Culture is necessary for human beings to evolve into better creatures.” Her work exuded satire and intelligence—influences ranging from Tudor slashed fabrics to Rococo-couture. She reclaimed the corset, developed in the SS1985 “Mini-Crini” collection, and giant platform shoes—all of which became the defining look of club culture as it began to turn glam.
Westwood met Andreas Kronthaler in 1988 at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts where she was teaching. He quickly became her partner, which coincided with a decade of unparalleled success. In 1990, she was named Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards. The duo collaborated on their first collection for Spring/Summer 1991. Two years later they married—the same year she was awarded an OBE and became a Dame. (When photographed for the press, her dress blew up revealing her lack of underwear.) They have continued to work together for over 30 years, and Kronthaler has been the sole Creative Director of the Westwood label since 2016.
In 2013, the business had £30 million annual sales. Westwood became the label of the queer alliance, with a notably popular menswear line with explicit nods to cultural subversion. Yet, at the same time, Westwood was one of the staples for the British working-class—boys out on the town, suburban peacocks, a staple for weddings and wannabe aristocrats. Westwood developed and exported a particular kind of Englishness—the tartan, the knitwear, the tailored tweed, the twisted nod to British royalty in her crown and scepter logo. Yet there was always something innately rebellious in her cut and approach to fashion and life. She was bold with her work, with her voice, with her status, and with her body, notoriously posing nude at 68 for her long-time collaborator Juergen Teller.
What also makes her chime with a new generation is how she has used her position to bring attention to climate change and activism, far ahead of the 2021 curve. She came up with the slogan “Buy Less,” a refreshing concept for someone working in an industry of consumption.
Her argument is that “couture is the only sustainable fashion,” but fashion, in general, is now a platform and not a purpose. She established climaterevolution.co.uk, wrote a manifesto, printed a million playing cards emblazoned with strategies “to save the Earth” at £100 each to raise funds for Greenpeace. Collections since 2005 have been called things like “Propaganda” or “Active Resistance.” “Active Resistance is founded on the idea that the art lover is a freedom fighter for a better world because they think, and their exploration of the past gives them a perspective from which to form his own opinions and to act,” she later explains.
Slogans and statements are still a fundamental part of her work. One was the scrawled acronym NINSDOL. “Huxley said, ’The world has three evils: nationalist idolatry (NI), which has taken the place of religion; non-stop distraction (NSD); and organized lying (OL). The greatest of these evils is non- stop distraction,” she has noted.
“I thought these three evils were the constituents of propaganda.
I designed graphics for six t-shirts and put them also on other clothes and bags in the collection.” Her latest collection Spring/Summer 2022, entitled “Save Our Souls, SOS!,” is set in a shipwreck, with nods to pirates and the legendary ’90s shows. The political undercurrent is ever-present.
The designer has also always challenged received ideas of beauty and femininity. While everyone went minimal in the 90s for example, she went for excess. She presented alternative ideas of female power. While male writers have often laid the politics and power behind punk in Malcolm McLaren’s hands, it is very clear over 40 years later how much Westwood’s originality and own political motivations have always been part of her approach. Vogue is still devoting attention to her own sexy, bold, political, truly original take on dressing; “Westwood’s style is not solely defined by exhibitionism, but she does wear her political agenda on her sleeve,” Laird Borrelli- Persson wrote in 2021. Not that Westwood cares what anyone thinks, as she once noted, “People’s opinions are usually worthless.”