Dame Vivienne Westwood: Icon and Activist

Vivienne Westwood is an ever-evolving fashion and activism icon whose influence on music, clothing and society is larger than life. Westwood's evolution from humble beginnings to international acclaim is a case study in authenticity. As a company, we were drawn to tell her story on the basis of her relentless attention to detail and unshakeable mission to improve the human experience through her work. 

Dame Westwood was born Vivienne Isabelle Swire on April 8, 1941 in Tintwistle, Cheshire County, a small town in the United Kingdom. Vivienne was born into humble beginnings, with her father finding work as a cobbler and shopkeep and her mother working in a cotton mill to help the family make ends meet. 

At the early ages of 11-12, Vivienne was already making her own clothing to wear. Just before age 17, her school art teacher suggested Vivienne should attend art school. Westwood moved to Harrow where she enrolled in the local university and participated in her first jewelry and silversmithing courses. Westwood's art school tenure was short lived claiming, “I don’t know how a working class girl could ever make it in the art world”. Instead, Westwood altered course and decided to attend University for teacher training, with an emphasis on art. The decision created a reasonable fallback plan, allowing Westwood to develop skills in different art disciplines while providing the option to teach, if her success was never realized as an artist. 

Westwood married in 1962 at age 21 to Derek Westwood, with whom she had her first son Ben. She began her career as a teacher and set the course for an unremarkable life. She talks about at this time, she was living “The American Dream” and soon realized “it was all a load of bollocks”; Westwood needed an escape. Westwood made a sharp pivot, filing for divorce and in a matter of months met Malcolm McClaren, an art student who would later go on to manage the Sex Pistols. McClaren was a catalyst for Westwood's creative reawakening. She started to understand the value of creative freedom and political power in art.

Westwood and McClaren launched their careers in fashion and retail, with their first concept located at the legendary 430 Kings Road, which opened in 1971. The shop began under the name "Let It Rock" and featured vintage clothing from the 1950s alongside McClaren’s rock and roll record collection. Westwood quickly embraced her new career and identity, drawing from her early teenage love of rock and roll music, fashion and culture. 430 Kings Road became a first of its kind concept shop with revolving collections and identities which personified the creative desires of Westwood and McClaren as the years past. "Let It Rock" transitioned into "Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die",  into "SEX", into "Seditionaries" and finally, "Worlds End".

The clothing produced at 430 Kings Road became the foundation for Westwood's transition from local shop manager to internationally renowned couture fashion designer. Westwood produced clothing and t-shirts embellished with McClaren’s provocative ideas. The couple's customized t-shirts (often ripped and riddled with anti establishment slogans and imagery) as well as their bondage trousers (black leather pants with straps akin to those used by sadomasochists) were met with notable commercial success. The garments represented an alternative lifestyle, a beckoning sub-culture that was met with resistance from the status-quo. 

"Destroy Muslin" courtesy of The Met Museum. A "Seditionaries" Concept Piece

Westwood and McClaren were the architects of the Punk cultural phenomenon. Without Westwood and McClaren, Punk music and culture would not exist as we have come to know it today. 

As the couple's reputation and influence began to expand, McClaren found himself far more involved with the music of Punk culture, and Westwood, the fashion. McClaren hand-picked the founding members of the Sex Pistols and manifested their success as the band's manager. Malcolm became jealous of Westwood’s newfound success in the fashion realm as he was busy building his own reputation in the music industry. Ultimately, Westwood describes she was outgrowing McClaren. Westwood began designing collections entirely on her own and the couple's personal and business relationships began to suffer. 

Westwood and McClaren attempted to maintain their business relationship for several years after their separation. The couple's final co-branded World's End collection was released in early 1985. Thereafter, Westwood produced designs under her own label. Westwood reinvented her design philosophy entirely and began producing pieces in the late 1980's characterized by a distinct reinterpretation of the past. 

The Mini-Crini

The 'Mini-Crini,' 1985-87

Harris Tweed 1987

Harris Tweed, 1987

The Pagan Years 1988-1992

The Pagan Years 1988-1992

In 1983, Westwood met Carlo D’Amario, an Italian businessman who took a liking to Westwoods work and brokered manufacturing partnerships in Italy for Vivienne Westwood's label. After many years, D'Amario became the managing director of the business and was responsible for strategic and commercial direction, while Vivienne retained creative control. In 1988, Carlo and Vivienne jointly incorporated Vivienne Westwood Srl in Italy and later in 1992, jointly incorporated in the UK. Before 1992, the brand’s annual revenue was around £500-600,000. Post 1992 (and D’Amario), the brand was grossing more than £10,000,000 annually and was being sold in more than 30 different countries. D'Amario and Westwood's mutual success can be attributed to their shared obsession with quality. D'Amario gradually took production out of the hands of external licensees and began the shift to in-house production in Italy and the UK. Today, 80% of all Vivienne Westwood products are still produced in-house.

Westwood's influence in the fashion world is impossible to deny. In 1990, Vivienne Westwood was awarded with the Designer of the Year award in Britain. The fashion world however, was not aligned with Westwood's avant-garde personality and design practices and never wanted to accept Vivienne as one of their own. In 1991, Westwood was awarded designer of the year for the second year in a row, becoming the first designer in history to do so. In 1992, she was awarded the O.B.E. (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire). These awards greatly helped to legitimize Dame Vivienne Westwood as a company especially in the eyes of potential sponsors as well as aiding in the growth of the brand sales in those years.

Westwood as an individual and a brand is more focused on her activism than her design. An activist by conscience, Westwood often litters her designs with slogans and other political calls to action. Her primary political concerns are climate change, nuclear disarmament and civil rights, especially that of freedom of speech. “I make the great claim for my manifesto that it penetrates to the root of the human predicament and offers the underlying solution. We have a choice to become more cultivated, and therefore more human; or by not choosing, to be the destructive and self-destroying animal, the victim of our own cleverness. To be or not to be…” Westwood wrote in her manifesto entitled Active Resistance to Propaganda.

A fantastic example of her activism was Vivienne’s “anti-fracking” collection in 2016. Just nine days before the runway show, Vivienne made headlines for driving an all-white tank right up to the home of the prime minister, leading a charge of anti-fracking protestors. Her subsequent show was more a continuation of the protest than a runway release. The show soundtrack began with police sirens and progressed to a girl chanting, "Hashtag hashtag ,twitter, tumblr, instagram, fashion app” on repeat. Westwood, instead of selling tickets to celebrities and big name fashion icons, filled the crowd with her activist friends holding anti-fracking signs.

Fracking is a Crime Vivienne Westwood

Anti-Fracking runway show

Vivienne Westwood is nothing short of legendary and iconic. She revolutionized what is deemed appropriate to wear in public. She was the first to introduce bondage trousers and other aspects of BDSM, along with safety pins and chains to the fashion mainstream. Her use of 17th and 18th century cutting techniques, especially the radical cutting lines she developed for men’s trousers, continue to be used and emulated today.

"Be Like Vivienne Westwood" - ThriftCon