British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who brought punk style to global attention, died on December 29 in South London at the age of eighty-one. News of her death was announced by her eponymous company, which did not specify a cause. Westwood with impresario Malcolm McLaren in 1971 opened the boutique that would eventually be called SEX on London’s King’s Road, where she sold her clothing, shocking at the time for incorporating safety pins and purposeful rips. Viv Albertine, of seminal punk band the Slits, described them in her 2014 memoir as “mohair jumpers, knitted on big needles, so loosely that you can see all the way through them, T-shirts slashed and written on by hand, seams and labels on the outside, showing the construction of the piece.” Albertine noted that Westwood and McLaren’s fashions reflected the attitude of the music she and her compatriots were making: “It’s OK to not be perfect, to show the workings of your life and your mind in your songs and your clothes.” “There was no punk before me and Malcolm,” Westwood noted in her own 2014 biography. “And the other thing you should know about punk too: it was a total blast.”
Vivienne Westwood was born Vivian Swire in 1941, in the tiny village of Tintwistle to working-class parents. When she was a teenager, she moved with her family to the London suburb of Harrow, where she enrolled in a silversmithing and jewelry-making course at Harrow Art School. Feeling out of place owing to her humble background, she dropped out and instead pursued a career as a primary school teacher. She continued to make jewelry, however, which she sold at the Portobello Road street market. Following a brief marriage to factory apprentice Derek Westwood, whose last name she would retain, she took up with McLaren, himself an art-school dropout and a music promoter, and the pair began selling secondhand rock records together in the back of a clothing shop on King’s Road.
In 1971, with a small loan from her mother, Westwood rented the entire shop, which the couple first named Let It Rock and then a few months later Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die. Besides selling leather jackets, the store offered Westwood’s own designs: shredded and pinned surplus T-shirts unsold by the bands McLaren managed as well as tees that Westwood had stenciled with suggestive phrases, or dyed in the couple’s bathtub, or to which she had stitched zippers, or chicken bones boiled bare on the couple’s stove. In 1974, McLaren renamed the store SEX, and latex fetish wear was added to its offerings. After he put together the Sex Pistols a few years later, Westwood began dressing them in the same fashions available at the store, now called Seditionaries.
By 1981, fired in large part by the success of the Pistols and the attention it had brought her designs, the store and Westwood’s fashions had become successful enough that she was able to hire cutters and patternmakers, and began showing collections. Her “Pirates” collection, a 1981 collaboration with McLaren, with its cascading ruffles and wide, swashbuckling belts became a fashion touchstone for the New Romantic bands of the early decade. Following the couple’s split shortly thereafter, and with their shop, finally named Worlds End, shuttered, Westwood entered the world of high fashion in earnest. Her 1985 design, the “Mini-Crini,” an abbreviated bell-shaped skirt inspired by the bustles fashionable in the nineteenth century, garnered her even more notoriety, and she continued to create clothes that blended historical silhouettes with sharp tailoring and typically British fabrics, such as tweed. Westwood struggled financially in the early years of this endeavor, at one point selling her fashions by candlelight in the temporarily reopened World’s End, after the power had been shut off. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, she got by on bank loans and the money earned from teaching gigs, including one at the Hochschule der Künste, Berlin, where she taught until 2004 (and where she met her Austrian-born husband, Andreas Kronthaler, who would become her creative partner as well).
Westwood eventually built a fashion empire comprising two menswear lines, three womenswear lines, and accessories and perfumes. She was awarded a damehood in 2006 for her services to fashion. Attendant to her pathbreaking designs were her strong political beliefs, about which she was vocal. Among the causes she championed were nuclear disarmament and environmentalism; she fought anti-terrorism laws and government spending policies that rendered the poor even more so.
Despite her tremendous success, Westwood remained true to her thrifty working-class roots, often biking to work and continually touting the recycling of fashions. As well, she retained the fierce, authority-defying spirit that characterized her work from its start, as for example when she went pantyless to the 1992 ceremony at which Queen Elizabeth awarded her the Order of the British Empire, twirling saucily to reveal the fact for photographers. “The only reason I am in fashion is to destroy the word ‘conformity’,” Westwood said in her biography. “Nothing is interesting to me unless it’s got that element.”