Interview: Vivienne Westwood

Past inspires timeless style

The problem with the modern world, according to Vivienne Westwood Britain's greatest fashion designer, is that people seem to have short memories. This is certainly the case with the British establishment. In 1976 Westwood, with then husband Malcolm McLaren – manager of the legendary punk band the Sex Pistols – famously put a swastika and an inverted crucifixion scene on a T-shirt, together with the head of Queen Elizabeth II and the logo "Destroy." Sixteen years later the affront to the royal person had been conveniently forgotten as Westwood received the O.B.E., one of Britain's highest honors, from her Majesty.

While almost any museum show that focused on the career of a famous fashion designer would have all the dubious pleasure of an hour or two spent in a high class fashion boutique, Vivienne Westwood's career is so full of conflict and paradox, and punctuated by such regular liaisons with the zeitgeist, that the exhibition celebrating her 35-year career at the Mori Arts Center Gallery is more like a potted social and cultural history of the late 20th century than anything else.

During a walk through of her exhibition with the assembled press, the 64-year-old redhead points out the iconic "Destroy" T-shirt that first helped to get her noticed.

"What this T-shirt is saying is that in those days we hated the older generation and we didn't accept anything from them, not their taboos not anything," she says.

By opening chronologically, the exhibition treads familiar ground, retelling the story of the anti-establishment figure who increasingly became part of the establishment, and of the rebel who became a conservative. For Westwood the key transition was her "Pirate Collection" of 1981–82, which used patterns and cuts from historical costumes, and which was showcased in the public eye by 'New Romantic' bands like Adam & the Ants and Spandau Ballet.

Unlike the destructive and implosive ethos of punk, Westwood's new direction was outward–looking and respectful of the past.

"Punk was very heroic and here was another attempt to be heroic again," she explains. "But it was about not wanting to be a victim anymore, not wanting to be a member of an island, and wanting to discover some things about history and the Third World, and to step off the island and explore the riches of the World and find ideas. And this is when I really started to cut clothes."

This was clearly a positive development, as punk was ultimately a creative dead end. By looking outwards and backwards, Westwood greatly expanded her creative vocabulary. This enabled her to challenge one of the most gruesome episodes in fashion history – the 'power dressing' craze of the 80s.

"I wanted to change the look of fashion because in those days you had power dressing with the big shoulders and the inverted triangle shape," she recalls, indicating her Nymphette Mini-Crini (1985), a combination of 19th century supportive frames and 1960s baby-doll minis.

"I knew that in order to get away from this big shoulder you needed another dynamic, so I introduced this little crinoline. It's very childish like a little baby. It's like a little bell that swings and it's terribly sexy when you wear it."

Such fashions signaled that 80s woman was still interested in being feminine and even childlike, at a time when Britain was under the thumb of its first and only female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. As such, Westwood's fashion may even have served as a conduit for dissatisfaction with the domineering style of the 'Iron Lady.'

This item, like so much at this exhibition, cleverly references the past. For Westwood, this is where true creativity lies.

"You have to discover the originality of things that exist in the past," she advises aspiring designers. "I'm constantly reinventing by way of cutting."

This is clearly a piece of advice she has followed herself. Dresses on display are decorated with paintings by the French rococo painter Francois Boucher and even baroque furniture designs, while others, like the rustling silk taffeta Winterhalter evening dresses from her Café Society collection (1994) are inspired by portraits by Van Dyck.

"I've sometimes taken things more or less direct from history because I don't believe in progress, and these things look just as modern today as they did then."

This explains her obsession with that most timeless yet traditional of materials – tartan – a material she loves because it not only goes well with so many other fabrics but also because it evokes the heroic.

It's possible to dismiss her overall career trajectory as the familiar tale of early rebelliousness followed by increasing conservativeness, conformity, and crustiness, but her traditionalism has an extreme and radical tinge, as I find out when I speak to her on her own.

"The 20th century was a mistake," she boldly states. "It's the age of the iconoclast, when people wanted to say that everything from the past was no good and everything from the future would be wonderful. I don't agree with that at all. I think there were no ideas in the 20th century. The only ones were the things that were left from the century before."

Not only is she critical of the 20th century's supposed lack of message, but also the superfluity of the media that now carries this non-message, especially the growing power of the internet and computer games.

"Kofi Annan just said the aim of the United Nations is to give every child in the World a laptop," she says incredulously. "Presumably that means that somehow they can get educated, but to me it's taking away education. It's more of a distraction, honestly. Every time you press buttons you're not thinking. By the time you've played one of those games a child has no imagination. Imagination is the most important part of intelligence."

But what are we to do in a World in which we are constantly subjected to sensory overload and constant distraction? After all, isn't the fast-changing world of fashion just part of this?

"You might say that going to the theater is a distraction. You might say that eating a meal is part of that distraction. All I'm saying is don't only eat at McDonalds. Be discriminating and don't consume just for the sake of consuming."

Apparently, in the early 21st century, thinking for yourself and having taste are now the most revolutionary acts there are.

International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
16th December, 2005
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