Vivienne Westwood didn’t just create British fashion, she was British fashion

Without Vivienne Westwood, there would be no British fashion. Such is the legacy of the designer, who died Thursday at age 81. In a career that spanned more than half a century, Westwood was the patron saint of British fashion’s innate weirdness, the guardian of its momentum, its nonconformity, its punk. Without Westwood, there would be no Alexander McQueen, no Charles Jeffrey. London Fashion Week would not enjoy its fun status on the international scene. Westwood’s death is the loss of British fashion.

Westwood was born in rural Derbyshire to greengrocer parents and moved with her family to Harrow in 1958 before taking a jewelery course. She was working class – with pride – and supported herself throughout her studies with jobs as a factory technician and schoolteacher. It wasn’t until Westwood ran his own stand in Portobello Road in North West London – then a hotbed of counterculture and music – that his own aesthetic emerged. She did fashion and accessories outside of the fashion and accessories world: her work was subversive and, for a socially conservative UK, alien.

Westwood’s marriage to impresario Malcolm McLaren, her second in command, helped bring her designs to the world stage. McLaren would eventually lead the Sex Pistols, and these raucous, spitting godfathers of punk were ready-made models for Westwood’s anarchic attire. Tartan? Safety pins? Freddy Krueger in kindergarten knitting? It was all Westwood.

His Chelsea boutique, SEX, became holy ground for the punk rock movement. Inside, the bastardization of typical British style – tailoring, evening dress and casual dress – was a refreshing point of difference for continental designers.


Before long, SEX was wearing fashion collections to speak of, and Westwood was showing off her unique avant-garde strain in London and Paris. Her crinolines, cut-outs and flowing bare flesh had inspired punks; soon he also influenced the New Romantics. The kids in the club had their own designer, and they didn’t mind a few spilled drinks on the yards of dismantled fabric. Arguably his most famous collection came in 1981. Nicknamed “Pirate”, it included the perforated Napoleonic hats, Marie Antoinette sleeves and Dick Turpin ruffles that became Adam’s uniform and the Ants and Bow Wow wow. This kind of dogtooth camp never stopped.

Even in her later years, Westwood was drawn to — perhaps even fueled by — controversy. Its political ideology was a tartan fabric in its own right. In 2005, she produced a series of slogan t-shirts supporting British civil rights group Liberty which read, “I’m not a terrorist.” Two years later, Westwood announced that she had shifted her support from Labour, the historic workers’ party, to the Conservatives in light of war crimes in Iraq. Later Green Party, Jeremy Corbyn and Julian Assange became stumps. Above all, Westwood wanted what she believed was best for the planet, whether politically or ecologically. “I know how to save the world from climate change,” she told British GQ in 2021. “I’m the only person with a plan.” Her focus on sustainability was a perfect fit for a designer who loved the natural world. Collections became strictly gender-specific (that’s always how they felt, anyway), and fabrics were recycled or organic.

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