Vivienne Westwood

Designer Spotlight- Vivienne Westwood

Part 1- Her Beginnings & The Punk Years with Malcolm McLaren 

Vivienne Westwood punk

Dame Vivienne is an English fashion designer perhaps best known for being one of the most influential figures in punk culture/ style and bringing ‘new wave’ fashion to the mainstream in the 70s.

She was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in 1941. She initially studied jewellery and silversmithing but left school believing that a middle-class woman couldn’t possibly make a living in the art world. She became a primary school teacher and sold jewellery at a stall on Portobello road.

She married Derek Westwood in 1962 and made her own wedding dress. However, the marriage didn’t work out and she ended up in a relationship with artist Malcolm McLaren. She continued to teach while also making clothing which Malcolm designed. 

Their first shop was called Let It Rock and sold deadstock 50s clothing and versions of Teddy Boy fashion. Their clothes ended up in the Rocky Horror Show.

Let it Rock turned into ‘Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die’ in 1973. They sold leather jackets, heavily distressed shirts with inflammatory words like ‘PERV’ emblazoned across the chest.

McLaren began managing the New York Dolls and styled them for their concerts, putting them in red soviet-like uniforms. 

They employed Glen Mattlock, future bassist of the Sex Pistols, and changed the shop name to SEX in 1974. It was now geared toward fetish wear. Pamela Rooke “Jordan” became the shop manager and worked in the store, clad in full bondage. She became one of the icon’s of the London punk scene. 

The New York Dolls broke up and McLaren returned to Britain in 1975.

Johnny Rotten started to hang out at the store. The Sex Pistols officially formed in 1975 with McLaren as their manager.  

In 1976, the shop was renamed ‘Seditionaries: Clothes for Heroes’ and ‘God Save the Queen’ was released in 1977. Punk had officially arrived. 

The band members wore Malcolm and Vivienne’s clothing and they soon gained widespread attention as the architects of the official punk look. 

The shop became a hub for the London punk scene. Key looks included bondage trousers that featured a zipper under the crotch, a bum flap and hobble straps. Additionally, the distressed look was born with loose-woven, 'unravelling' mohair jumpers and torn-looking dresses and tops decorated with metal chains and safety pins.

Their clothing was known for challenging graphics screen-printed onto distressed shirts such as swastikas, the queen with a safety pin through her lips, bare breasts and pornographic cowboys.

This was the de-facto uniform for a disenfranchised generation of British youth.

After the Sex Pistols broke up in 1978 and punk was swallowed into the mainstream, Westwood was feeling disillusioned. She began to look for different, more subtle ways of subverting the establishment and started to draw from various historical periods. The shop was again renamed in 1979, to World’s End.

McLaren and Westwood broke up in 1980 but continued to work together. Their first fashion collection to be shown to the media and to potential international buyers was Pirate in 1981. The collection was named for its "plundering of ideas and colours from other places and periods”. The New Romantic look was partly inspired by this collection.

The 1982 Buffalo Girls collection was the first to introduce underwear as outerwear with 1950s-style satin bras worn over dresses. 

The pair produced collections throughout the early 80s with thematic titles such as Savages, Punkature, Witches and World’s End. Their toxic business partnership dissolved in 1983. Since then, Vivienne has forged a rebel aesthetic that is truly her own.

Part 2- The New Romantic and Pagan Years; Commercial Success

Vivienne Westwood Margaret Thatcher

Westwood dubbed the period 1981–87 "New Romantic" and 1988–92 as "The Pagan Years" during which her “heroes changed from punks and ragamuffins to 'Tatler' girls wearing clothes that parodied the upper class". 

In 1984, the King’s road shop closes and she relocates to Italy.

In 1985, Westwood designed the mini-crini, an abbreviated version of the Victorian crinoline. Its mini-length, bouffant silhouette inspired the puffball skirts widely presented by more established designers such as Christian Lacroix.

The Harris tweed collection of 1987 introduced corsets as outerwear. 

In April 1989, Westwood appeared on the cover of Tatler dressed as then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The suit that Westwood wore had been ordered for Thatcher but had not yet been delivered. The cover, which bore the caption "This woman was once a punk", was included in The Guardian's list of the best ever UK magazine covers.

She won womenswear designer of the year in both 1990 and 1991.

She married her next husband Andreas Kronthaler in 1992 and was awarded an OBE the same year, which was advanced to a DBE in 2006.

Part 3- Mainstream Fashion & Legacy 

Vivienne Westwood 1990s

For the remainder of the 90s, she mixed teaching, commercial relationships and her couture collections. She focused on the exchange of styles across the English Channel, combining English tailoring with French “solidity of design”. Memorable collections include the clan tartans of 1993’s Anglomania and the cushion bustles of 1994’s cafe society. 

Westwood's designs were featured in the 2008 film adaptation of the television series Sex and the City in which Carrie Bradshaw chooses a Westwood gown for her wedding. 

In 2012, Westwood was among the British Cultural icons selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork – the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover – to celebrate the British cultural figures of his life that he most admires.

Also that year, she was chosen as one of the New Elizabethans to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. A panel of seven academics, journalists and historians named Westwood among a group of 60 people in the UK "whose actions during the reign of Elizabeth II have had a significant impact on lives in these islands and given the age its character”.

Vivienne has been a political activist since the 80s and frequently supports environmental initiatives. To celebrate her 80th birthday last year, she presented a video in Piccadilly Circus, London. In the ten-minute film created with her brother, the punk icon performed a rewritten rendition of "Without You" from My Fair Lady to offer a stark warning of societal indifference to the looming environmental catastrophes, a cry against the arms trade, and its link to climate change.

The World’s End shop at King’s Road was reopened and acts as a working museum, selling both mainline Westwood and archival pieces from the Seditionaries hey-day.

Hulu’s mini-series Pistol was released earlier this year, with Talulah Riley portraying Westwood. 

*Edit: Vivienne passed away on December 29th 2022 at the age of 81. May she Rest In Peace in the knowledge that her imprint on fashion will ever endure. 

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.