Dame Vivienne Westwood, an unconventional fashion designer who helped popularize the British punk movement with her creations, has passed away.
Westwood, 81, died today (December 29) “in peace with her family in Clapham, South London”, according to a statement from her representatives.
Vivian Isabel Swire was born in Hollingworth, England on April 8, 1941. She began making jewelry after her family moved to Harrow, Middlesex and she enrolled at the University of Westminster’s School of Silversmithing.
After marrying Derek Westwood, an apprentice at a Hoover factory, she gave birth to Benjamin Westwood, her first child, in 1962. Vivienne married Malcolm McLaren shortly after the Westwoods’ divorce. Joseph Corré was the second son she had, born in 1967.
Westwood left his teaching job in 1971 to focus exclusively on fashion design, and McLaren contributed much of its style.
The couple initially opened a store that specialized in revival clothing.
But it wasn’t until they changed the name to SEX and filled it with rebellious clothing—characterized by torn T-shirts, plaid patterns, integrated rubber, mohair tops, and safety pins as embellishments—that it really took off.
It was a popular meeting place for important figures in the music scene at the time, including Sid Vicious, Suzie and Banshees guitarist Marco Pironi, and Pop.
Soon after, McLaren took over as the Sex Pistols’ manager. The band started wearing the couple’s designs, which contributed to the rise in popularity of British punk and forever linked the two in history.
“It changed the way people looked,” Westwood told The Independent of her early punk clothing.
“I was messianic about punk, seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way. I realized there was no subversion without ideas. It’s not enough to want to destroy everything.”
Westwood’s design focus changed from the punk scene to mocking upper-class ladies in the 1980s. However, it was when Westwood unveiled her official clothing line, Pirates, in 1981 that she realized she was a fashion designer.
From then, she began testing the limits of clothes as a depiction of women’s sexuality by introducing the “mini crini,” an adaptation of the Victorian crinoline as a mini skirt.
In the years that followed, Westwood would go on to develop costumes for Virgin Atlantic flight crews, academic gowns for King’s College in London, and digital mock-ups for video game characters like Lunafreya Nox Fleuret from Final Fantasy XV.
Although Westwood is best remembered for her role in creating the so-called “look” of British punk, she insisted that no one style could adequately capture one’s identity or worldview.
“If you invest in art, if you study yourself, you become a freedom fighter immediately because your life changes, you get off the consumer treadmill, and you start thinking,” she said in a 2011 interview with The Guardian.
“My thing as a fashion designer [is] I said buy less clothes. Keep wearing things that you’ve really chosen that you really love. That is status. It’s not that you have to keep consuming. A status symbol is a book.”
Westwood as an Activist
Westwood frequently used her platform as an activist throughout her career. She frequently spoke at environmental justice gatherings and was open about her support for Julian Assange, showing up at various public rallies.
She founded the Climate Revolution in 2012 as a campaign against climate change and global warming.
“Capitalism is as corrupt as a rotten apple,” Westwood said in a Climate Revolution manifesto writing. “It’s the economy, stupid! U accept because u think there’s no alternative. But we have hope (war is fought four lands + cheap labor). Change the economy – NO MAN’S LAND.”
The late fashion designer and her two sons, Ben Westwood and Joe Corré, were interviewed for the Wake Up Punk documentary, which Westwood debuted earlier this year. The interviews focused on the shape-shifting genre of punk.
Corré organized Burn Punk London in 2016, where he destroyed his priceless collection of punk artifacts, much of which had been given to him by his parents.
Many musicians have paid tribute to the late fashion designer since word of his passing spread, including the Blessed Madonna, Yoko Ono, Massive Attack, the Avalanches, Leon Vynehall, Garbage, Rachel Goswell of Slowdive, and Maggie Rogers.
Before the Limelight
Gordon Swire and Dora Swire (née Ball), who had wed two years earlier, two weeks after the start of the Second World War, were the parents of Westwood.
Her father had been a greengrocer before becoming a storekeeper in an aircraft plant at the time of Vivienne’s birth.
After taking a job in a factory and enrolling in a teacher-training college, she became a primary school teacher. During this time, she created all of the jewelry she sold out of a stall on Portobello Road.
Westwood’s creations were unique and reflected her own personal attitude. She occasionally collaborated with Gary Ness, who gave Westwood concepts and titles for her collections.
Richard Branson and Westwood collaborated extensively to create the clothes for the Virgin Atlantic crew. The female crew members wore red suits with deliberately placed darts around the bust area to draw attention to their curves and hips.
The guys wore a three-piece suit in burgundy and gray with accents on the lapels and pockets. Westwood and Branson employed recycled polyester because they were both concerned about using sustainable materials in their designs to lessen their negative environmental effects.