This month I’ve been reading Vivienne Westwood’s official biography, written in collaboration with Ian Kelly. My perceptive off-spring Katie bought me the hardback version at Christmas but it’s taken me until now to read it, largely because it’s a very weighty tome and not easy to tote on a journey if you’ve got to carry it! Anyway I got around to it and I’m very glad I did.
It reads very much as conversations between the writer and the designer herself, as well as her family, friends, colleagues and collaborators. I liked this approach because it gives it a lightness of touch that makes it a good read, it is candid, humorous and insightful but certainly not a boring ‘puff job’ like so many.
Vivienne Westwood is someone who has been in my field of vision all of my adult life. Punk came to prominence during my teenage years (I’ll be honest-I hated it, couldn’t see the point-how wrong I was) and from then on she’s rarely been out of the headlines.
Unlike many autobiographies which wallow in the misery of it’s subject’s early years Vivienne’s life sounds a very happy and solid family in Glossop, Derbyshire where she was born in April, 1941.She tells of being virtually unaware of the privations of the war itself because her mother did such a good job of eking out resources during rationing although she was more aware of it in the period afterwards. Interestingly the Westwood Company mantra is “buy less, buy well and make it last” and has been for many years.
The affection with which she speaks about her parents in particular is very touching, she adored them and it jumps out of the page. They were a sociable family (she has a younger brother and sister too) always busy with something whether it be visiting relatives, walking and appreciating nature, laughing and joking together as well as working hard-Vivienne has always been a voracious reader which goes partway to explain her wide-ranging interests.
Eventually the family moved to London in 1958 as Vivienne turned 17 to run a Post Office in Harrow, because Mr and Mrs Swire believed that their children would have greater opportunities in life if they left Derbyshire.
Vivienne briefly attended Harrow art school but only lasted one term as she realised it wasn’t for her. One of the more surprising facts about Vivienne that I hadn’t known before was that she then went to teacher-training college and became a primary school teacher-something she did on and off for a number of years.
Of course the punk era is the one that first brought her into the public eye, for good or ill! She had been married and separated from Derek Westwood with a small son, Ben, when she met Malcolm McClaren, who was a friend of her brother Gordon.
Short of rewriting the book myself I’ll just give a brief outline of this period-what makes the book fascinating is the insight it gives to the why’s and wherefore’s of the whole tumultuous genesis of the punk movement. What does become apparent is the dysfunctional unpleasantness of Malcolm McClaren and his inability to have normal relationships, working or otherwise, with anyone including Vivienne. In spite of this she still speaks about him with respect and no rancour or recriminations but, speaking frankly, I didn’t like him at all from this portrait. I don’t know why she put up with his unkindness and egotism for so long!
She more or less went into a relationship with him out of sympathy-not a great start-and then soon fell pregnant with their son Joe Corre (McClaren’s grandmother’s name) He, of course, formed the Sex Pistols to stir the establishment up so he was often absent and would then reappear and cause arguments. Something that is obvious from the book particularly in this period is Vivienne’s work ethic. She was constantly working to produce the garments that were sold in their first shop, Let it Rock, at 430 King’s Road which became a ‘destination shop’. She toiled long hours over a sewing machine (often whilst her mother Dora cared for the boys as McClaren was utterly useless as a father-at one time trying to encourage young Joe to call a pot plant ‘Dad’ instead of him) [Interestingly, her sons both speak of their own unconventional upbringing with huge affection, pride and admiration for their mother and all she’s achieved.] She was without knowing it the originator of slogan tee-shirts as we know them now-many of them are iconic and highly sort after, particularly original Sex Pistols ones. The shop became a focal point for the fledgling punk movement with often disenfranchised young people coming from far and wide. Vivienne later observed that the Police would often corral all punks that emerged from Sloane Square tube station and then escort them en-masse down the King’s Rd to the shop!
By 1981 Vivienne and McClaren had split up (they had never married) but their working partnership continued until 1983 and Vivienne’s designs started to move in new directions, firstly with the iconic Pirates collection then later on Buffalo Girls.
After this period Vivienne becomes more and more influenced by high art and culture-particularly historic costume. She has always surrounded herself with interesting and thought-provoking people from all aspects of the creative arts so her imagination is stimulated with all manner of ideas. We may not like or understand all of them, or find them wearable but there’s no denying their originality, and far reaching influence.
Her most sumptuous gowns, influenced primarily by the artist Watteau, come at the time and frankly it’s just an excuse for me to include pictures of some of my favourite dresses ever.
As the book moves into the more recent past we learn how Vivienne met her husband, and collaborator Andreas Kronthaler. It’s a touching love story, eventually, based on mutual respect, abilities, ideas and admiration. Whilst he is 25 years her junior it is a marriage of equals.
The retrospective held at the V&A in 2004 is the largest held in this country devoted to a living designer. The setting up was slightly marred by McClaren’s insistence on being credited for designs that he claimed were his. The truth is somewhere in the middle because there is no doubt he had many ideas but Vivienne is the one who brought them to fruition.
In 2006 Vivienne was created a Dame in the New Year’s Honours list-quite a controversial appointment but when looking at the influence and impact her career has had, and continues to have, in my opinion it was very well deserved.
These days Vivienne’s greatest concerns, beyond her thriving business, is how she can help bring about better protection of the planet and it’s resources with her Climate Revolution campaign as well as what she believes are miscarriages of justice. She has friends and influence in high places and she never wastes an opportunity to publicise and promote her causes. She will often accept invitations purely to use them as a platform for these causes-not necessarily what the host had bargained for!
I love that at the age of 74 she still has the confidence and chutzpah to wear her own designs, to put her money where her mouth is for her concerns-she doesn’t give a stuff about public opinion so long as she’s provoking some sort of action or reaction. She believes she’s acting for the good of everyone [she’s been a vegan for decades] and almost single-handedly rescued the woollen tweed industry on the Isle of Harris with her beautiful tailored collections in the fabric in the 1987 collection, an ongoing relationship.
So there you have it, I hope that even if you’re not bothered about reading the book you’ve enjoyed my resume of it and that you might regard Vivienne Westwood a little differently and with new insight. She can be abrasive and straight-talking but she’s never dull. From unexpected beginnings she has created a massive and far-reaching business encompassing not only clothes but accessories, perfume and wedding gowns, as well as licensed products in Japan and Asia (because import taxes are so high to those places that it makes better business sense to manufacture under licence there)
The book is published by Picador and is now out in paperback so that you don’t have the same problem I did, it’s available for Kindle etc too, try http://amazon.co.uk http://whsmith.co.uk/books http://waterstones.co.uk/books (none of them are endorsed by me I hasten to add but I thought links might be useful) http://viviennewestwood.com
I’d love to hear your comments, especially if you’ve read the book yourself.