Vivienne Westwood has a request. Before we start our conversation, she wants to get on her soapbox about climate change, the issue that consumes as many of her waking thoughts as the fashion career that has brought her notoriety, adulation, and the title of Dame of the British Empire. Climate change is, Westwood says, her mantra. And she insists it’s the only reason she does interviews. She won’t brook any interruptions; she simply wants me to sit and listen while she chants. In a world somewhat more ideal than this one, she would like to see the streets crowded with people compelling their governments to urgent action on the subject of climate change, which she attributes to the failures of the global financial system. And this has to happen now, before it’s too late.
One of Westwood’s favorite books is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, so one could see where she might be riding that apocalyptic train of thought if she were a pessimistic sort. Except that she’s not. At 71, Westwood is as fired up now by anarchic idealism as she was when she and Malcolm McLaren first stormed the battlements of the status quo over four decades ago. “Me and Malcolm, we hated the older generation,” Westwood says. Then she grew old herself, had her moment of despair at what she saw as the passivity of youth, realized the error of her ways, and finally swung back to fervent faith in the idealism of the young, helped, no doubt, by her marriage in 1992 to Austrian-born Andreas Kronthaler, 25 years her junior. Kronthaler is very much part of her design team—her Fall collection ran a gamut from body-shaping 17th-century silhouettes in silk to opinion-shaping 21st-century statements on tees.
Now she perches almost shamanlike on a swivel chair in her surprisingly ordered Battersea studio, delivering her mantra in her quietly determined little voice, weaving in education, imagination, activism, anarchy, and art. It’s easy to imagine Westwood doing the same thing in the tiny store at the end of King’s Road all those years ago—a store which, in its various incarnations (Let it Rock; Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die; Sex; Seditionaries; and Worlds End), galvanized generations and fomented fashion revolutions. And when the mantra finishes, the story begins.
TIM BLANKS: I’ve always loved the way you use aesthetics as a weapon—or at least as a power for good—like you’re a medium between high culture and the ordinary world. My latest favorite example is the nude portraits you did with Juergen Teller. I know you shot those in 2009, but I only saw them at his show in February. They reminded me of Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD: No, she’s got her back to you—a wonderful back, with beautiful pale limbs.
BLANKS: What’s the painting where the artist painted his subject both naked and clothed?
WESTWOOD: That’s Goya! I must have been thinking about nude paintings somehow because I had my hair loose. I don’t wear it that way normally because I think I’m too old to have my hair loose. It looks silly on a woman of my age to have long hair. Though it’s dyed red. If it was white, then I’d look like a witch. Anyway, Juergen was quite happy to do it like that.
BLANKS: Was it your idea or his?
WESTWOOD: Oh, no. I would never have dreamt of it. But I just have to trust him and let him do what he wants because I believe in him. If he says, “I want to take a picture of you nude,” I don’t think, “Well, I don’t really want a picture of myself nude and what’s all this about?” I just think, “Okay, good, yeah, okay, sure you can.” [laughs]
BLANKS: I assumed the painterly element must have been from you.
WESTWOOD: Juergen just said, “Go on, sit on the sofa.” I must have sat on the sofa to get undressed and he must have thought it was okay. But the one thing I did was something with my hair. You know, a nude is never naked. You’ve always got a beautiful hairstyle, a beauty mark, or a ring, or whatever it is. You’ve always got to be “dressed” in some way. I said, “I want to do my hair.” And his wife, Sadie [Coles, the art dealer], and his little boy were there with him as well, so it was all quite okay. [laughs]
BLANKS: Are you vain?
WESTWOOD: [pauses] I might be . . . I’ll tell you what, I’m not competitive with other women at all. Maybe you are when you’re younger, but if I go into a room and see Pamela Anderson looking incredible, I’m going to be delighted, and I don’t have to be the center of attraction. I often am because I’m the kind of person that goes for it, but I’m ever so happy if somebody else is, or that they’ve done something marvelous. I’ll tell you one thing— maybe you can call this vain or not—but I look in the mirror in the morning, I put my makeup on, and I think about how old I’m getting, and then I forget about it and that’s that. I’m just quite happy and satisfied with myself. Actually, I think I look my best. And then I don’t even think about putting makeup on for the rest of the day. There’s a girl here who wears lipstick a lot, and if the telephone rings and it’s her boyfriend, she puts her lipstick on as she’s talking. I think that’s brilliant. [laughs] And Jerry Hall sprayed herself with perfume to go on the catwalk. I mean, it’s not a fame thing. As a young person, I thought I was quite good-looking at a certain point. I had rather stick-out teeth and things like that, but I thought, “When I grow up a bit, I’ll be quite nice-looking. And I can make myself look really good.” So I always used to do my own hair, and take time with everything.
BLANKS: I used to come down to Sex to stare at you in 1974 like a crazed teen stalker. I was mesmerized. When you had really white hair, you looked like some incredible hybrid. So did all the women who worked at Sex and Seditionaries: Jordan, Tracie, Debbie . . .
WESTWOOD: Andy Warhol always confused me with Jordan. When he went to meet me, he was expecting Jordan. [laughs] And he was always terribly disappointed. Well, not always. Twice.
BLANKS: Were you conscious of drawing those people to you, of being the warrior queen of a new tribe?
WESTWOOD: No, but I was very aggressive about punk in those days. It was like a you’re-with-me-or-against-me kind of thing. It was like, “The world’s so dreadful and anybody who isn’t fighting this must be . . . I don’t know . . . sour.” But then, as you know, I can chat away to people once I’m happy with the fact that they’ve kind of got their heart in the right place.
BLANKS: When I think of the first shows I saw of yours in Paris in the ’80s, they were such a ferociously high-cultural contrast to everything that you had done before, and they made me wonder if you actually liked the sound of the Sex Pistols, the electric guitar and all that racket.
WESTWOOD: Yes! Yes! I always compared Steve Jones to Charlie Parker. He had a different instrument, didn’t he? But I think Steve was a brilliant guitarist, absolutely brilliant. And whatever I think of Johnny Rotten trying to carry on being Johnny Rotten for so long . . . At the time, I thought he was great. And he meant it, he definitely did. And then maybe he realized that it was too much for everybody. I have no idea.
BLANKS: But he’s an object lesson in the way a persona becomes an armor, and you can have a perfectly happy private life behind the persona you present to the world. Do you feel you do that?
WESTWOOD: I really don’t care about that. I wouldn’t have admitted it too long ago because it sounds like you’re a goody-goody—and I don’t want to be a goody-goody—but I think it’s very sane to have as a motive for everything you do to make the world a better place. And of course there’s the self-indulgence of wanting to discover things for the sake of understanding things. I think if you understand things, you can do very good things. I need to know things and it’s what I care about. That’s who I am. Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. My continuity through all the different lives I’ve led—because everybody does change, your outlook is so different all the time. I mean, who would have thought about climate change in the ’50s? My continuity in all these outlooks is my progress in understanding things.
BLANKS: Would you also agree that the thread that ties together all your lives is that you’re a contrarian?
WESTWOOD: Andreas calls me the queen of awkwardness. It’s probably true that I have a sort of reaction against doing the same thing over again, and if someone assumes something, well, then, you know . . . This girl Jane Mulvagh wrote a book about me, which is total rubbish. When she came to me, I didn’t want to do the book because I don’t like people who get on your back and want to be more important than you, and that’s what she’s like. She said, “You’ll have to talk to me,” and I thought, “Yeah, right, I never will.” And, of course, it would have been a much better book if I had, and it’s all a lot of rubbish that I didn’t.
BLANKS: Do you think it’s true that wisdom comes with age?
WESTWOOD: Yes, it does. It’s what you—I keep using this word—invest. The way you think about and understand your experiences. You can change your mind quite radically, of course but I expect the older you get, the less you change your mind, because your way of seeing things is more solid. Solid in a good sense, meaning that everything keeps connecting, and when you make a point, it’s got the basis of all that experience.
BLANKS: Do you think you get freer as you get older? Women especially. A woman of a certain age once suggested to me that the passage of time liberates women from the worldly concerns that dog them through their youth and middle age.
WESTWOOD: I think you’re probably right. I probably fulfilled the idea of a woman’s role more when I was younger than I do now. People talk about having mid-life crises. Mine was at the age of 30. After that, I didn’t care that I was no longer this nubile sex-object person . . .
BLANKS: Were you before?
WESTWOOD: I was. I used to get a lot of attention. [laughs] Of course I did. I looked brilliant. But I remember seeing Brigitte Bardot in a film and thinking, Oh, I’ll never look as good as that!
BLANKS: How conscious are you of your place in the history of fashion? One of the six most influential designers, said John Fairchild in 1989.
WESTWOOD: See that book on Halston on the table? Andreas bought it in a secondhand shop. I’ve never looked at his work, and I was just looking at it now. His stuff is very ’70s, and maybe if he hadn’t lived, you wouldn’t have had the clear ’70s look that influenced other people. So I do think that my fashion is qualified by the age in which I live. It’s all very eclectic, and I can tell you how it got to be that way. In the ’70s, when Malcolm and I opened that shop [Let it Rock], he was very fed up with hippies, and he was looking at ’50s rock ’n’ roll. He never was a hippie, anyway, because he hated authority, and as a young person he wouldn’t have liked all the people dressing in a certain fashion. But it was the beginning of an age of nostalgia—the ’30s, Saint Laurent’s ’40s collection—and the way I analyzed it in hindsight is that we wanted to be rebels, and therefore we went back to the ’50s, our own lifetime’s culture, because we thought that was rebelling against the adult world. I knew the Teddy Boys the first time around. Anyway, people didn’t like it; they were still into this hippie, ’70s feeling at the time. But that was the beginning of the age of nostalgia. And so now they’ve been through everything, and there’s nothing really left to invent, and it’s just become very, very eclectic.
BLANKS: I can’t work out if you’re saying you were reacting against nostalgia or embracing it. I mean, your eclecticism was so radically influential . . .
WESTWOOD: Oh, I think I’ve had an incredible influence, for the worst, a lot of the time, because people think they don’t have to put hems on anything. Which they don’t necessarily. But on the wrong fabric, a bit of torn hem looks horrible. But the way people cut things is very influenced by me. I’m not sure what I think about current fashion, though. A few years ago, I would have said it’s really, really bad and you hardly ever see anybody looking good. There must be some very good designers in the world. And Saint Laurent and Balenciaga must have influenced people a lot. But I don’t always follow everything everybody does ’cause I don’t really ever look at fashion magazines unless there might be something of mine in it and somebody says, “Have a look.”
BLANKS: I’ve always thought you and Rei Kawakubo shared a special kinship.
WESTWOOD: I think she’s a very, very brilliant designer. That’s the first thing to say. I know Rei’s more convinced by modern art than I am. But that doesn’t mean to say I’m not influenced by it. You are influenced by everything that happens. I think she’s extreme sometimes. She might have a great big padded hipbone or a hunchback or something . . .
BLANKS: But you’ve both reshaped the fashion silhouette with a sense of absolutely no rules.
WESTWOOD: I don’t know. I mean, I have just kept adding different things all the time. Did I change the silhouette? I changed the silhouette back from the big shoulder to the small shoulder later on in my career, especially working with Andreas, because he has been, for the last 20 years or more, designing as much as I am. I don’t know if everybody knows that. But he’s really responsible. In fact, most of the time, I kind of act like his assistant. He’s the boss. He cares so much about it. I mean, it hurts him if something isn’t sewn properly. It’s an extreme aesthetic aesthetic appreciation of beauty and the human potential in clothes.
BLANKS: Is that the first time in your life you’ve worked with somebody in that way?
WESTWOOD: I’ve learned an awful lot from Andreas. And I think he’s really profited from working with me. I gave him an anchor. The power of this man was something he couldn’t control himself.
BLANKS: It’s funny to think of you providing the discipline in somebody’s life.
WESTWOOD: Oh, I’ve got a really strong special intelligence. I’m the one who does the cutting principles. Andreas is the one who can get the really wonderful fits, and he thinks of principles, but mine are more based on the idea of geometry: You cut a slit and you open it up. His are more, “I want this effect, and how do I get this effect?” I can get the cloth to work with the body one way, and he works in another way. One of the best things he did was that he decided our tailoring should be what we call the alcoholic jacket, or sometimes the drunken tailor dress. He said, “I want it to look like it was made by a drunken tailor.” And it does, and it’s really dynamic because it’s like you’re in motion before you even move. It’s brilliant.
BLANKS: Are you melancholic at all?
WESTWOOD: No. I’m so much happier now than I was a few years ago because my job has given me the opportunity to speak about things I think are really important. I feel that everything is coming together and fused so that my fashion helps what I want to say, and what I say actually helps the fashion. If I’ve got a worry, it’s that I’m not communicating well enough with people because I’m so cognizant of the urgent need to try to get them to do something about climate change. But I feel I’m doing my best, and I think that’s always been my worry. There are thousands of NGOs, charities, and individuals doing amazing things, and lately I’ve been talking to people who give me such hope and encouragement. I do believe in the Gaia principle, that the Earth combines with its biosphere, with its life forces, to return it to health. I think we’ve still got such potential to make the world amazing.
BLANKS: That’s why I asked you about melancholy—because you won’t know how the world turns out. I mean, that’s how I feel.
WESTWOOD: I do too. I would like to be the last person on Earth. I’d like to know how it works out.
BLANKS: Something that goes with melancholy is the romance in your work. The romantic ideal is one of those unrealizable human ideals. It exists to be thwarted. At Seditionaries, the label read “Clothes for Heroes.” I always thought that suggested a solitary soul, romantic, doomed . . .
WESTWOOD: Are you talking about romantic with a capital R, like the Romantic movement of the 1830s—the suffering, consumptive beauty? I don’t know, maybe it’s that sort of nostalgia somehow; some sort of longing for the past or longing for a world that doesn’t exist. I always design for a parallel universe; a world that doesn’t exist. You know, one that’s like this but better. To me, a hero is somebody who’s prepared to stick their neck out, to step out and walk tall, and to live life. That’s how I see a hero. And I think clothes kind of enhance your experience of life.
BLANKS: Do you think in the end this contrary path you’ve taken has been . . . not really co-opted, but absorbed by the mainstream? I mean, you’ve been honored as a dame by the society that you used to scorn.
WESTWOOD: I know. I’m very popular—I realize that. At the end of punk rock, I realized that it was really just a marketing opportunity for people to do more product, but it was also a marketing opportunity for the idea of the free society. You know, “We’ve got rebels as well, so we’re free.” That kind of thing. And I thought, “No, that’s not enough. We have to go much further, and ideas are what count.” Forget the establishment. I’m not attacking the establishment. Of course, you do, politically—I still do—but I’m not interested in being against anything. I’m interested in discovering things really . . . But have I been co-opted?
BLANKS: No, I’m saying you haven’t been. I’m saying you got this very traditional honor without compromise or being co-opted, which is a very curious achievement.
WESTWOOD: Yeah, it might be.
BLANKS: I imagine you having moments where you’re chuckling away about being Dame Vivienne Westwood.
WESTWOOD: No, it never crosses my mind to think, “Oh, how strange. I’m a dame.” It never does. Of course, when they ask you to be these things, you just . . . [laughs] I don’t know . . . You’ll have to find the words for it. I can’t—it’s mad. But anyway, you go ahead and do it. It’s the same sort of attitude that Socrates had when he took the poison, really, but it’s a nice thing. You don’t have to take the poison; you do something nice instead. If that’s somehow what society is asking me, then I accept that kind of thing. Then I am honored by the fact that I’m being offered this and I accept what society is. Of course, people do sometimes give some money to the Tory Party or the Labour Party, and then it’s exposed that they were made a lord for doing nothing other than bribing the party. And, of course, you’re together with people like Thatcher, who you have a very poor opinion of.
BLANKS: But that title has made you into a symbol—I mean, the road from Let it Rock to here . . .
WESTWOOD: I’m so busy, and sometimes I think about somebody like Leonard Peltier [Native American activist sentenced to life in jail in 1977 for the murder of two FBI agents], stuck in jail for more than 30 years, trying to be busy, sending letters to people, keeping his spirits up with all kinds of different things. And I do realize that if I’d just stayed up in the north of England, if my parents hadn’t moved to the south of England, I could have been a schoolteacher. I do sometimes think it’d be really nice to live an ordinary life, to read books and see friends, because I don’t have much time for that. Other people probably have quite a lot of time to do those things, so I’m aware that I do lead this different life that not everybody leads. I also realize how easy it would have been not to lead this life. But I’ve always gravitated to situations where I’m going to learn. I don’t know what it would have meant if I’d stayed a schoolteacher up north. I’m sure I would have been headmistress at least . . . [laughs] Or I would have been working with the students or the teachers’ union or something. Or I would have written a book or done something about education.
BLANKS: Who has been the most important person in your life?
WESTWOOD: It has to be Gary [Ness, editor and artist], my friend. As I told you, I judge myself by what I think, and he was one of the cleverest people on the planet. He really did direct my reading and my love of art. He got me to really start looking at stuff. Brilliant stuff, not just the latest thing. Of course, Malcolm influenced me, but Malcolm was all about the latest thing. At the time, that appealed to me. I did not like the traditional, high, fine art, because I’d been brought up a Protestant in the country. I went into the National Gallery and I ran out terrified because it reminded me of a Catholic church and I didn’t want to go back there. When I did go back, I started to look at it with Gary. My god, then I started to get all kinds of ideas. I needed Malcolm in the beginning because I needed to know more about politics and what was going on in the world, and about art. But then I got tired of him intellectually because Malcolm didn’t push; he just wanted superficial success. He didn’t care about going into any depth about anything. So he stopped being interesting for that reason. You know, people have got so much experience, and so many clever things they know, but if they don’t carry on trying to find things out rather than just pick things up . . . You need to go further, and he never did.
BLANKS: One last thing: What would you like your legacy to be?
WESTWOOD: I would hope to live long enough to see that people are confronting the problem of climate change, because if they do, then I think they’ll manage to stop it.
BLANKS: So that would be more significant to you than all your years of changing the way people think about clothing?
WESTWOOD: Yeah, I don’t care about any of that. I have no expectations. I don’t expect anything from anybody. I think that we know so little. The world has forgotten far more than it knows. And so I have no idea what I think about whether there’s any afterlife. Up until now, I’m quite convinced that no such thing happens, and I’m perfectly content to rot. I would prefer not to have any monument whatsoever. Just disappear. Definitely, definitely, definitely.
By Tim Blanks
Photography Craig Mcdean
TIM BLANKS IS EDITOR AT LARGE FOR STYLE.COM AND A FREQUENT CONTRIBUTOR TO INTERVIEW.