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Vivienne Westwood: from punk to couture

Britain's legendary designer is the subject of a new Bangkok exhibit.
/ Source: The Associated Press

From a humble start, Vivienne Westwood rose to fame as the rebel designer who outfitted the Sex Pistols and then morphed into Britain’s dame of high fashion.

Her career and creativity are on display at a new exhibit in Bangkok that seeks to inspire artistically minded Thais by using Westwood’s life and work as an example.

Starting with street clothes in the 1970s and T-shirts stitched with chicken bones, the Vivienne Westwood retrospective walks through the designer’s fashions that initially outfitted Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten and are now worn by celebrities like Naomi Campbell and Gwen Stefani.

The exhibit at the new Thailand Creative and Design Center, which runs through Sept. 24, has appeared in six other European and Asian cities since its debut at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in April 2004.

The center’s chairman, Pansak Vinyaratn, said he hopes that Thais — many of whom come from poor families — will find inspiration in Westwood, who came from a working class family and was able to transfer her passion into design.

“Her mind is what we want to study,” said Pansak, who is also a top adviser to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. “We’re doing an education program. We’re not doing a fashion show.”

The exhibition opens with the story of Westwood’s modest beginnings — the daughter of a cotton weaver and shoemaker from Derbyshire, England, who dropped out of art college because, in her words, “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world.”

Her relationship with Sex Pistol’s manager Malcolm McLaren ushered Westwood to fashion fame; she was credited with creating the look of the punk rock movement.

‘Interested in rebellion’As a young designer, Westwood sold her early designs from the duo’s famed London shop, “Let It Rock,” which was later renamed “Sex,” among other incarnations. One black T-shirt was emblazoned with “ROCK,” written in boiled chicken bones from a local takeout joint. Others were trimmed with horsehair, zippers, metal studs and pornographic images.

“We were interested in rebellion,” Westwood says in the exhibit’s catalog.

Adam Ant once described the “Sex” boutique, which catered to prostitutes, fetishists and punk rockers, as “one of the all-time greatest shops in history.”

“Until the Sex Pistols and punk rock I’d never thought of myself as a designer,” Westwood said in a 1986 interview quoted by the exhibition. “I just thought of myself as helping Malcolm out on his projects.”

In the 1980s, Westwood experimented with fashion. Influenced by historical costume patterns, she presented her “Pirates” collection in 1981, a modern take on the loose, cropped trousers and billowing shirts of seafarers. The idea behind Pirates — applying historical designs to high-end fashion — became Westwood’s design trademark.

For research, Westwood spent hours at London libraries and museums studying art and designs from the past.

Victorian crinolines inspired bulbous miniskirts with plastic boning. Westwood’s corsets come embellished with Swarovski crystals and printed with images from 18th-century French painter Francois Boucher.

She drew inspiration from traditional British clothing — tweeds and tartans — and Native American patterns, Rastafarian and African designs, based on images from National Geographic. She also printed her fabrics with images by American pop artist Keith Haring and from Ridley Scott’s film, “Blade Runner.”

The design center, which opened in November inside Bangkok’s Emporium shopping center, includes a library of 15,000 art and design books — resources not widely available in other Bangkok libraries.

Among the exhibit’s 150 outfits are glamorous silk taffeta evening gowns and a teetering pair of 10-inch electric blue platforms worn by Naomi Campbell, who famously fell while modeling them on the catwalk.