Vivienne Westwood, famous for dressing the Sex Pistols and creating the 1970s punk look, isn’t interested in keeping up with the times.
“I prefer to go faster than that,” she says. “If you keep up with the times, there’s nothing to see. You are always at a point where you just missed everything.”
An exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, which runs through July, shows Westwood’s penchant for always staying one step ahead of the pack, from her early forays into fashion as one-half of a design duo with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, through her first catwalk show — the romantic Pirate Collection in the early 1980s — to her recent revival of tartan and extravagant evening gowns.
“Highly influential and always ahead of her time, Vivienne Westwood encapsulates a particular kind of Britishness, combining fearless nonconformity with a sense of tradition,” Claire Wilcox, curator of the show, said.
The collection amassed by the museum features more than 150 designs from Westwood’s 30-year career, including a torn Union Jack T-shirt worn by Sex Pistols front man Johnny Rotten and the mock-croc platform shoes that toppled Naomi Campbell at a catwalk show in 1993.
Standing amid her designs, Westwood, 62, says she was surprised at the extent of her back catalog.
“I’d almost forgotten about them,” she says. “Every time I have adjusted a collar or fixed a hat, I’ve fallen in love with all these things again. It gives me a lot of prestige to see something that has influenced incredibly the way people look.”
Born in Glossopdale, northern England, as Vivienne Swire, she showed an early interest in fashion, customizing her school uniform to emulate the fashionable pencil skirt and making sleeveless shifts with a single seam and darts from exactly one yard of fabric.
But it wasn’t until after her first marriage, to Derek Westwood, and a fateful meeting with McLaren that she began to take fashion seriously.
A profitable partnershipHer partnership with McLaren, both privately and professionally, led to the opening of her first shop — Let It Rock — on London’s fashionable King’s Road in 1971. The shop became the birthplace of punk when the duo gave it a makeover and renamed it Seditionaries — Clothes for Heroes in the mid-1970s.
The subversive Seditionaries collection featured chicken bones on T-shirts spelling out “Rock,” bondage trousers and copious amounts of leather, chains and badges. Westwood and McLaren were prosecuted under obscenity laws in 1975 for producing a T-shirt featuring two naked cowboys.
The clothes became an intrinsic part of the era when, at their first concert, the Sex Pistols took to the stage in Westwood and McLaren designs.
But as the look became adopted by the mainstream, Westwood turned her vision elsewhere.
She began to study history for her collections and the King’s Road shop was remodeled to resemble a lurching galleon. “Pirate,” the duo’s first catwalk collection in 1981, showed clothes evoking highwaymen, dandies and buccaneers. The show was accompanied by a cannon blast and rap music by McLaren.
It was an immediate success, and Westwood dug deeper into history, often visiting the museum’s vast historical collection for inspiration.
Over the years, she has presented a revival of tweed and tartan, the return of the bustle — this time on miniskirts — and inspired a focus on traditional British tailoring.
The highlight of her Anglomania collection in 1993 was a silk evening dress based on 18th-century artist Francois Boucher’s portraits of Louis XV’s mistress.
In her most recent collection, Westwood has returned to freeform cutting to create jersey body suits and sack dresses.
“I think the thread that goes through my clothes, the key to them, is that they are heroic,” she says. “They are always larger than life and they help somebody to walk tall in their experiences and have a sense of adventure, pleasure and enjoyment and social — what’s the word — intercourse.”
The woman who scandalized the aristocracy at Buckingham Palace by wearing a see-through dress without underwear to accept an honor from the queen now heads a lucrative fashion empire with stores in New York, Paris, Moscow, Hong Kong and Seoul, Korea. Worldwide sales top $36 million.