Vivienne Westwood talks heroic clothes, urban guerillas and the apocalypse with Iain R. Webb.

Arriving at Vivienne Westwood’s Battersea studio, a non-descript grey building behind a wire fence, I recall our first meeting in 1977. She was the Queen of Punk and I was a snotty first-year student interviewing her for my fanzine. We spent hours chatting about everything from her time as a primary school teacher to her affection for Sid Vicious.
One thing hasn’t changed. From snarling anarchist – all spiky bleach-job and tartan bondage – to eccentric national treasure in Harris tweeds and headscarf (knickers optional), Westwood has coolly maintained her sovereign position in British fashion. And, in 2006, was handed a D.B.E. to prove it.

In the flesh Westwood is indisputably regal. The porcelain white skin and shag of marmalade hair make her look more like Elizabeth I than Blanchett, Mirren, Duff and Dench combined. She even holds herself like a blueblood. I shouldn’t then be surprised to find her husband of 17 years, Andreas Kronthaler, lying at her feet stretched out on a bolt of shiny fabric. It’s almost disappointing to learn that the Kronthaler is not in fact indulging in Sir Walter Raleigh-style prostration. They are discussing the difference between a quilt and a counterpane.

I am here ostensibly to ask about Westwood’s new World’s End range of designs named for (and on sale at) the iconic shop at 430 King’s Road where punk rock was born. But it’s impossible to spend any time at the court of Dame Vivienne and not be exposed to a passionate barrage of her meditations on the environment, literature, civil liberties and artistic freedom. This is the stuff that makes the post-office manager’s daughter from rural Derbyshire tick. And it’s also the stuff that makes her a complete one-off. “I’ve hijacked the fashion to say what I want to say about everything else,” admits the 68-year-old, with a breathy giggle. “I didn’t do fashion by choice, but it has given me this opportunity to open my mouth: now I’m really trying to do something with the problem with the ecology.”

Westwood’s office is rammed with dress rails, fabric swatches, sketches and the requisite inspirational photographs and books – including Jane Arnold’s Patterns For Fashion. A cutting table that doubles as her desk is barely visible under piles of rough designs and samples of braids and buttons. The pin-board sports a collage of postcards and portraits: Brigitte Bardot, Naomi Campbell, Edith Sitwell.

A model appears wearing a calico toile. “That’s lovely with all that thing sticking out in front,” observes Westwood, before sweetly singing her husband’s praises: “Andreas has worked with me for about twenty years and had an incredible influence on the way I work.” She explains how she told him she wanted the dress to fit like an “old granny” and how Kronthaler – who is 25 years her junior and looks like Johnny Depp’s stand-in from Pirates of the Caribbean – exaggerated the idea. She shows me an askew skirt that he also designed. “He said he wanted to make it as if the tailor was drunk,” she recalls. “He’s such a visual person, the lining is more important to him, the way it feels on your body, he’s very good at that.”

What does she consider to be her gift? “I’m very good at this certain geometry, this certain spatial intelligence. I know I have definitely influenced the way clothes look with my cutting techniques.” The other weapons in Westwood’s formidable armory are her natural intelligence, her overflowing rag-bag of cultural influences, her appetite for knowledge, and her unswerving self-belief. “I do everything for myself,” she says simply, “but I somehow feel quite sure that people will like it.”

The World’s End collection is pure Westwood. Her idea is to rework iconic garments from her own archive in leftover fabrics and off-cuts. Quantities will be dictated by what materials are available, creating limited editions by default. “It’s the nature of what I do,” she explains. “I just don’t like doing amazingly big collections… When I used to have SEX and Seditionaries [earlier incarnations of the King’s Road shop] I never had a sale, we just used to add things. I want to do those muslin T-shirts again and put our prints on them.” Westwood’s early punk T-shirts featured half-naked cowboys and kiddie-porn pin-ups that stuck two fingers up to censorship. Her newer designs are more overtly political, one slogan reading I AM EXPENSIV (“We’re privileged because we’re subsidised by all the suffering people in the world,” she says), and another I HEART CRAP (“This is our best selling T-shirt of all time”). Both are also available printed on baby-gros.

Westwood is frank about the ironies attached to attempting an ethical stance on the environment while working in an industry that demands constant novelty. “The fact is that people want to buy things… sometimes even I think I don’t have anything to wear,” she confesses. “I am not a very acquisitive person, but I have to have the best things. Everybody is part of the problem.” She hesitates. “What I say is, ‘Choose well’, because most people just buy lots of rubbish. But that’s very self-serving because people can get something that will last from my shops!” She bemoans the passing of the DIY element that originally fuelled punk fashion: “People made things out of bin-liners, that was fantastic. You can take a tablecloth or a bit of beautiful cloth and just tie it round you.”

With its emphasis on recycling, World’s End is a logical next step for Westwood. In 2005, inspired by the writings of Aldous Huxley – who, she explains, identified society’s biggest threats as nationalism, organised lying and non-stop distraction – the designer created her Propaganda collection. Models were draped in protest banners and sported headbands which read Branded. “If your brain is filled with rubbish, nothing else goes in.” She pauses. “We’re certainly being lied to at the moment about the ecology; it’s not as simple as taking the C02 out of the air. We are facing the most horrendous things.” There is a tremor in her voice as, after an anti-government diatribe, she cites writer James Lovelock’s apocalyptic thesis: “He says within a hundred years there will only be one fifth of the world’s population left.”

With a view to reaching out to a wider public, Westwood subsequently set up her AR “movement” – Active Resistance to Propaganda. And, in December 2007, launched the movement’s Manifesto at The Wallace Collection, a tiny London gallery that houses works by Boucher and Watteau, painters who have both inspired Westwood gowns.
“You can’t understand the present if you don’t know something about the past,” she insists. “The whole thing about the Manifesto is to encourage people to become art lovers, so you get out what you put in. Once you are more in control then you become impervious to propaganda.” On her AR website she lists ‘Things you can do’ which range from signing up for Prince Charles’ Save The Rainforest petition, to buying tickets for classical music concerts “for as little as £7”. She also recommends Lovelock’s seminal eco-horror text, The Vanishing Face of Gaia. “It’s not an easy read,” she admits, “but persevere.”

Her own voracious appetite for books informs everything: “If I didn’t read I couldn’t have any interest to do fashion. It’s very important for me to read, for ideas. People come to me who want to be fashion designers and I just say ‘Follow your deep interest’. People don’t really teach fashion and you’ll just end up looking at magazines.”

Westwood’s archival designs are as strikingly original today as when they originally hit the streets. “Punk rock, the rubber wear, Buffalo girls or the Mini-Crini, they’ve all got a certain character to them,” she says. “I think my clothes are heroic. They always want to cut a figure and have fun.”

Today she’s practising what she preaches in a donkey-coloured silk dress that looks not unlike the lining of an overcoat, and a pink mirrored ‘V’ brooch. She shows me a grey dress that will sell in the store: “It’s a copy of something I wear all the time with a little cap. I always like the look of an urban guerilla… and you can do that with badges and things.” Another favourite piece from the new collection is the Alien suit constructed with rectangles for a silhouette that manages at once to be both fitted and slouchy. “I don’t think I could do a better jacket,” she says, stroking the fabric. “I think it would look great on an old grandma. I mean, I can wear it and I’m an old grandma!”

The conversation suddenly veers off, Westwood-style, on a detour into the past. “I used to sit in bed with bits of fabric and stuff,” she says, a little wistfully. “It was nicer in a way when I first worked – even though it was more difficult because I’ve got better at it since. The fact that I used to do everything myself, it was very satisfying. Now I can’t always look after my second lines. I still try with my first line but it needs a lot of delegation. Fashion is the most time-consuming part of anything I do, and I’m always trying to squeeze in these other things I want to do.”

Ah yes, the other things… Westwood knows the score. She knows that most people who are passionate about the environment don’t care for fashion. But she is determined that they be shown the light. “They think it’s wrong… but I think it’s really great to try and dress up and get engaged with the world,” she says, her eyes twinkling as she warms to her theme. “If you’re dressed up, then you feel like you’re doing that and you attract other people as well. Those two Geldof girls look good, especially Pixie… And also Jamie Winston. She came to my show, ‘So pleased to meet you. Major fan. Can I kneel down?’ sort of thing. And I told them all to come to my Manifesto reading. Peaches started her own magazine. I just thought if you are dead serious about this then really start putting a bit more in… I haven’t heard any more from them since.” She dispatches her critics with a queenly shrug: “A lot of people apparently said, ‘Oh, Vivienne’s just saying all of this because she wants to sell us this T-Shirt’. But if that’s what they want to think well that’s too bad. Buy the T-shirt anyway.”

Photography: Simon Thiselton
Fashion: Grace Cobb
Words: Iain R Webb

A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #18, Apr/May 2009