Vivienne’s World


Vivienne Westwood sits in her studio in Battersea, recounting a career of broken rules and unforgettable clothes. It’s not a self-promotional diatribe. Westwood is simply stating fact. In the 1970s, she changed culture. Punk wasn’t Westwood’s personal invention, but the manifestation of the movement that she and Malcolm McLaren promulgated via their variously monikered shops—Let It Rock; Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die; Sex; Seditionaries—all based at 430 King’s Road, has proved, arguably, the most potent. It shifted the axes of the time.

In 1980, Westwood focused her attention on fashion. Having changed the world, she began Worlds End, an apocalyptic title for her latest venture, another shop on that King’s Road site. It was kind of the end of Vivienne’s world: the idealism of punk had faded, along with her and McLaren’s relationship. So Westwood sat down and designed a pair of trousers. She—and those trousers—changed fashion forever.

Westwood has a quiet voice, her vowels rounded off from her northern English upbringing. She was born in Tintwistle, in Glossop, then moved to London as a teenager. She met Malcolm McLaren in 1965, when she was married and a mother of one. He was 19. They took over the lease on 430 King’s Road in 1971. It remains in her hands today. “I did it to help Malcolm at the start,” Westwood begins, of her career in fashion, her role as an agitprop provocateur. “He wanted to do this rock-and-roll thing and I could help him. I don’t know when we started to feel it was rebellion.“ She’s somewhat dispassionate in her discussion of McLaren, allowing that “you can say these things when you know he’s dead. I was very loyal to him, although he was very bad to me…I did lose interest in him intellectually at one point.”

That point was Worlds End, gestating in 1979 when the shop’s previous incarnation, Seditionaries (so-called because McLaren reasoned you’d have to seduce the people into revolt), was boarded up, ripe for reinvention. “We wanted to get off our island, England. I didn’t want to be patriotic about England. I feel I was very unpatriotic—and I still am because of the politics. I think they’re disgusting; we are such hypocrites. The idea was to explore the world, and the third world—and history through the third world. The idea was to plunder.”

It’s second nature to designers now, but Westwood was the first to delve into the past to invent the future. “We are the past,” Westwood stresses, earnestly. “Where do you get your ideas from, if not from the past?” She’d already done it, by 1971, with the first incarnation of the King’s Road store, Let It Rock, a twisted facsimile of ’50s Britannia, with geometric-patterned wallpaper, framed photographs of Elvis, and Malcolm and Vivienne dressed in pinchbeck Teddy Boy and Dolly Bird drag. “It was the first time of people looking back at our culture and copying it,” comments Westwood. “I say it’s the age of nostalgia for our own little lives.”

What to do next? Pillage the far reaches of history. Worlds End was so dubbed due to the section of Chelsea it is located in, due to the naming of seafaring vessels. It’s still there, relatively untouched, today: the décor of bottle-bottom glass windows and cockeyed wooden floors, throwing customers and staff alike off-balance, follows the lines of a 17th-century galleon, windswept and weather-beaten. In 1980, when the store opened, it marked Westwood’s new modus operandi: examining and exhuming the past, in minute detail, to create something new.

“I went to Foyles,” says Westwood—referring to a bookshop which then flanked Central Saint Martins on London’s Charing Cross Road. “And discovered Norah Waugh and Janet Arnold,” she says, referencing a pair of authors whose collective works have dissected the patterns of a millennium of historical dress, “and thought, ‘I’m going to have to go to the V&A.’” Westwood plunged into history, and designed that trouser. Or rather, redesigned. And she never stopped looking back.

“The Pirate trouser that we did…” begins Westwood. Then she checks herself. “That I did actually, because Malcolm hated the trousers. But finally I refused and said, right, this is it. I’m not doing any other trousers! Then he ended up liking them,” she shrugs, and gets back to our wayward conversation. “But what was really amazing about those patterns, is that the back seam was concave instead of convex. It didn’t fit between the cheeks of your bum, it made a great big bubble—which is much better, when you’re riding a horse. So I fantasized again, and to people of the time the trousers looked somewhat heroic, because they made you look like you rode a horse. It was a bit military, or adventurous.”

It was also escapist. Westwood refers to Pirate as “my romantic collection,” and allies it with the changing mood of the time. While punk confronted, head-on, the hardships of the ’70s—in Britain, marked by inflation, strikes, the Three-Day Week of 1974, and 1978’s Winter of Discontent—Worlds End encouraged its wearers to flee into the annals of history, into a romanticized, grandiose past.

Pirate was formally presented on the catwalk in 1981. The swaggering confidence belied the fact it was Westwood’s first show as part of the catwalk system, her step onto the treadmill. It’s the point where—she herself states—she became a true fashion designer. “It wasn’t enough to pogo and spit. Subversion needs ideas, and ideas come from culture.”

It also established a blueprint for Westwood’s work. “At that Pirate time, looking at the history, I did two things that I don’t think anybody had really done before,” Westwood reasons, methodically. She’s good at method—it’s the teacher in her coming out, also expressed through her clothes, which, she is adamant, need to express something, generally a message. Frequently that message is about what the world is doing wrong.

But back to Westwood’s pants, and those two things she did. “I really tried to copy the historical garments, and I still do. I use them in fashion, oversize or whatever. I also did asymmetrical clothes: I put that hole in the [Pirate] T-shirt and everything went all wonky. I always say it’s got a very good rapport with the body, it feels cool, like you’re moving when you’re not.” Seasickness, in a garment.

Even after her Pirates, Westwood continued to plunder—Savages, Hypnos, and Buffalo Girls all referenced other cultures, other worlds. In Savages, tribal patterns collided with the Northern Africa of Matisse, Hypnos ripped off the Greeks, Buffalo mashed hip-hop street style with Peruvian peasants. “I love boxer shorts worn over tights or a little historical jacket worn with a bit of sailcloth around your loins, as if you’ve been shipwrecked. And I mix ethnic, historical, and standard cutting, and cuts made from rectangles and triangles and meanders,” Westwood says, her words running over one another, just like those garments and nationalities clash together. There was a link, with McLaren, with his overlaying of Appalachian folk song with New York DJ “scratching,” of music from South Africa and line dancing for his 1983 album Duck Rock.

The Worlds End years of Westwood and McLaren lasted from 1981 to the end of 1984, roughly, at which point Westwood abandoned her wandering and returned home, focusing on “Britishness,” like the almost prim-and-proper twinsets, pearls, and tailoring of her Mini-Crini and Harris Tweed collections. Maybe, after weaving her way around the world, Britain looked new again? At the same time, Westwood formally dropped McLaren’s name from the label. Despite the credit, she challenges McLaren’s involvement in Worlds End’s later work. “Around then, Malcolm became less and less involved,” Westwood muses, then scoffs. “The last time I gave him credit he had simply added one hat, and that’s all he did!” That was the pointed Chico Marx hat, for Westwood’s Witches of 1983-84, combined with the pagan, Wiccan-ish imagery of the New York graffiti artist Keith Haring.

Given the store’s globe-trotting, across Old World and New, maybe the name Worlds End marked not an apocalypse, but a boundary—an end of the current world, and a transportation into Vivienne’s imaginary landscape. Certainly, crossing the threshold took chutzpah, and the wearer wound up so surrounded by the raiments of other cultures, so isolated from the world of early ’80s Europe, gray and grim outside, that disorientation was understandable. A trip to Westwood’s shop was a trip in itself.

The décor remained that of a sailing ship on tempestuous seas. But the clothes changed every season. “I thought I’d look at history—like everybody else does in fashion,” Westwood purses her lips as she talks and stretches her arms out behind herself. She’s wearing a dress in a muddy shade of khaki with a meandering squiggle print—the print that originated in her 1981 collection and has become something of a house standard, vying with tartan as a representation of what Westwood means, even today. The design was lifted, in part, from an African print on a scarf given to Malcolm McLaren by the French designer Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. Piracy, see?

Westwood leans in, conspiratorially. “You know, Dior and Saint Laurent, they do look at history, and they look at the third world as well, which I was very interested in. North Americans and Indians, we were interested in all of that. Malcolm’s term was the dispossessed. We were interested in poor people as well—this is how the bra over things first came about. We fantasized about Puerto Rico, how people would wear a bra and shorts to go to the shop in, with their hair in rollers…National Geographic.”

The National Geographic of fashion is an apt description of Westwood’s Worlds End years. In decoration, sure, but more fundamentally in cut. Her flat cutting, of garments composed from squares and rectangles, gussets inserted to permit movement, reflected a fixation akin to origata,the Japanese art of paper wrapping. Like the seat of those Pirate trousers pulling away from the body, Westwood’s Worlds End garments were folded about the body “Orientally,“ as opposed to being fitted to it, “Occidentally.“ Her garments, in a seemingly permanent state of intentional disarray, were constantly adjusted by the wearer: tugged tighter, revealing and concealing that “rapport” Westwood talked about.

Westwood focused on the feel of her clothes versus their appearance. Like Chanel—another leading female designer who revolutionized fashion—Westwood’s own experience of wearing her garments informed their design. But rather than the comfort and logic Chanel strove for, Westwood designed her clothes illogically, to discomfort, or at least to twist and upset the status quo. It was the reverse of punk’s T-shirts, agitating the viewer with provocative imagery and sloganeering. Now Westwood wanted to broaden the horizon of the wearers of her clothes too.

These are all tricky conceits. Yet, Pirate was an instant success, so history tells us. British Vogue shot Westwood’s clothing for the first time; New Romanticism was the phrase thrown out, a swashbuckling style that easily slipstreamed into fashion in a way that punk, superficially, failed. Westwood saw it differently. “I got all kinds of problems,” she sighs. “Michael Roberts [then fashion editor of London’s Sunday Times], when I first started to do the Pirate collection, said ‘Yo-ho and throw on a peg leg!’ People hated it. It is the dogma of the last century that you throw away the past. It’s like telling a scientist to throw away his laboratory. If you throw it away, you lose all the technique. You have to go back to the past.”

I’m distracted. Westwood’s squiggly dress is pretty, but it’s cut simply. It’s a couple of rectangles, and a few strings, yanked hard to give it shape on the figure. There’s a rapport, like Westwood says, which isn’t the same as flattery. You never get the feeling she wants to make people look pretty, even herself.

McLaren and Westwood subtitled the Seditionaries incarnation of 430 King’s Road “Clothes For Heroes.” It’s the way she designed for Worlds End, too, and how she continues to design today. “It is the link through everything, to stand bigger and larger than life,” Westwood reasons, pulling a little at those drawstrings. “You can stand out in bondage trousers or a ball gown. When I say ‘heroic,’ I mean to express individuality. That’s what it is, to be known in a crowd and forcefully expressing individuality.

Click here to take a trip through Vivienne Westwood’s influential Worlds End archives.


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