One of fashion’s most courageous iconoclasts, Dame Vivienne Westwood, has passed away aged 81.
The fashion designer, climate change activist and rebel with a cause, died peacefully today surrounded by her family at home in Clapham, South London, said an official statement.
“I will continue with Vivienne in my heart,” wrote Andreas Kronthaler, Westwood’s husband and creative partner. “We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with. Thank you darling.”
The Vivienne Foundation, a not-for-profit founded by Westwood, her sons and granddaughter, will launch in 2023 to continue “the legacy of Vivienne’s life design and activism.” The foundation will be built upon four pillars: climate change, stop war, defend human rights and protest capitalism.
The godmother of punk, in Westwood’s hands, anarchy and romance existed as one. Totally fearless in her approach to tackling the everyday, her goal was never simply just to design clothes. She used dress as a vehicle to speak of the urgency of climate change and to vocalise her support of causes she believed in, be it anti-capitalism or the end to oil fracking. Buy less, love your clothes more: it’s always been the mantra of Westwood. Long before deadstock and upcycling became fashion buzzwords, and today’s fresh-faced designers charged forward on a sustainable clothing revolution.
Westwood was born Vivienne Isabel Swire on April 8, 1941, in Cheshire. Her family moved to Harrow in 1957, where Westwood would undertake a silversmithing course at University of Westminster (formally Harrow Art School) before training to become a primary school teacher. She met her first husband, Derek Westwood, in 1961, having their son Benjamin Westwood in 1963.
The pair would separate when Benjamin was three, with Westwood giving birth to her second son Joseph Corré in 1967. By then she was with Malcom McLaren, an art student who would famously go on to manage the Sex Pistols. Westwood would quit her teaching gig in 1971, opening the iconic SEX boutique on King’s Road. Renamed a handful of times – from Let It Rock through to Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die – the shop dressed a legion of London punks in fetish-wear, slashed slogan tees, bondage trousers and Buffalo hats. Outfitting one of Britain’s seminal movements.
Westwood and McLaren would debut their first collection Pirates in 1981, under their joint label Worlds End. The collection was inspired by 18th-century dandies and McLaren’s fascination with the 1980 movie The Island, featuring sailor-inspired tailoring, frilly blouses and enough bravado to go on to inspire collections by Alexander McQueen and John Galliano decades later.
“Punk was everything to me and Malcolm….What I am doing now, it still is punk — it’s still about shouting about injustice and making people think, even if it’s uncomfortable. I’ll always be a punk in that sense,” said Westwood in her 2016 autobiography Get A Life: The Diaries of Vivienne Westwood.
The couple split in 1983, with Westwood going on to design collections under her own name – staging her first show in Paris that same year. Westwood had a knack for stitching together a myriad of historical influences into a single collection – from mini-crinis and Marie Antoinette frocks through to corsets, bustiers and platform pumps that would tower high. Naomi Campbell would famously take a tumble on the catwalk wearing a purple pair in 1993.
Westwood would fuse traditional tartans and Harris Tweeds into sexually charged pieces with a totally subversive eye and a naughtiness that would follow her throughout her career. Be it sending Kate Moss down the catwalk topless and eating a Magnum ice cream (SS95), or the designer choosing to wear no knickers when collecting her OBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 1992. Westwood was always mischievous.
Westwood bagged British Designer of the Year three times at the Fashion Awards. The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition celebrating the designer in 2002, with the V&A holding a Vivienne Westwood retrospective in 2004. In 2006, Westwood became a Dame.
Towards the tail end of the 1980s, Westwood met Andreas Kronthaler whilst the former was teaching at Vienna School of Applied Art. They would go on to marry in 1992 and began working together on Westwood’s mainline collections. In 2016, Kronthaler would take the helm of Westwood’s eponymous label as creative director.
In her later years, Westwood would dedicate herself to her political activism. She strived for a climate revolution, aligning herself with Greenpeace and rainforest charity Cool Earth, while presenting her 22-page manifesto Active Resistance to Propaganda at the Serpentine Gallery in 2008.
“We’re letting businessmen do what they want. People get paralysed by the enormity of wrong things in the world. There’s only so much that one person can do. What I decided to do was to focus on the rainforest,” Westwood told The Guardian in 2011.
Westwood used her catwalks as protests, marching against fracking, austerity, and the mistreatment of Guantánamo Bay prisoners. She has also shown an outpouring of support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – famously protesting Assange’s extradition to the US in 2020 whilst suspended inside a giant bird cage outside the Old Bailey, dressed as a canary.
“Dame Vivienne, you touched us all with your imagination, humility and rebellion and you made us believe in creativity in its purest form,” wrote Riccardo Tisci on Instagram. “From the first day I met you to the last day I saw you, you made me smile, listen, learn and love more than the day before,” wrote Bella Hadid.
“When we bought her [clothes] for Browns [Fashion] – must have been ‘91 – she’d cycle down South Molton Street, wearing bicycle clips to check out her windows. I’ve been in the industry for over 30 years and each designer I’ve supported hero-worships her,” says Mandi Lennard.
“Vivienne meant so much to me personally, but she leaves a hole in the design community across the world, she reinvented so many designs that we now take for granted. It’s impossible to quantify how much impact she had on modern fashion and pop culture,” says Matty Bovan. “To all the kids are growing up out there, they saw something of themselves in Vivienne’s work, myself included. She gave hope to millions of people And her work will continue to do through her design legacy.”
It’s difficult to imagine British fashion without Westwood as her influence has defined the industry as we know it today. A provocateur in every sense, she has shaped the lens through which we see culture. Calling Westwood merely a great designer would be a disservice. She’s a change-maker, whose legacy will continue to inspire generations to come.
Our thoughts are with Westwood’s friends and family, and all those touched by her brilliance.