Vivienne Westwood: Youth Is Revolting
‘I’m a punk because I’m a fighter. I can’t help it’ – after five decades fighting the system, Vivienne Westwood answers questions from a new generation of revolt
“I think all activists are motivated by the same thing,” says Dame Vivienne Westwood, forking a slice of Victoria sponge. “It’s just who you are. The human race, they really do care about other people suffering, don’t they?” This is phrased as a question but feels, as with most of what the designer utters, like an imperative. “We help each other. Different people obviously feel responsible to different degrees. But I have always felt that, if nobody else is doing it, I’ve got to do it.”
Westwood is discussing the empathy that is at the heart of her activism. She’s taking a break from climbing hills in a south London park, where she was surrounded by the young activists, students, and artists you see on these pages, as well as several buggies and smartphone-holding bystanders. (Much like Westwood has done ever since she began selling her incendiary designs on the Kings Road in the 1970s, the group defied what might be deemed appropriate to wear in a public space). Westwood is the first lady of punk, the first designer to make bondage gear, corsets, and Harris tweed desirable everyday wear, and almost definitely the first woman to ever shout “frack off!” from the seat of an army tank at David Cameron’s front door. Without Westwood’s ‘firsts’, it’s difficult to imagine how the nonconformist perspectives and styles of many of the group gathered here today would have been fostered. Westwood, a former teacher herself, provided the textbook.
Even if she does know this, the British icon prefers to play coy on the subject of her influence. She is, however, happy to see some familiar faces today, like those she has cast in her shows and collaborated with in recent seasons. Along with her husband, Andreas Kronthaler – whose own name now adorns the line previously known as Gold Label – she warmly greets environmental activist Elizabeth Farrell, model and body-positivity advocate Emma Breschi, and designer Matty Bovan (later admonished for not bringing a book with him on the train down from York). Westwood is also happy to meet new faces, whether that’s kindly trying to improve Ryan Skelton’s posture, or hearing about Wilson Oryema’s recent book of poems and short stories about consumption. “Oh good, because I have some very focused ideas on that.”
Westwood’s ideas are focused like a crosshair on the issues humanity faces. Now, having fought for nuclear disarmament, animal and human rights, she is concentrating on her campaign for fashion businesses to switch to renewable energy. Bringing her global concerns together in one place, for once, is her series of graphic playing cards she plans to launch this summer, which each take a particular issue as their subject: she even resurrects her infamous Tatler Margaret Thatcher impersonation for the six of diamonds, and advocates for the freedom of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange for the king of clubs. Westwood is the first to admit she isn’t perfect, and she might not have all the answers – but who does? The fact that the 77-year-old refuses to stop talking is her most radical act of all. In a world where certain designers prefer to hide behind clothes, Westwood continues to speak through them. It’s hard to imagine that she’s ever frightened, but of course she must be.
Today feels like a celebration of the imprint that Westwood has made on the new generation, an optimistic assertion of a self-propelled orbit that has always defied categorisation. Dogged in the past by an idea that she was simply the interpreter of other people’s ideas, God save the fool who would deny her influence now. Born to working-class parents in Tintwhistle, Derbyshire in 1941 – her accent is still strong – Westwood has gone from selling jewellery on a west London street stall to helming a global fashion institution. But for someone who is consistently asked about her youth, she would much rather concentrate on what’s now, and next. “It’s not true, this old idea that Malcolm (McLaren) and other people used to have, that somehow when you’re young you’re full of fire and rebellion and enthusiasm, and when you get old you just become useless,” she says with a smile. “No, the opposite is true. The older you get, (the more) your life becomes richer. It’s incredible.”
Towards the end of the day, Adam Leach and Freyja Newsome, two arts students, are discussing what punk means to them. (Adam danced on a podium during the brand’s AW18 show, a perversely memorable performance that has since become legend.) “Earlier on Andreas was asking whether we consider ourselves punks and I wasn’t sure what to say,” Adam explains. “It’s an interesting question, whether the movement dies…” “…or continues with a different expression,” finishes Freyja. In fact, when the cast submitted the question they would like to ask Westwood, the notion of what being punk in 2018 might mean – if it means anything at all– came up more than once. To look at them, or anyone else in the cast today, the unbroken thread is clear to see. But when this generation is separated from Vivienne’s anarchic upstarts by over five decades, several changes in government, and, it has to be said, thousands of pounds of student debt, it’s equally obvious that new articulations of that same spirit become not only urgent, but perhaps necessary. Fighting for LGBTQ rights and a UK without Theresa May – it’s all punk by a different name. Vivienne would surely agree.
Anna Veglio-White is a knitwear designer and abortion rights activist whose pro-choice campaign group, Sister Supporter, successfully fought a battle to ban protests outside abortion clinics in Ealing this year.
Anna Veglio-White: What triggered the activist in you? Was there a pivotal moment or was it more of a gradual happening?
Vivienne Westwood: It started when I was four and I saw a picture of the crucifixion. Seriously. I became a freedom fighter. I thought, ‘Why didn’t my parents stop this?’ I was always fighting – for kids who’ve been put upon, who were poor… I felt sorry for them. When I was 17, I gave all my money to Oxfam. It wasn’t much ’cos my parents didn’t give me much, but I didn’t have any money after that! My father laughed, because he had to buy me a pair of shoes. I didn’t mind, I was in art school at the time walking around in bare feet, anyway. My generation was politicised by the hippies. And then with the Vietnam war and what was going on there… (I started to care about) human rights.
Joshua Gordon is a Dublin-born, London-based photographer and filmmaker whose work focuses on life on the fringes: Bangkok biker gangs, London dominatrixes and Berlin street culture.
JG: What is punk in 2018? When individualism, nonconformity, and rejection of government are commonplace in many countries, what makes for a modern punk?
Vivienne Westwood: First of all, I was very disappointed in punks, when I was a punk. I felt like I was the only one left, really. When the Sex Pistols started, Johnny Rotten really meant it. Later on he was perceived as a sort of token rebel. But he was great. What is a punk attitude? I guess I’m a punk because I’m a fighter. You’re born with the character you’ve got, and I will always fight. I can’t help it.
Greentea Peng is a south London musician who doesn’t describe herself as an activist, but says that “every day I’m involved in my own personal activism… (as) an activist of looooove.”
Greentea Peng: What kind of advice would you give to disillusioned youth?
Vivienne Westwood: You have to invest in culture, not in consumption. When I taught fashion in Berlin I used to send (my pupils) to art galleries and say, ‘If the fire bell went when you left that room to go into the next room, which picture would you take?’ Keep on going, and in six months’ time you wouldn’t choose that picture. You’d choose another. All the time, you’re developing your powers of discrimination, your ability to understand what’s true and what’s a bit of a sham. (Through) culture, you’re thinking, you’re making decisions and forming opinions. And sucking up is nothing to do with that, that’s terrible, that’s becoming a clone. Young people can do great stuff. Just because you’re young, it doesn’t mean that you can’t always do something. Reading is also really important. You have to keep on reading and slowly you will become a fit reader, and start to understand the implications of everything.
Tasha B is an activist with Justice4Grenfell, a group campaigning for change and a continued focus on the tragedy in the tower, one year since the fire that devastated the community.
Tasha B: You used to sell your jewellery on a stall on Portobello Road, which is a stone’s throw from Notting Hill and also Grenfell Tower. What used to be locally owned shops are now being replaced with multimillion-pound, privately owned chains such as Timberland and Vodafone – even the local citizens’ advice bureau, which was on public land, has been replaced by a Pret a Manger. How do you feel about the rapid gentrification of the area, and its contribution to the deaths of 72 people? And how would you suggest that people resist?
Vivienne Westwood: You know, if you get the target right, then your campaign starts to have some power. You’ve got to analyse the whole problem. The world is bankrupt. And the bankruptcy is caused by a rotten financial system, run for a few people to exploit everybody else. It’s being run just for investors. It’s like passing the parcel – the bubbles, they are not worth the money that they cost. For example, these flats that they are putting up all over the place, turfing the people out of social housing – they’re just for investors, they are empty most of the time, as we all know. I believe what nature gives you for free should not be privately owned. Land is wealth. And it should belong to the people. You have got to realise that it’s not just a question of gentrification – that’s just a symptom of it. Everything possible is being sold off to (investors). Everything is undersold, and you don’t give value for money for what you own. They always run it into the ground. People talk about it as if somehow things will improve, or there’s something called growth – there’s no such thing as growth, growth has nothing to do with real wealth. It’s to do with how investors are getting on. So we’ve got to change the whole system.
Tasha B: How can fashion contribute to the political climate in Britain?
Vivienne Westwood: Clothes didn’t ever have a political meaning for me. I just wanted to look great! Like a kid, drawing a little girl and thinking what they would like it to wear. So at first, I was thinking about what I’d like that probably already existed. But then there’s all the slogans (I’ve used) in fashion. The best thing I’ve done is ‘BUY LESS’. That used to be ‘Buy less, choose well, make it last’. Now I’ve changed that to ‘Buy less, dress up’! And I think it’s the same thing, you know. Don’t just get a bit of old, anything-will-do stuff, because it’s cheap. You’ve got to choose well, and dress up. It says everything. So I’ve changed it to that. I’m cutting down the choice. I’m trying to make my fashion really a story of itself. Of what I am. That’s what the garment should say: ‘I am this.’ You know, I actually sell less. Because if people buy less and choose well, then that encourages great fashion design, doesn’t it? That’s a wonderful thing to (encourage) – people not buying rubbish, not wasting. That’s why I commissioned the knitting pattern based on the yellow hand-knitted jumper dress I wore for the shoot for you – as I’d love readers who can’t afford the jumper to be able to make it themselves. I made this jumper when I was a punk, and they can too. (In the issue, which comes out this Thursday, on pages 220-221 Vivienne writes a guide to making your own ‘Sex’ jumper — a classic from her archive).
Jess Maybury is a model and artist whose work pushes the boundaries of taste — sometimes in collaboration with boyfriend Joshua Gordon.
Jess Maybury: What piece of art or literature has been an inspiration throughout your career?
Vivienne Westwood: The greatest thing ever is a book of Chinese poetry (Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, compiled by David Hinton) I read six months ago; it definitely changed my life. If I had my life again, I would study Chinese and I would do calligraphy. Because it’s the secret of the universe. It’s just so creative to put a sentence together. I’m now following the Tao, which is nothing to do with God or religion, it is to do with a system that just describes what the universe is about. That’s all you need to know, and science will never be able to explain it. The beauty and the humanity of this poetry… you’ll probably hear more about it because I’m just so obsessed by it. But one of the things that I’ve just read is The Brothers Karamazov. I read Dostoevsky when I was younger, and I didn’t really get it. But when I read this recently, I couldn’t believe it. It’s so rich and it’s so outrageous. It’s got passages of quite a lot of meditative philosophy, but it’s worth it, for Dostoevsky.
Wilson Oryema is an artist, writer and model whose recent book of short stories and poems, WAIT, addressed global consumption and climate change.
Wilson Oryema: What was your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?
Vivienne Westwood: In order not to fail in life… you must always follow your deepest interest. Aristotle said, ‘The acorn is happy to become an oak.’ He was obsessed by the fact that form is always becoming something else, and he defines happiness as fulfilling your potential, like the acorn — become who you are. Your character is your bag of tools, use it to discover the world! You will always behave ‘in character’, and the secret is that by following your deep interests you will forget yourself and get a life. You get out what you put in.
Matty Bovan is a York-based, London-trained designer and fan of Westwood who walked for the label’s AW18 show.
Matty Bovan: What would you like your legacy to be?
Vivienne Westwood: I know exactly what I would like my legacy to be. And it’s very, I don’t know what you’d call it – it’s not just ambitious, it’s like, ‘Who does she think she is?’ (laughs) It’s overweening and gives myself a lot of importance, anyway. But it would be that I helped introduce the One World Economy, which is the name we’re going to give to the new economy (Westwood is releasing a book with economics writer Fred Harrison). Because if we did introduce it in time, it would save us. And so you know, (if I were to) write anything else on a tombstone, it wouldn’t survive! We face mass extinction. And if it did survive, that would mean we hadn’t (become) extinct, so it would be wonderful, because I think it is the answer.