British fashion designer and style icon Vivienne Westwood has died aged 81. She passed away peacefully at her home in London surrounded by her family on Thursday, according to an official statement from her eponymous company.
To the press, she was the “priestess of punk” and the “queen of extremes.” She was a much-loved character for the fashion industry, inspiring and advancing the industry until her death.
After receiving an OBE from the Queen in 1992, she donned culottes for photographers. In April 1989, she was on the cover of Tatler magazine in an Aquascutum suit, which she said was designed for Margaret Thatcher.
Frankly, Westwood simply doesn’t care. As the oldest of the innocents, with hair now and then dyed orange and complexion as white as snow, she rises in ignominious fashion to the revered status of a British national treasure.
According to Jon Savage’s seminal book “Dreams of England: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock,” Westwood reportedly said: “I was born with a perverted mind, “An inner clock that always responds to anything orthodox.”
Vivienne Westwood at Buckingham Palace after receiving her OBE from the Queen in 1992. Scroll through the gallery to see more of her life and career. credit: Martin Keane/PA Images/Getty Images
She was born Vivienne Isabel Swire on April 8, 1941 in Derbyshire, England. Her mother worked as a weaver in a local cotton mill; her father came from a family of shoemakers. She started making clothes for herself as a teenager.
After completing a term at Harrow School of Art, she became a primary school teacher and married factory worker Derek Westwood in 1962.
But everything changed when she left her husband and parted ways with Malcolm McLaren in 1965.
“I felt like there were a lot of doors that could be opened, and he had the keys to all of them,” she told Newsweek in 2004.
1970s Britain cannot be imagined without their creative partnership. McLaren manages Sex Pistols, a store on London’s King’s Road, where Westwood helped develop the visual grammar of the punk movement.
“Sex Pistols” managers Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood outside Bow Street Magistrates Court in London. credit: Bill Kennedy/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
The store has changed names—Let It Rock; Too Short to Die; Gender; Demagogues—but you can’t escape its impact on the street.
“It changes how people look,” Westwood told Time magazine in 2012. “I had a messianic feeling about punk, seeing if I could put spokes into the system somehow.”
Her outfits range from fetish bondage gear to platform shoes and slogan tees. The famous agitator sold a T-shirt showing the Queen with a safety pin on her lip.
Westwood eventually moved on. In 1981, at the age of 40, Westwood presented her first fashion show collection with McLaren. Unisex clothing evokes the golden age of pirates, robbers, dandies and pirates. Westwood researched and upended old tailoring techniques, an approach later emulated by other British designers such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.
During the decade, Westwood drew eclectic inspiration from Keith Haring, “Blade Runner” and the French Foreign Legion.
She introduced mini-crinis (combining tutus and Victorian petticoats), flesh-toned leggings, demure fig leaves, and her signature corset worn as outerwear; she designed dresses for women with breasts and hips (ask Ask Nigella Lawson or Marion Cotillard, both of whom wear Westwood for dramatic effect); she’ll try Harris tweed and tartan.
In 1989, John Fairchild, the editor-in-chief of “Women’s Wear Daily”, blessed her. In his opinion, she was one of the six most influential designers in the 20th century, along with Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Christian Lacroix and Emanuel Ungaro. Westwood is the only woman, the only Brit, and the only designer on his list who has not yet become a multi-million dollar brand. (In 1989, she was still living in a former council flat in south London, according to Jane Mulvagh’s 1998 biography, Vivienne Westwood: A Life Out of Time. , she was “almost broke.”)
Fashion writer Peter York summed her up in a 1990 documentary: “Everything that motivates her, and all the obsessions she builds around her work, is quintessentially British: all about class and sex. Things, especially the Queen obsession. You could develop that anywhere else.”
Vivienne Westwood with her husband and designer Andreas Kronthaler at Paris Fashion Week in 2013. credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
In 1992, Westwood married Andreas Kronthaler, an Austrian design student 25 years her junior. They were co-designers before he took over her ready-to-wear line in 2016. In a statement released after announcing her passing, Kronthaler said: “I will continue to have Vivienne in my heart. We worked hard until it was over and she gave me so much to carry on. Thank you dear.”
Westwood is a passionate activist on issues ranging from climate to free speech. Westwood is an outspoken advocate for the earth, often promoting quality over quantity when it comes to fashion consumption. At London Fashion Week’s Autumn/Winter 2019/2020 show, Westwood walked models, actors and activists down the runway holding political signs — one of which read, “What’s good for the planet is good for the economy.”
The Vivienne Foundation, a not-for-profit company founded by Westwood and his son and granddaughter in late 2022, will formally launch next year. According to her spokesperson, it will “respect, preserve and continue Vivienne’s legacy of life, design and activism.”