The queen is dead, long live the fashion: Vivienne Westwood’s legacy

When Vivienne Westwood, who created the torn tartan coattails the Sex Pistols rode to punk stardom in the seventies, accepted an OBE from Queen Elizabeth in 1992, her ability to confound expectations peaked.

To be fair, it wasn’t a complete curtsy to the establishment. She wasn’t wearing knickers (Westwood, not the Queen) for the ceremony, or to collect her damehood in 2006.

Vivienne Westwood walks the runway during the Vivienne Westwood fashion show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2010 at Hotel Pozzo di Borgo on October 2, 2009.Credit:Getty

Westwood’s legacy as a designer and trend oracle is much clearer, following her death, aged 81.

The daughter of a factory worker and cotton weaver, she rose to notoriety clothing punks in torn T-shirts with pictures of the Queen with her lips safety-pinned, swastikas and bare breasts from her store on London’s Kings Road provocatively called Sex, later renamed Seditionaries, before becoming World’s End. Strangely enough, what followed was far more interesting.

Focusing on fashion in her forties, following her disillusionment with punk, Westwood mined galleries and literature for trends that continue to infiltrate the collections of her peers, evident from her first runway show in 1981 for the Pirates collection.

Naomi Campbell falling on the Vivienne Westwood runway in 1993. The photo appeared in The Vivienne Westwood: 34 Years in Fashion exhibition held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2005.Credit:Niall McInerney

Those conical bras that made Jean Paul Gaultier a star in 1987 and became the uniform of Madonna’s Blonde Ambition tour, are pointedly apparent in Westwood’s Buffalo collection of 1982.

Controversial designers Dolce & Gabbana built an empire and Kardashian client base on corsets, revived by Westwood in 1991. Mini-crini’s from a 1985 runway show packed with dishevelled Marie Antoinettes turned up the volume for the pouf skirts that followed from Christian Lacroix.

“Vivienne Westwood’s contribution to fashion is unique, perhaps unparalleled,” British fashion journalist Alexander Fury writes in Vivienne Westwood: Catwalk. “She is certainly the most important fashion designer of the latter quarter of the 20th century.”

“Our appreciation of every fashion designer today, how the fashion world is today, how we view fashion, is different because of Vivienne Westwood,” milliner Stephen Jones told Another Magazine in 2017. “And that goes for John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela – everybody has been influenced by her.”

Westwood’s talent was often obscured by a love of stunts, almost greater than that of her ex-partner, Sex Pistols promotor Malcolm McLaren. There was her 1989 Tatler magazine cover as a disturbingly convincing Margaret Thatcher, sending Naomi Campbell down the runway in 1993 in platform shoes that toppled the supermodel like a wounded giraffe and that confident twirl outside Buckingham Palace in 1996 that amply revealed her disdain for underwear.

Often these stunts were staged to promote causes, such as her commitment to climate change and nuclear disarmament. Westwood also took the counterintuitive move of encouraging customers to buy fewer clothes.

The protests didn’t get in the way of a push for profits by the independent business, with Westwood designing the cabin uniforms for Virgin Atlantic airlines, collaborating with Burberry in 2018 and more recently Asics sneakers. Westwood also designed the extravagant dress worn by Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw for her aborted wedding in the Sex and the City movie.

Since Paris Fashion Week Autumn-Winter 2016, Westwood’s creative partner and husband since 1993, Andreas Kronthaler, designed the runway collections, refining the label’s language of tartans, pirate paraphernalia, corsets, platforms, heart-shaped lapels and meringue silhouettes.

Kronthaler, 56, who met Westwood as a student, also picked up on Westwood’s rebel spirit. The brand was accused of plagiarism in the autumn/winter 2017/18 collection. T-shirts with the slogan “We do big sizes! 2XL 3XL 4XL 5XL!!!! We do very small sizes!!” had been lifted from designers Louise Gray and Rottingdean Bazaar.

A statement appeared on the brand’s social media in 2018 saying: “We are sorry. The use of your graphics on our T-shirt was only ever meant to be a celebration of your work. We got caught up in a last-minute frenzy and did not contact you to ask for your permission. We are truly sorry about this mistake and want to make it up to you.”

The apology only deepened Westwood’s reputation as a responsible rebel.

In a statement, Kronthaler made it clear that he will continue Westwood’s work.

“I will continue with Vivienne in my heart,” Kronthaler said. “We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with.”

Westwood also maintained her contradictions until the end.

“I don’t even like fashion,” she said in an interview with NME in May. “Well, sometimes I do.”

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