Rebel with a cause
DAVID HARTLEY/Rex Feature Ltd.
Vivienne Westwood's career has been full of radical milestones, both on the runway and off. But, as Karen Orton reports, her latest crusade for climate change awareness might eclipse them all
It's a cold and rainy winter day in London, and Dame Vivienne Westwood is standing on top of a fire truck with a soggy yellow paper crown on her head addressing hundreds of climate change protestors. "Politicians are criminals," she says. "Their acts are crimes against humanity. The rainforests will be gone, the oceans will be dead, there'll be no water. You'll have warlords, corpses, absolute horror." She gestures to a small map in her hand, to a line through the northern hemisphere, indicating that everything below it will be uninhabitable due to rising temperatures. "We have no choice between a green economy and mass extinction," she calls out.
Standing near the front of the crowd is a brigade of photogenic students and models – many wearing Westwood's designs – looking like a troupe from Where the Wild Things Are in their handmade paper hats, carrying signs in support of Westwood's NGO, Climate Revolution. This is not the way you'd expect the 74-year-old head of a major fashion house to spend an afternoon, but Westwood exists in two worlds. On one hand, she leads a brand with global sales averaging £30-million annually. On the other, she recently rode in a tank to the gates of Prime Minister David Cameron's country residence to protest fracking. In an era when the direction of the fashion industry's moral compass is often called into question, Westwood has differentiated herself by demanding a more holistic approach to how we design, dress and live.
"Vivienne stands for rebellion and nonconformity," says Robbie Spencer, creative director at London youth style magazine Dazed & Confused. "I think she'll always command respect from any generation for going against the grain. She tries to make people think and stand for something, and to see more than just clothing."
I meet Westwood in Paris several weeks later during the U.N. climate talks. We squeeze into a busy canteen at a popup activist and media space in the hectic streets around Gare du Nord. She is here to premiere a short film about ecocide that she stars in with her husband and co-designer Andreas Kronthaler. He is a handsome Austrian, 25 years her junior. They ride their bikes to her Battersea studio every day and are rarely apart.
This is the third time I've seen Westwood in three days. The first night she was at a talk given by Naomi Klein and Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of Britain's left-wing Labour party. The event is billed as "Trade Unions and Climate Change." The activists in Nurses Union T-shirts are piling into the room and no one gives Westwood, who waits patiently in her seat, a second look. The next evening, Westwood shares the stage with Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Society at a chic private dinner at Les Bains hotel. It's co-hosted by Parley for the Oceans, an organization that attracts big-name collaborators like Pharrell and artist Olafur Eliasson. The dinner is co-hosted by Dazed's publisher Jefferson Hack, with the aim of attracting the fashion world to the cause.
With a scarf tied jauntily around her neck and her eyes and eyebrows outlined in her trademark orange eyeliner, Westwood has an unmistakable air of English eccentricity. "People have always talked about her eccentricity but that annoys her, not unreasonably," points out Susannah Frankel, the editor-inchief of the British fashion biannual AnOther. "Her impact is more potent than that." During interviews, it can feel like she's delivering a lecture, a reminder that she once was a school teacher. She often speaks in a stream-of-conscious flurry. Mid-conversation, she'll blurt out, "Let me just talk!" This is a woman who isn't often interrupted.
Born in northern England in 1941, Westwood has been a thorn in the side of the British establishment since her days running the London fashion shop SEX with her then husband Malcolm McLaren in the mid-1970s. The Kings Road shop, which dressed the Sex Pistols and kicked off the punk revolution 40 years ago, was where Westwood created a look that spread across the world and defined the era. Politically charged and willfully offensive, she stuck inverted images of Christ, Situationist slogans and swastikas on shirts, while popularizing subversive tropes like rubber fetish gear, bondage trousers, safety pins, chains and leather.
In 1979, as punk's energy was fading, she set her sights on high fashion, designing the infamous Pirates collection with McLaren and launching the New Romatincs subculture fronted by Boy George. In the mid-eighties, now divorced from McLaren, she brought out the Mini-Crini collection, redefining the female silhouette with a playful take on Victorian crinoline. Her 1987 Harris Tweed collection introduced her love of carefully tailored suits and corsets to the brand.
For Frankel, Westwood's most influential designs remain two key pieces from the 1980s and early 90s. "Definitely the corset. She always said – and I imagine still would say – that fashion is about sex," says Frankel. "Elevated platforms too. They completely alter deportment and silhouette and, of course, Naomi falling off a pair helped," she adds slyly, referring to the 11-inch purple pair that supermodel Naomi Campbell famously tripped over on a runway in 1993.
In 2005, Westwood read an interview with scientist and environmentalist, James Lovelock that changed everything. "He said that he thought we had no chance whatsoever," she tells me. "And that by the end of the century, there would only be one billion people left. That just scared me, because you have to think, 'What will happen between now and then, to leave only one billion people in the world?'"
She has referenced climate change in almost all of her collections since, encouraging people to buy less, and mixes fashion projects with other attentiongrabbing initiatives to create awareness for the cause. Westwood once spent a week living with a tribe in the Peruvian Amazon and donated £1-million to help protect the local rainforest, through the NGO, Cool Earth. And she designed a Save the Arctic T-shirt, modelled by 60 celebrity friends including Kate Moss and Georgia May Jagger, as part of Greenpeace's campaign last year. The designer also regularly releases candid video diaries and blogs on her Climate Revolution website, speaking earnestly to her online audience about campaigns and activists, while imploring them to read books, visit museums and attend demonstrations. "She and her brand stand for something," Spencer says. "That's quite unique in fashion. Most brands just conform and make nice clothes."
Westwood made an unlikely ally last year when she invited radical Canadian environmentalist Watson to her fashion show in Paris. Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace is notorious for ramming Japanese whaling ships. Westwood enthuses about him in countless speeches, interviews and podcasts, and the admiration appears mutual.
"Vivienne's a bit of an enigma," Watson says after the Parley for the Oceans dinner in Paris. "She's a fashion designer and business woman who tells people not to buy stuff. That's pretty unusual."
"She is an idealist and visionary," says Frankel. "Her shows are not necessarily the most influential on the schedule any more, but the spirit and intention to provoke remains."