‘She was the best of Britain’: remembering Dame Vivienne Westwood, an icon of British fashion
Dame Vivienne Westwood, the designer hailed as the “undisputed queen of British fashion”, has died at the age of 81. She passed away “peacefully and surrounded by family” in Clapham yesterday, according to a representative from her fashion house.
Westwood was known for her punky fashion creations and even punkier spirit. She was the designer that made the political slogan tee all the rage in Britain, the dame that accepted her OBE with no knickers on and the Londoner who could always be spotted astride her bike, riding around the capital in impeccable style — a daily representation of her staunch climate activism.
From her humble career beginnings to her unlikely friendship with Julian Assange, here’s a look back at the life and work of London’s ‘Dame Punk’.
A working class girl with a creative dream
Westwood was as much an activist as she was a designer. Born Vivienne Isabel Swire, she had her first glimpse of the creative world as a teenager, when she took up a jewellery and silversmithing course at Harrow Art School, now known as the University of Westminster.
Despite excelling at the course (she would take her creations and sell them at Portobello Market), Westwood was daunted by this sphere: “I didn't know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world,” she reflected several years later.
Instead, she chose to pursue a secreterial qualification and went on to become a primary school teacher, which she enjoyed (”except I always liked the kids that everyone else thought were a pain in the arse. The little rebels,” she told The Guardian in 2007) — though it wasn’t enough to fill the hole that creativity had opened up.
Rebel with a cause
When she turned 20, the young rebel met her first husband, Derek Westwood, the man responsible for turning Vivienne Swire into Vivienne Westwood, at least if only by name. His surname became hers, and the designer would go on to keep this moniker throughout a further two marriages, following the breakdown of her marriage with her first husband. The pair were married for three years and had a son, Benjamin Westwood, but parted ways after Vivienne met the man who would become her second husband: Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren.
He and Westwood worked together to set up a boutique on the King’s Road, Let It Rock, selling 1950s memorabilia, teddy boy trousers, mohair sweaters and a couple of items which were designed by McLaren, but made by Westwood. Eventually Westwood started designing herself, and McLaren began kitting out members of the Sex Pistols in her creations, which garenered attention for the budding fashion designer.
In 1981, Westwood and McLaren designed their first ever collection, “Pirates”, which still has an influence over runways 40 years after its debut. This joint collection planted Westwood firmly into the fashion world, and from that day she never left.
Unruliness and an OBE
Westwood would go on to become one of the biggest names in British fashion, winning British Fashion Designer of the Year three times —in 1990, 1991 and 2006 — and being rewarded for her contributions to fashion by the Queen in 1992, where she collected her OBE sans underwear. “I wished to show off my outfit by twirling the skirt,” she said of the celebratory photographs, which had to be blurred: “It did not occur to me that, as the photographers were practically on their knees, the result would be more glamorous than I expected.”
Westwood was unruly above all else. In fact, this very word is one that Westwood stitched into the wedding veil of Stella Moris as she prepared to marry the incarcerated activist and founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. Assange’s imprisonment and extradition was a cause near to Westwood’s heart, and the two were close friends.
She had previously demonstrated this by posing in a human bird cage, dressed in canary yellow, brandishing the sign “I am Julian Assange”, in front of the Old Bailey Criminal Courts. But when Assange decided to marry his long-term partner and mother to his two children, Stella Moris, Westwood wanted to help in a more delicate way — by designing Moris’ wedding dress.
“[Vivienne] came to Julian’s 40th birthday when he was under house arrest [...] and they started an amazing friendship,” Moris told the Evening Standard following Westwood’s death. “They love eachother’s company. She was incredibly intelligent and creative, and constantly thinking about what she could do to the world, what to do about Julian’s imprisonment, about climate change. She was always brainstorming... and she was a lot of fun.”
Moris worked with Westwood and her husband Andreas Kronthaler to create the dress she would wear for her wedding to Assange, which took place in HMP Belmarsh in March 2022. “I went to their wedding shop, and we sat down and discussed what it was like in the prison — that was the starting point — and what we could make, and what was possible.”
It was to be a wedding dress like no other. Westwood changed the traditional boning of the bodice to be made of an alternative material, instead of the usual metal, so it could get through the prison metal detectors. She also added a rose detailing on the chest to represent a bouquet of flowers, as Moris was not permited to take a bouquet through prison security. And upon the veil she embroidered words written by Julian Assange, in the handwriting of his and Moris’ loved ones, including one word added by Westwood herself: unruly.
Today, Assange made a rare statement himself to honour his friend’s passing, calling her “the best of Britain.” Speaking from within Belmarsh, the activist said: “Vivienne was a Dame and a pillar of the anti-establishment. Bold, creative, thoughtful and a good friend. The best of Britain. She will be missed terribly by me and many others.”
Another cause Westwood cared deeply about was climate change, and she demonstrated this as much in her everyday life (on her bike, pedalling her way across London even at 80 years old) as she did on her catwalks, where she would dress models with slogan tees, or equip them with protesting placards to hold.
She was also responsible for some more apolitical major catwalk moments, including the moment her purple python platforms topped supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1993, and when a nearly naked Kate Moss walked the runway wearing just a mini skirt and heels, while chomping on an ice-cream cone.
Moss’ stylist James Brown is just one of the many fashion figures taking today to mourn Westwood — who he affectionately calls “Dame Punk”. “She’ll be remembered for her rebellious nature,” Brown told the Evening Standard today.
He also shared a story of his only run-in with Westwood, back when he was just 18 years old: “One day in Covent Garden I saw her riding past me on her bike. I screamed and ran towards her shouting ‘Vivienne I love you!’ he stopped but just looked at me with her very naughty smile,” he recalls. “I said nothing, nor did she. It was the one and only time in my entire life that I was speechless. I couldn’t believe she was in front of me — my idol.
“I stared back at her, no words were exchanged for ages, but I was literally head to toe in her clothes so she knew I was slightly overwhelmed to meet her. That day and every single day for years and years I wore her clothes religiously.”
Many others have joined Brown in sharing their favourite Westwood stories since her passing. Designer Marc Jacobs wrote on Instagram: “You did it first. Always. Incredible style with brilliant and meaningful substance. I continue to learn from your words, and, all of your extraordinary creations,” while singer Boy George tweeted: “R.I.P to the great and inspiring Vivienne Westwood who lead us through punk and beyond [...] Without question she is the undisputed Queen of British fashion.”
Her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, has pledged to continue her legacy. "I will continue with Vivienne in my heart,” he said. "We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with."