Vivienne Westwood, ‘queen of punk’ fashion, dies at 81

‘She was always trying to reinvent fashion,’ said Andrew Bolton, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Hearing to decide whether Assange should be extradited to U.S. in London
A supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Vivienne Westwood protests outside the Old Bailey, London, UK in 2020 [Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

Vivienne Westwood, the radical, influential – and often controversial – fashion designer-turned-outspoken activist has died. She was 81.

Westwood’s death was announced on Friday by her fashion house which bears her name. The company said the British fashion icon died “peacefully and surrounded by her family” in South London.

“Vivienne continued to do the things she loved, up until the last moment, designing, working on her art, writing her book, and changing the world for the better,” the fashion brand said in a statement.

“She led an amazing life. Her innovation and impact over the last 60 years has been immense and will continue into the future.”

Westwood launched her fashion career in the 1970s, amid the intersection of the birth of punk and the twilight of the “Swinging London” era. She was globally known for her extravagant fashion shows and for bringing the punk aesthetic into the mainstream.

“The ripped shirts, the safety pins, the provocative slogans,” Andrew Bolton, curator of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, said.

“She introduced postmodernism. It was so influential from the mid-70s. The punk movement has never dissipated – it’s become part of our fashion vocabulary.”

Westwood, who remained a trend-setter up until her death – at times transcending the fashion industry itself – transformed punk into haute couture.

“She was always trying to reinvent fashion,” Bolton added. “Her work is provocative, it’s transgressive. It’s very much rooted in the English tradition of pastiche and irony and satire. She is very proud of her Englishness and still she sends it up.”

Westwood was born in the Derbyshire village of Glossop on April 8, 1941, the Associated Press reported. She moved to London with her family in 1957 where she studied at an art school for a single term. Westwood was largely self-taught and did not possess any form of fashion training.

In the 1960s, Westwood met Sex Pistols manager and one-time partner Malcolm McLaren. The pair “gave the punk movement a look, a style, and it was so radical it broke from anything in the past,” Bolton said.

They opened a tiny business in Chelsea in 1971. The shop, which at one time was named “SEX”, was fined in 1975 for “indecent exhibition” allegations.

Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, who once worked at Westwood and McLaren’s Chelsea shop, described the late fashion designer as “a one off, driven, single minded, talented lady”, in a statement to the Associated Press.

During the punk movement, Westwood’s fashion line rose to prominence for its distinct shock value, which often incorporated nudity and provocative sexual themes. She endured her fair share of criticism for her pioneering styles. In particular, one of Westwood’s most notorious designs depicted a swastika and an upside-down caricature of a crucified Jesus Christ with the word “Destroy”.

Westwood later clarified in an autobiography written in collaboration with Ian Kelly that the clothing design was intended to be a political statement against the dangers of fascism. The iconoclastic designer specified that the design was in response to Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship.

Westwood told Time Magazine in 2009 that she did not regret the contentious piece.

“I don’t, because we were just saying to the older generation, ‘We don’t accept your values or your taboos, and you’re all fascists,’” Westwood said.

Westwood later became known for her fresh take on lavish dresses from the past. She was inspired by 18th-century paintings.

Later in her career, Westwood, however, expressed ambivalence towards the fashion industry.

“Fashion can be so boring,” she told The Associated Press at a 2010 fashion show. “I’m trying to find something else to do.”

And she did, ultimately emerging as a fierce environmental and free-speech advocate. She protested WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States, posing publicly in 2020 in an oversized birdcage to draw attention to the whistleblower’s case. Westwood also designed the dress Assange’s wife, Stella Moris, wore at the couple’s prison wedding in London this past March.

MIA London
Vivienne Westwood surrounded by banners and wearing a Julian Assange mask of her own creation at a protest event outside of The Home Office on November 5, 2019 in London, UK [Ollie Millington/Getty Images] (Getty Images)

Animal rights group PETA described Westwood as an “eco-warrior” and said the nonconformist designer dared the fashion world to “start a revolution for animals and the planet”.

Several fashion giants, celebrities, and musicians took to social media to express their condolences after news of the 81-year-old’s death broke.

“Vivienne is gone and the world is already a less interesting place,” singer Chrissie Hynde of English-American rock group the Pretenders wrote on Twitter. “Love you Viv.”

Westwood is survived by her second husband, Austrian designer Andreas Kronthaler as well as her two sons, Ben Westwood, a fashion photographer, and Joe Corre, a businessman and activist.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies