Vivienne Westwood has always been a mass of contradictions. That’s part of what draws you in. You want to unravel all the different layers of her. You try to follow her rapidly conflicting ideas that fall one on top of another in an energetic diatribe that comes from a place of power, certainty, yet vulnerability.
She says that she likes to make clothes to make poor people look rich and rich people look poor. She hates with an unswerving passion, consumerism, excess. Yet she has built a fashion empire.
Ask her what is the one thing she would like to change in the world and she says: ‘I would like to get rid of advertising.’ Yet she has beautiful campaigns with pictures by superstar photographer Jürgen Teller.
She has always been this way. Her clothes are not just pieces of cleverly draped and reconstructed fabric. They are statements. She wants to make women feel powerful, not just want to be thin, like most of the other male designers of her generation and the generation after.
She doesn’t believe that clothes should be comfortable. She believes they should make you look good and therefore that should make you feel comfortable.
She designs a man’s jacket with a feminine cut to make the man look more masculine. Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she now contributes to her husband Andreas Kronthaler who creates the main collection while she concentrates on her activism: her climate revolution; her anti-fracking; and Cool Earth anti rainforest destruction campaigns.
Most recently, even though thoroughly English, she has been adamant that Scotland should vote Yes to independence. ‘In England there is hardly any democracy left. The Government does what it wants. They are prepared to poison our water so that businesses can frack. You Scotland can have the government you want,’ she urged and was disappointed in the No vote. She has always been a rebel.
She is credited with creating the punk revolution along with her lover and business partner Malcolm McLaren. He invented the hype and put together the bands, the Sex Pistols, the anarchy. And she designed the look, the safety pins, the ripped T-shirts, the slogans that went with it.
The McLaren Westwood partnership was love/hate. Angry and volatile, competitive. McLaren was cruel to her, made her cry every day until now she can’t cry any more. Yet he needed her and she needed to be loyal to him. Even when he called her ‘a seamstress.’ But more of that later.
I have just read Vivienne’s biography written with Ian Kelly who provides an intellectual satnav to her alarming thought processes. I am at Vivienne’s Battersea headquarters, on the top floor. Mood boards, 18th Century prints of powdered ladies, pieces of fabric, a large cutting table. I haven’t seen Vivienne in 20 years when I used to pay off £3 a week for velvet corsets, platform shoes and a black velvet coat with fur that had a tartan sister.
Her greeting is Aga warm. Her soft Derbyshire accent purrs. ‘You used to be a punk and now you interview famous people,’ she says with delight at the incongruity.
At 73 she is full of the same raw energy and she has the same pinkish red crayoned on eye make-up. She is wearing a black dress, loose long-sleeved with shoulders that flap down and point like a naughty witch. Her hair is a platinum white and shaved to her head. Her lips are a matt maroon, full and when she smiles there’s perfect little teeth.
We perch at her cutting table. What was it that prompted her to collaborate on the biography? ‘I liked the books that Ian had already written. He’s a very serious, very nice person. I’d been avoiding a book for ages. Another book came out about me. I didn’t like it. Andreas said you have to do it. And I said the last thing I want to do is write about myself. But when it came to it I found it interesting to explain things that I had done. Like things when I was a child.’
The stories about the child Vivienne are some of the most fascinating in the book. It’s like she was born old and wise and as she grew up became more child like and impulsive. Though the whole time being intellectual, like a clever Benjamin Button.
She was always a fighter for justice. Sometimes she would admit to doing something wrong that she hadn’t done to get a sense of fairness for other people. ‘Yes, I was just interested to see what would happen.’
She had an epiphany when she first saw a picture of the crucifixion. ‘That’s when I realised the world was full of cruelty and hypocrisy. I couldn’t understand how we let that happen.’
There was a little boy at her school that everyone called Dirty Edward, nobody liked him. She said she was his girlfriend. ‘Well he was a poor little thing. He was in his own head and never talked to anybody. He was really a bit mental. He’d been isolated and avoided all love, probably even from his mother.
I wonder if she had the same impulses to save Malcolm, seeing him as a little boy who wasn’t loved, rejected by his mother and left to grow up with his cruel grandmother who he believed was his mother and never knowing his father until I introduced them in 1989, but that’s another long story.
She giggles. ‘I can see that already, yes. Everybody thought that boy was a pain in the a***. But you know I like a bit of a rebel.’ Here it’s unclear whether she’s talking about Malcolm or Dirty Edward and before I have a chance to pin her down she goes on to tell me how her son Joe Corré, co-founder of Agent Provocateur, has since started a new company, A Child of the Jago.
‘Joe was inspired by a man called Jack Sheppard who escaped from jail more than once quite dramatically. He was a total rebel. And his clothes have a country feel. I am very proud of him.’
Has he inherited her spirit of rebellion? ‘Yes, but no really. My children have got mixes of me in them, of course. But each child is an alien. They are nothing to do with you. They are not your possessions. They are who they are. My children are good people. They would not shit on a friend.’
Her elder son Ben Westwood lives in Japan running a photographic company. ‘Joe is brilliant at strategy. He came on the Let’s Talk About Fracking campaign with me. We tried to have a debate about this but we found that none of the pro-frackers would come.
‘Do you know people in fracking areas in America are having to spend $1,000 a month because their water is poisoned. She is on a crusade now and the only thing that stops her is when her husband Andreas comes up. He is tall and impressive, curly hair and penetrating blue grey eyes. They met when he was a student of hers. He is 25 years younger: attentive, adoring. She has said in the past that he has the kind of body that Arnold Schwarzenegger would have had if he hadn’t pumped himself up.
He is rather strapping and gentle all at the same time. And while Vivienne talks about how much she dislikes Obama and doesn’t like the look of Michelle, Andreas thinks ‘she’s got flair, she’s got style. That little cardigan she wears. That’s her look.’
Vivienne says, ‘Well I could dress her, of course. But she’s married to someone disgusting and therefore she ought to be doing something about not letting things happen or trying to divorce him. But I suppose that’s no reason why you shouldn’t make somebody look good.’ We all laugh.
‘Now my hair is shaved I feel I set an example as Vivienne the freedom fighter. I find that clothes that make me look like a hermit suit me. Can you see that this carries a sense of the auto irony and devil may care. That’s when I think I look important, when I’m amused by myself. It gives me power in my actions.’
Was there a decision behind getting rid of the tangerine coloured hair? ‘I kept putting the henna on my head and seeing the white parting all the time, so I just decided not to put the red on it one day.
‘I remember sitting on the bus with my mother in my village growing up. (She was born near Glossop, Derbyshire). And there was an evacuee which meant she was probably somebody suspicious anyway. And this woman had black roots in her hair. It was sort of shameful, but today what you see is mostly white roots. Andreas cut it. We cut it off then shaved it. We did it again recently.’
It is interesting to see how growing up in the war influenced her design wise. The Utility years were all about conservation; minimum fabric maximum return. And that’s always the way she’s cut her clothes. But it’s more than that. Having to create whole worlds out of cardboard boxes made her pro resourcefulness and anti excess.
‘I’m glad I was born in that period. I just think it’s dreadful now- children inundated with all this rubbish. Especially fuchsia coloured plastic and pink bicycles for little girls. It’s like bubble gum. It’s awful.
‘Compare that to a child growing up with nothing but crawling on the floor with little delft tiles, you know those Dutch tiles where there’d be a windmill or a falcon. Wonderful things to look at.
‘I didn’t have anything around me. No Art. And my mother always read to us. And that was important, how I could discover art. I remember a shop window in the local sweet shop. In the middle of the window was a book, a Bible with a pre-Raphaelite picture of God the Father with a lantern. “I am the Light of the World.” It was beautiful. I’d never seen anything like that before and I knew my mother would get it for me for Christmas. She would have done anything for us.’
She and her mother Dora were always incredibly close. Dora gave her everything she had and was constantly telling her she was proud of her up until the day she died in 2008. Her father came from a long line of cobblers. All the children went to sleep with her mother singing.
Her first marriage was to Derek Westwood, a factory worker, who was good looking and who could dance well. He was a devoted father to Ben and a general good egg. ‘When we were at first married I wasn’t happy. I just wasn’t content looking after my child. I needed to know more of the world.’
Vivienne was always top of her class and had trained to be a schoolteacher. ‘I fancied being an actress at one point. I would have been good because I’ve got imagination and I can put myself into other people’s shoes. There’s not time now I’m afraid. But I’d like to write plays.’ There follows a monologue about her love for Peter Brook and when he put on an Arabic play and it involved Balinese bird masks and feathers. And Vivienne is entranced by that and her desire ‘to put on something that would be favourable to Arabs. To make us understand that they’ve got this incredible culture and question why we have made this polarity. We are reaping the harvest now, you know. I blame Tony Blair for that man having his head chopped off.’
She’s right of course but I wonder how we got to the man having his heads chopped off when I’d asked about her first marriage. She composes herself. ‘People grow out of their relationships. He was very good looking and charismatic. I think of him with great affection but I grew out of him.’
He wanted to be a pilot and that’s what he became. Vivienne wanted to be an intellectual. ‘I think it’s absolutely important that people stay friends.’
Did she stay friends with Malcolm? ‘No, I didn’t. No, I did not. Malcolm was impossible. Malcolm was so bad to me. I would never have told any of these things when Malcolm was alive. Malcolm was if you are not with me in any way you are against me, you are my enemy, you are taking the bread from my mouth. I didn’t put it in the book but he was very jealous of me. he would say things like ‘she’s just a seamstress’ and ‘Vivienne would not be a designer if she’d never met me.’
Malcolm was very insecure, very needy? ‘Yes. And he really wanted success, Malcolm. And that was his downfall because he never really found out about anything, he just invented everything. He had a good mind and I liked the way he put things together. “Go wild in the country where snakes in the grass are absolutely free”,’ she sings to the infamous Bow Wow Wow tune.
‘He made a collage of things, he made a story, but he had no logic. He was very good at drawing.’ When they were together they used to fight every day? ‘Yes. He used to drive me mad. He used to be provocative and selfish and spiteful, so spiteful. He would try to undermine your confidence and say something that would make you feel bad. All the time.’
In the book she describes how whenever she went out to do something, anything, he would be bereft and she once found him going crazy walking down the lines in the middle of the road. Needy and cruel.
‘He was very similar to John (sic) Rotten. I call it jiving with people’s emotions. Come close to me and as soon as you’re close you’ll get pushed away. And when you’re far away they’ll pull you back. And then they’ll get frightened when you get too close.’
When she finally left him, after years of being terrible to her he begged her to come back. ‘He treated Joe exactly the way we’ve been describing. He was terrible to his own son. (When he died in 2010 he didn’t leave his only son a penny). But at the same time he gave him all these adventures. He would have been a good schoolteacher. One day he did a day at school where he told them all to bring in things from the land and then he would make them have a conversation amongst all the objects they’d brought in. He made pandemonium, but the kids were excited.
‘What did I learn from him? I don’t know. I loved his ideas.’
For a while they worked together creatively. At the heart of the punk movement they had a shop called Sex, renamed Seditionaries in December 1976, on the King’s Road. ‘It was hard to put up with Malcolm’s cruelty. He was also cruel to Ben. He didn’t need to make me think that I was stupid, I thought that anyway. I thought that from the time I saw the crucifixion and I couldn’t understand what was going on in the world.’
She doesn’t feel stupid now. It took nearly a decade of being more or less on her own for her to get to know herself again. ‘I love working on my own. I find it very difficult to work with Andreas.’
And here’s another contradiction. She seems addicted to having the men she loves also being the men with whom she works. Andreas, now the main designer for Vivienne Westwood, exudes a sweetness, but also he is exacting.
‘We suffer because he’s such a perfectionist. But he’s so capable, so wonderful. The lining has to be the best thing that you’ve ever felt next to your body. Everything has to be wonderful for the gold label. I do influence the other collections as well and I find it easier when I’m the boss. I am not the boss when we design. Right from the beginning, even as a student, he started telling everybody what to do, and they listened because he was passionate. So we just had to let him do it. I tend to play the role of assistant to him and it’s been more difficult as I’m doing all this activism and I’m not always engaged at the start of the collection and if you’re not absorbed at the beginning you can get lost.’
She and Andreas married in secret when she was 50 and he was 25. She only told her sons. Despite her protests that he is bossy, he exudes calm. How does working together affect their relationship? Do they argue? ‘No, no. We don’t argue because I do what Andreas says. All you need to do with Andreas is say I like it, and that’s good enough. He is the most incredible talent. I’m not aware of myself being a talent so we’ll just put me to one side. He is incredible.’
Was that what first attracted her to him, his talent? Or did she just think she fancied him? ‘When I met Andreas he was already attractive to quite a lot of people in the troop that I was teaching. One of them still sends him cakes because he is really charismatic. I was attracted to him purely as a man, not necessarily about what he could do. I would go into rooms looking for Andreas. And soon he was meeting me off airplanes and if I went into a room he would always be there. He says for him it was love at first sight. He has told me that this has never happened before.
‘I worry about my activism when I see Andreas getting so tired. I feel guilty. He needs me nearer than I am most of the time.’ As if by magic he appears to make cups of tea.
She talks about her website, climate revolution and how that informs her fashion. ‘Consumption is the biggest propaganda. It’s ruined the world. I would ban advertising because it’s taken the place of culture. Nobody is making choices, you are just being bombarded. It’s stopping people from thinking.’
Not Vivienne though, she’s always thinking. ‘I’m always worried. I wake up in the middle of the night. But it’s good because I sort things out. I am proud to be called an activist. If somebody asks me what is the inspiration for this fashion show I say I’m afraid I can’t tell you, I can only talk about climate change. It’s been a build-up, having this public face and the opportunity to speak. A lifetime of ideas of how to make the world a better place.’
The pictures of women in corsets around us are inspirations for Andreas, although Vivienne took the corset and reinvented it to make women feel more powerful and more feminine. ‘Oh, a woman in a corset looks like a goddess.’
She talks with love about her favourite supermodel Campbell. ‘She gives herself too big a schedule. She can never fulfill all her commitments. Kate Moss says “I couldn’t cope with her schedule. It would be too exhausting.”’ She also likes Pamela Anderson and Jerry Hall. ‘I love Jerry because she’s so kind and so polite.’ She mimics her Texan accent. ‘And Pamela. I just love her. She is the most caring person and she fights for what she believes.’
She saw a picture of her granddaughter Cora, now 17, in the Evening Standard. ‘She keeps getting photographed. She’s a beautiful girl. I wish she would use it to stand for something although it’s terrible for me to impost that on anybody. I would also like to see more of her. I only see her through Joe or if she’s got a birthday party and now she’s 17 she doesn’t have birthday parties. She’s a teenager, she’s busy, she never calls me. I wish she would read my only diary because I think my diary is a point of view you wouldn’t get anywhere else. I am trying to understand the world we live in. I think she could get a lot from it.’
We are interrupted because Vivienne must go downstairs urgently for a photoshoot with someone who is modelling some of her clothes. We sweep downstairs and there in a purple ballgown, so corseted that the most famous breasts on television are popping out in front of me. It’s Christina Hendricks, smiling sweetly and telling Vivienne how much she loves her. We all do.