Provocative fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who created the iconic, envelope-pushing looks of Britain’s punk and New Romantic movements in the 1970s and ‘80s, has died “peacefully and surrounded” by her family in Clapham, South London, according to an announcement on her fashion house’s social media. A cause of death was not revealed. She was 81 years old.
Westwood was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in the English village of Tintwistle, Derbyshire, on April 8, 1941, and after a brief stint at Harrow Art School, she began selling her own jewelry line on London’s Portobello Road in the early 1960s. She met her second husband, future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, in the late ‘60s, and became a chief architect of punk style when she and McLaren opened a Chelsea district boutique, Let It Rock, on King’s Road in 1971.
The store, renamed Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die in 1973, SEX in 1974, and Seditionaries in 1976, became a punk hub, boasting customers like the four original Sex Pistols, Chrissie Hynde, Adam Ant, and Siouxsie Sioux. In her 2014 memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine, a member of seminal first-wave punk girl group the Slits, wrote: “Vivienne and Malcolm use clothes to shock, irritate and provoke a reaction but also to inspire change. Mohair jumpers, knitted on big needles, so loosely that you can see all the way through them, T-shirts slashed and written on by hand, seams and labels on the outside, showing the construction of the piece; these attitudes are reflected in the music we make. It’s OK to not be perfect, to show the workings of your life and your mind in your songs and your clothes.”
In 1981, as new wave and New Romanticism came into vogue in Britain, Westwood created her “Pirate” fashion collection, the designs of which were frequently worn by members of Duran Duran, Adam and the Ants, Culture Club, and Bow Wow Wow. During this era, some of Westwood’s signature elements — the squiggle pattern, curved-heel buckle boots, courtesan-inspired corsetry, Victorian crinolines, fluffy blouses, tartans, and orb-shaped jewelry — were established.
“I’m sick of this new Puritanism there’s been in England since ’76. I think the kids, too, are sick of being thought of as ‘We’re all in the gutter together,’ dressing only in black and gray, being the Blank Generation. I like a bit of color, a bit of flash, a bit of honor, a bit of dash,” Adam Ant told journalist Michael Watts at the time, while Westwood herself stated, “We just spent 10 years re-assimilating the ’30s through the ’70s. The ’80s will be a technological age for which we need to equip ourselves with a feeling of human warmth from past ages — of culture taken from the time of pirates and Louis XIV.” According to a blog post on Westwood’s website, the orb logo, which combined Britain’s crown jewels with the ring of Saturn, “perfectly reflected” the designer’s “idea of taking tradition into the future.”
Along with her style-setting career, Westwood stayed true to her punk roots and was an ardent political activist throughout her life, supporting the U.K’s Labour and Green parties, the British civil rights group Liberty, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the clean-energy crowdfunding platform Trillion Fund, PETA, Chelsea Manning, and Julian Assange, among other causes. She penned a manifesto called Active Resistance to Propaganda, which she explained dealt with the pursuit of art in relation to the human condition and climate change.
In 1989, Westwood appeared on the cover of Tatler magazine dressed as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with the caption “This woman was once a punk,” and even when she accepted her OBE in 1992, she thumbed her nose at the British establishment, wearing nothing but sheer tights under her skirt. (“I have heard that the picture amused the Queen,” Westwood later quipped to the press.) On her 80th birthday in 2021, Westwood was commissioned by art platform CIRCA to create a new 10-minute film, screened in Piccadilly Circus, about the growing environmental crisis. “I have a plan 2 save the World. Capitalism is a war economy + war is the biggest polluter, therefore Stop War + change economy 2 fair distribution of wealth at the same time: NO MANS LAND. Let’s be clear, U + I can’t stop war just like that. But we can stop arms production + that would halt climate change cc + financial Crash. Long term this will stop war,” she stated in the film.
Westwood advanced from OBE to DBE in 2006 “for services to fashion,” and among her other accolades were two awards for British Designer of the Year, a Fellowship at King’s College London, and an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Heriot-Watt University. In 2012, she was selected by artist Sir Peter Blake to appear in a new version of his most famous artwork — the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover — to celebrate British cultural icons. That same year, she was chosen as one of 60 people to mark the diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II; a tartan Westwood outfit was featured on a commemorative U.K. postage stamp; and Time magazine declared her one of the greatest fashion icons of all time.
Westwood’s designs remained relevant and sought-after throughout her career, with young celebrities like Dua Lipa, the Hadid sisters, Kristen Stewart, Rita Ora, Hailey Bieber, Doja Cat, Dita Von Teese, Miley Cyrus, and Princess Eugenie all wearing her fashions. A Westwood wedding gown was a key plot device in the 2008 film adaptation of Sex and the City, and in real life, Carrie Bradshaw/Sarah Jessica Parker’s Westwood dress from the movie sold out on Net-a-porter within a few hours. Pharrell Williams generated a social media frenzy when he wore a Westwood Buffalo hat, originally from Westwood’s 1982-83 collection, to the 2014 Grammy Awards; the hat was so popular that it actually inspired its own parody Twitter account. Westwood’s pearl bas relief orb choker even became the most popular accessory on TikTok in 2021.
Dame Vivienne Westwood is survived by her son with Malcolm McLaren, Joseph Corré (who also went into fashion, founding the popular lingerie company Agent Provocateur); her granddaughter Cora Corré, a fashion model; Ben Westwood, her son with first husband Derek Westwood; and her third husband and creative partner, Andreas Kronthaler, who stated Thursday, “I will continue with Vivienne in my heart. We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with.”
“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. She led an amazing life,” her brand’s Instagram tribute stated. “Her innovation and impact over the last 60 years has been immense and will continue into the future.”
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