Taking liberties

FASHION & PERVERSITY: A Life of Vivienne Westwood by Fred Vermorel, Bloomsbury pounds 16.99

THIS is a muddle of a book, but about one third of it is fascinating. The part that holds our interest concentrates on what the whole book purports to be about, but isn't - Vivienne Westwood, the enfant terrible-turned- grande dame of British fashion, and her progress from quiet northern schoolteacher to situationist seditionary and finally to internationally acclaimed priestess of high-shock glamour.

Fred Vermorel (long-time fellow prankster of Westwood's brother Gordon and of Malcolm McLaren) justifies his "Imaginary Interview" with Westwood as "me taking liberties with everything I can recall Vivienne saying to me over 30 years". As a method, this may be any biographer's secret dream - no tiresome attributing of quotes or checking of dates - and if the subject does not object, who are we to quibble? Since "taking liberties" is the leitmotiv of this whole story, the fruity tone of the "Imaginary Interview" makes it enjoyable, fascinating and mildly horrifying in roughly equal parts.

Here is Vivienne's "voice", in Vermorel's version: "We got Sid [Vicious] into the Sex Pistols when the band was going through its final phase. That was really to break it up ... Glen had started asking awkward questions like: 'Where is all the money going?' Malcolm was pouring most of the Pistols' earnings into film projects. The boys were really on quite small wages and had no idea of the business dealings going on in their name. But they would only have thrown it away on luxuries, so it was right that Malcolm was spending it to keep the ideas going ... In any case, Glen didn't really like the rebellious aspect of it all. With his soft face he just wanted to be a Beatle really."

The monster McLaren and Westwood created - the Sex Pistols - got out of hand: that is, became successful. The killing of the band was as deliberate as its creation: just as they'd started by employing someone to write letters of complaint about the Pistols to the press, at the end McLaren booked them into halls that were too small, on an American tour, virtually guaranteeing fights; Westwood would start a punch-up in the audience if things threatened to be orderly, and of course "we got Sid to replace Glen. That was enough to destroy any band!"

Vermorel's Westwood revels in contradictions. When McLaren wanted her to set fire to the waxworks of the Beatles in Madame Tussaud's, she says she thought this idea "inspired", just before telling us, approvingly, that her school taught her the difference between right and wrong. Vermorel has her half-delighting in the details of being an appalling mother: when Joe, her son with McLaren, was tiny she returned from a trip to find him in a sort of catatonic trance. "I don't think I've ever been so worried ... I was determined I would never leave him alone, ever again," she vows; a couple of pages later: "Joe was only four when he first went to boarding school..."

Along with Vivienne's background (northern, lower-middle-class), Vermorel brings across her calculated outrageousness, which has lasted well into her years of success and respectability: the book's jacket photograph shows her outside Buckingham Palace after collecting her OBE, dressed to the nines in a flamboyant skirt swirled up so high it shows that she was, as usual, wearing no knickers.

Malcolm McLaren, with his limitless appetite for bad-taste stunts, shows up as an equally vivid personality. Westwood pays tribute over and over again to his brilliance, his originality; while subjugating her own talent to his, she made the clothes, ran the shop, earned the money he lavished on his wild projects. It was an exceptional partnership, clearly: he poured in ideas, she turned out clothing that, however outlandish (sewn with boiled-clean chicken bones, decorated with sex-shop gadgets, slashed, pinned or chained) always found a market. And after their separation, his jealous revenge on her growing international success is all too predictable.

Vermorel manages to convey Westwood's autocratic/anarchic world view ("I am an elitist") as vividly as her intriguing beliefs and theories about clothes - that wearing cheap fabric makes you feel bad; that the sexiest cut is one which works against the natural line of the body, to accentuate it. As the punk frenzy cools, we see Westwood becoming a serious student of her art and craft: deep in study in the V&A; crawling around underneath exhibits in costume museums to see how an elaborate 18th-century dress was constructed. To create modern clothes that are anti-modern - that is, against the ethos of naturalness - became her great trademark: although she's often thought of as the queen of the street look, she believes that "The idea of trying to capture what's happening on the street is wrong. You immediately become old-fashioned. To come up with anything original it is essential to forget what is going on at the moment."

All this comes to an end too soon, however, as Vermorel moves on to the second and third parts of his book, which are about ... Vermorel. His art- school-wannabe reminiscences give way to Paris '68, his theory that Malcolm McLaren suffers from Tourette's Syndrome, and his "situationism", about which he is unusually boring. At long last he gets back to Westwood, briefly, with a portrait of her present-day operation (Paris fashion shows: very frantic; supermodels: very tall, very thin; finances: very ramshackle), but it's too little, too late.

Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral