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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.