Tales from the Church of Westwood

Vivienne Westwood by Jane Mulvagh HarperCollins pounds 19.99
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The Independent Culture
Weak, control freak, a bad judge of men, social climber (but pretends not to be), hates anyone having more attention than she does, drops people who disappoint her (unless they're men). These are some of the things I learned about our Viv in Jane Mulvagh's authorised, then unauthorised (Westwood changed her mind), biography of one of our leading fashion designers.

It's not all bad, though. Considering that Mulvagh too must have been at the receiving end of Westwood's slap/kiss form of seduction (they knew each other for more than a decade), she paints a remarkably fair picture. At the end of this book, you feel you've worked for Westwood for 20 years and both like and detest her - although it's doubtful anyone could last 20 years. During the Seventies, Westwood would remind slackers that they were privileged to work for the "Church of McLaren and Westwood", speaking of her one-time partner, Malcolm. And Jordan, an erstwhile employee, came in one day to find a sign saying "You're late Jordan. You can fuck off!" pasted to the door. Charming.

There are many of these colourful insights. Goodness only knows what sort of book Mulvagh could have written if Westwood had not initially barred her friends from talking to the author. (She later changed her mind about this too and some were then allowed to co-operate.)

As it is, this is a very fine biography, well written and cohesive. It has pictures, a Vivienne CV and an excellent index. "My mother once bought some encyclopaedias," says Westwood of her adored mother, Dora, who thought reading was a waste of time, "but they weren't the right sort where you could look things up." She will not be able to say this of her biography which, of course, Westwood will read.

One of the most interesting and insightful aspects of this book is Westwood's men. Her famous alliance with McLaren (personal as well as professional - she had a son by him) was to be the first of a handful - so far - of weird Svengali-like associations with the sort of men most would avoid even when full of vodka. After him came Carlo D'Amario who owned a PR company called Casanova and "his glass eye (the original had been lost in an earlier misadventure) fell upon Vivienne". As with McLaren, she became involved with D'Amario both professionally and romantically. Today the former relationship still exists: he is her manager.

Then there was Gary Ness, who fed Westwood's intellectual needs. He would give her lists of books he felt she would benefit from reading and she would then quote from them, not always knowing what she was talking about. "One enduring characteristic of Vivienne is that, when talking to her, one hears echoes of the opinions held by the last person she held a conversation with," writes Mulvagh.

Westwood will no doubt hate this book, but she shouldn't. Although some aspects of her personality (as told here but who really knows?) are not exactly pleasant, it is obvious she has more than made her mark on an industry from which she feels constantly excluded - she has twice won the Designer of the Year award and is the holder of an OBE.

Westwood is a highly complex character. She appears outwardly strong and her actions would suggest weakness but ultimately, deep down, Westwood is as she first appears: a tough and uncompromising woman who operates on the peripheries of madness and genius. She once dressed up as Margaret Thatcher (whom she physically resembles) for the cover of Tatler but her character is actually far more like the late Princess of Wales. A film of this book is sure to follow.

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