Creative Industries: Queen Vivienne

Hilary Clarke talks to the doyenne of punk turned haute couturier
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The Independent Online
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD has had several titles bestowed on her during her 20-year career as a fashion designer - Doyenne of Punk, the Alternative Queen Mum. But the tabloid headline she likes best was the one that called her a "National Treasure."

It is an apt description of Westwood, who epitomises the cutting edge creativity with which the UK is associated. Born of a working-class family from Derbyshire, Westwood was a teacher before she became a fashion designer. Her first foray into fashion, at a not-so-tender 36, resulted from "dying bits of cloth on my kitchen stove" and "cutting up clothes to see how they fitted together". Her tartan bondage trousers and slashed t-shirts stamped an aesthetic on that most rebellious of youth movements - punk.

She posed in full Elizabethan attire holding a stave a decade before Oasis, Tony Blair's Government and "Cool Britannia". She used a brassiere as an outer garment long before Jean-Paul Gaultier and Madonna.

With her 57th birthday approaching, Westwood still cuts a different cloth, even though she is more haute couture than non-conformist, as well as the main shareholder in a multi-million pound empire. She still comes across as mildly eccentric, even slightly nervous, flitting between references to 19th-century philosophers and the movement of fabric. She smokes Gitanes and, after 40 years in London, hasn't lost her northern accent. She is also much prettier in real life than in photos, carrying off her yellow curly bob and grey miniskirt perfectly.

"Although punk was really anti-fashion it was also avant-garde and I thought at the time it should have been on the cover of Vogue." Westwood says she got fed up with being a "token rebel" after the collapse of the Sex Pistols, the first punk band managed by her then partner Malcolm McLaren. "If you go on trying to attack the establishment all you do is end up a victim of it because you are just feeding them with ideas."

But her transformation to haute couturier was slow, even though it came about much earlier than the media gave her credit for. For example she did not, she says, mean to show she wasn't wearing knickers to collect her OBE from the Queen in 1992. She just didn't expect her woollen skirt to rise so high as she twirled to demonstrate the quality of the fabric.

Even so, until five years ago, despite international acclaim, Westwood was in poor financial shape. Money was low every six months after each collection. All the profits she made at her shop in World's End, Chelsea were pilfered by dishonest staff.

How her present company, Vivienne Westwood, has grown from a staff of five to 110 and a turnover of more than pounds 20m is remarkable. Her clothes are now sold all over the world. There is a Westwood pret-a-porter and sportswear range. This year she joins the world's other major fashion houses in launching her own perfume. Last year Westwood beat such rivals as the brewers Guinness to carry away the Export Times award for outstanding export achievement.

Westwood is modest about her financial success, attributing it to her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, who now works full time in the firm, and her business manager and former lover Carlo d'Amario. It was D'Amario, a former fashion publicist, who came up with the idea of doing a Westwood collection for Littlewoods. He has also kept strict control over the licensing and copyright of her designs.

Westwood's input is mainly creative. She now sees herself as a rebel against the do-it-yourself attitude that epitomised punk, and bemoans the lack of training and apprenticeships for the fashion trade. "Without technique, self-expression is not possible. I remember years agoHardy Amies going on about how much difference a centimetre made to a cut. I thought, what an old fuddy duddy, but now I couldn't agree more."