Happy birthday, Dame Vivienne! Still wild at heart at 70

Fashion editor Susannah Frankel celebrates the life and work of our most imaginative – and imitated – designer

The grande dame of British fashion turns 70 next Friday and, as any recent sighting – and there are many – will testify, she is on sparkling form. And Vivienne Westwood has every reason to be happy. In a climate where financial independence and creative control are as precious as they are rare, this designer has both in spades. As profoundly anarchic as she is inspirational, Dame Vivienne consistently challenges protocol and refuses to compromise – and all while creating fashion which is as proudly individual as it is lovely. "Clothes for heroes" indeed.

It all started back in 1965 when she met Malcolm McLaren. He opened Let It Rock on London's King's Road in 1971 selling vintage vinyl, radios, Brylcreem, music fanzines and 1950s clothing which Westwood – nee Swire, a former schoolteacher from provincial working-class roots – took apart to see how it was made.

For his part, McLaren marvelled at this woman who was "like a bright peacock, a walking traffic light, though she never thought of herself as beautiful".

By 1976, the store had been re-christened SEX; punk was in the ascendant and Westwood was dressing Sid, Siouxsie & Co in T-shirts that she slashed, knotted and generally defaced using rubber, horsehair and, most famously, boiled chicken bones. Then came Pirates (1979-1981), all billowing shirts and gold foil teeth that triggered the New Romantic Movement, and Buffalo Girls (1982).

With the shoulder pad at the height of its thrusting popularity, Westwood placed the emphasis back on the hips, pioneering the mini-crini (1985). She appropriated the sartorial staples of the British aristocracy, reinventing hunting jackets, Harris tweed (1987) and crowns. By the 1990s, and railing against minimalism and what she saw as the banal uniformity of the times, Westwood was dressing women in hand-painted corsets, drawing inspiration, she said, from French Old Master painting and the philosophical writings of Bertrand Russell. In 1992 – knickerless – she picked up an OBE; in 2006, she was made a dame.

As she enters her eighth decade, Westwood, happily married to her creative partner, Andreas Kronthaler, remains wild at heart although she is now also wise.

"I offer a choice in an age of conformity," she said recently. As the chasm between artistry and commercialism becomes wider than ever, Westwood is one of only very few to bridge that gap. She is among the most powerfully influential creative forces in Britain – not only in fashion but also in modern culture more broadly. And that is something truly worth celebrating.

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