Ben Westwood: What would his mother say?

Brought up by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, he spent his teenage years at the epicentre of the punk-rock explosion. After that, there were only two ways Ben Westwood could rebel: become a chartered accountant, or do something really shocking. Stuart Husband discusses fetishes, fantasy and family ties with a crusading pornographer
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The Independent Online

If our domestic interiors are indicators of our state of mind - mood-boards of the soul, if you will - then the mood round at Ben Westwood's is decidedly lubricious. Every inch of wall-space in his cramped council flat in Battersea, south London, is peppered with images of women in various states of specialised undress - thigh-booted, fishnet-stockinged, lace-pantied - and/or trussed and hog-tied. Some of these pictures, the fresh-faced, black-and-white, 1950s Health & Efficiency-style shots, are snipped from vintage bondage magazines. Others, the colour-saturated, more explicitly gynaecological, yet still oddly innocent portraits, are Ben's own.

If our domestic interiors are indicators of our state of mind - mood-boards of the soul, if you will - then the mood round at Ben Westwood's is decidedly lubricious. Every inch of wall-space in his cramped council flat in Battersea, south London, is peppered with images of women in various states of specialised undress - thigh-booted, fishnet-stockinged, lace-pantied - and/or trussed and hog-tied. Some of these pictures, the fresh-faced, black-and-white, 1950s Health & Efficiency-style shots, are snipped from vintage bondage magazines. Others, the colour-saturated, more explicitly gynaecological, yet still oddly innocent portraits, are Ben's own.

"How would I describe myself?" he muses, while painstakingly assembling an impossibly dainty roll-up. "Well, obviously I'm a photographer, but I'd actually prefer to be known as a pornographer."

A pornotographer, then?

"Yeah," he cackles. "That just about covers the waterfront."

The fruits of Ben's obsessions are collected in his new monograph, F**k Fashion, a torrid burlesque of post-watershed sexual theatre, in which an array of women - no men are allowed to despoil this inverted Eden - romp in as abandoned a fashion as they can while bound, gagged and contorted. The more debauched the scenarios get, however, the more knockabout and innocuous they seem; style guru Stephen Bayley may quote Pepys, Havelock Ellis and Camus in his somewhat overheated foreword to the book, but Westwood himself calls the models his "dollys", and prefers to invoke Benny Hill. "You know those girls who were always chasing him around in their French maids' outfits?" he recalls dreamily. "They were always attractive and wholesome girls, weren't they? But they were definitely willing to be a bit naughty." Ben's philosophy, he elaborates, can be summed up by something Malcolm McLaren once said to him: "He reckoned the three S's, sex, style, and subversion, are the three ingredients of any true rock'n'roll idea. And that suits me," continues Westwood, "because I've always been a bit of a rock'n'roller."

By now, even if one was unaware of his background, the Westwood-McLaren convergence and a propensity for controversy spiced with a healthy dollop of English eccentricity, might have given the game away; Ben, 42, is indeed Vivienne Westwood's eldest son, and, with his whippet-thin, 6ft-plus frame clad in a lurex cardigan and tartan trousers of his mother's design, his sculpted cheekbones, and his unruly, lank, just-toppled-out-of-bed hair (which, at noon, he actually just has, along with a fresh-faced "dolly" named Bianca, who just happens to be wearing an approximation of a French maid's outfit), he's every inch the grizzled, piratical brigand (the only slivers of wall not plastered with dungeon-dollys are occupied by portraits of Kurt Cobain). Westwood is rather shy and softly-spoken; he has the same thrusting chin and large, intense eyes as his younger brother Joe Corre (who, as proprietor of steamy lingerie chain Agent Provocateur, also has a thing for ladies' nether-garments, albeit in a more commercial context), and, when excited, unleashes an ostentatious Cockney drawl ("riiiiight"), that instantly recalls Malcolm McLaren at his lairiest.

Which is odd, as Westwood, unlike Corre, is not actually McLaren's son. His father is Derek Westwood, an airline pilot that Vivienne met and married when she was still a teacher in her native Derbyshire. The pair split when Ben was three, and while he remains on good terms with his dad, now retired and living in Leicestershire - "he's a very decent man, lovely," he says simply - it's clear that his mother has been the dominant presence in his life; his talk invariably, and to a degree subconsciously, always circles back to her.

"I've learnt so much from her," he says, gripping his cheroot and gazing at his threadbare rug. "She's a real inspiration to me. I always just thought she was really..." he searches for the right word to convey his depth of feeling - "... nice," he concludes. "And very brave. She's always stood her ground and gone her own way, never compromised, and she instilled that in Joe and I too. She's very passionate. And a bit mischievous too," he adds with a grin.

After her split from Derek, Vivienne and Ben moved to London, and McLaren arrived on the scene; after Vivienne was fired from her teaching job, "She was taking these inner-city kids on nature rambles without telling anyone," says Ben. "She was too unorthodox, typically" - she and McLaren went into full-time subversion. "I didn't have a great relationship with Malcolm at the time," says Ben. "He was only 17 himself then, and we were both competing for my mum's attention. He wasn't really ready to assume the burdens of fatherhood; he was too childlike himself. But he had this great spirit of adventure about him."

It was certainly an unorthodox childhood - Malcolm and Vivienne's choice of bedtime stories for their sons were tales of the French Revolution, Red Indians and pirates rather than Winnie the Pooh; there was also the famous occasion when, during the summer holidays, they suggested that Ben and Joe cycle alone from London to their grandparents' in Devon; they were 10 and six at the time. "It took a week," grins Westwood. "We had a tent that we'd pitch on the way, and we'd buy sweets with our money and eat berries as we went. It all suited me fine," he insists. "It taught me to be self-reliant."

But wasn't there any part of him that just wanted straight, bland, normal parents?

"No," he says firmly. "I actually lived with my father for 18 months when I was eight and nine, but I chose to come back and live with Mum. I hadn't seen her for ages, and I remember her coming to collect me; I saw her coming from about a mile away on this really straight road with her big, bouffant, bleached hair and an amazing red coat, and I just felt this wave of love for her. Don't get me wrong," he cautions, "I did used to get quite shy and embarrassed when I was with her. She always stuck out for the way she dressed and her outspokenness. It was confusing for me, because I wanted to speak up for her, I didn't want to let her down. She was always straight with us. There were no silly rules or discipline. We were allowed to make our own mistakes. And the key thing was, we were never bored; there was always something kicking off."

The big "something" was, of course, the Sex Pistols and punk; with such a febrile home atmosphere, no wonder Westwood found his Surrey boarding school "a bit boring really; I didn't see the point of it". When punk became a tabloid scandal, he didn't tell his classmates who his mum and stepdad were, or that bricks were coming through their windows and death-threats down their phone-lines. Despite all that, he thought the Pistols were "great" and Sex, McLaren and Westwood's King's Road shop where he hung out at 13, was "really interesting".

Sex, lest we forget, purveyed bondage gear and was presided over by Jordan, the archetypal be-quiffed and be-rubbered dominatrix. Westwood was of, shall we say, impressionable age. "I know what you're getting at," he grins, * "and I fancied Jordan like mad. And Malcolm would have all these old bondage magazines at home, cutting out images and sticking them on to T-shirts. But I already knew I was interested in bondage when I was eight years old."

How could he know at that age?

"Well, you just know, don't you?" he says artlessly. "I remember seeing Maureen O'Hara getting tied up in the movie Jamaica Inn and getting turned on. I'd get girls to tie me up and try to escape. I think people are hard-wired sexually; you become aware long before puberty of what you're into. Of course," he grins, "it's a while before you have the means to put it all together."

Leaving aside the humungous odds against a kid with such predilections crash-landing into the very family which invented the bondage trouser, Westwood kept a lid on his private passions, trying various jobs on leaving college - furniture design, car restoration, working in his grandparents' sub-post office, sourcing fabrics and manufacturers for his mother when she split from McLaren and formed her own label - and it was some years before he turned to photography. As he struggles to explain his motivations, you realise that it's hard, even for a Westwood, to take your psycho-sexual pathology and put it in the public domain. "Initially, I thought I could put fashion and bondage together," he almost whispers. "I was seeing all the supermodels in my mum's shows wearing next to nothing, so I thought I could do some out-there fashion campaigns. But I found that this imagery was still uncomfortable for many people."

Context is all, of course. Westwood's in-your-face shots lack the high-style, high-gloss sheen of Helmut Newton or the larky 1970s art-porn grunge of Terry Richardson, or even Gaultier's or his own mother's underwear-as-outerwear subversion of standard bondage tropes; the only thing that distinguishes them from top-shelf stuff, he says, is "there's nothing dangerous or nasty about it; it's the Betty Page pin-up updated, grown-up play time." Thus, it's unlikely that F**k Fashion will turn up on Waterstones' front-of-house displays any time soon. "But it should," protests Westwood wanly. "I want people to accept these images in a more mainstream way, give them the chance to see that it's not about exploitation and sordidness if it's mutual and consensual; it's actually fun and glamorous and a literal bond of trust. But they're not arty pictures as such. The bottom line is, they have to turn me on. Titillation is not a dirty word to me."

Given his lineage, it's all but inevitable that Westwood should have a talent for getting up people's noses. The fetish "community", he says, are sniffy about his work: "That scene is rather formal and limited. My stuff isn't stylised enough, it's too earthy for them. They like to adopt this jaded pose, and I'm not cynical about sex at all; I'm a purist. Anyway," he drawls in pure Westwood/McLaren style, "the more people are shocked by it, the more I want to do it."

Even his mother, he reveals, while broadly supportive, "would rather I was doing something else." What, exactly? "She'd just like me to read books, I think," he grins, "like she would everyone. In the last 10 years she's been very busy, she wasn't interested in what I was doing and I wanted her to be. It's the only time my faith in her has been shaken a little." He brightens. "But now I see her more and I'm happy about that."

Not for the first time, Westwood looks a little forlorn. Did he feel the pressure to make his mark, coming from such a notorious family? "Yeah, I guess I did," he says evenly. "I just didn't know it would be this way. I mean, I never wanted to rebel," he adds. "What would I have done, accountancy? No, I had to stand with my mum when so many people were rebelling against us." He frowns. "So sometimes it's been hard, finding a way through that, finding my own voice. I guess I'm still finding it."

We adjourn to Westwood's boudoir, also papered with bondage pictures. A thicket of netting and numerous pairs of unfeasibly skimpy and shiny panties hang over the enormous bed; hooks dangle from the ceiling. Numerous pairs of vertiginous platform wedges, courtesy of Ben's mum, march across a shelf. I spot a copy of Winnie the Pooh nestling among the Shelleys and Noam Chomskys in the bookcase. Bianca, who reveals that she's a computer programmer and Westwood's current squeeze - they met at a fetish club - submits to a few granny knots for the photo session. Midway through the trussing, Westwood breaks off to take a call from his granny. It's all quite louche and a little bit subversive but strangely suburban in an idiosyncratic way; proof that, whatever Ben Westwood might or might not be - crusader for sexual freedom, pornographer, perpetual pre-adolescent - he is, undeniably, his mother's son.

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