Westwood is putting children of 13 in dresses made for mum. Fun, fashion or schoolgirl fetish?

The punk queen's trawl of playgrounds to find catwalk models has been causing outrage, reports Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online
Vivienne Westwood, the First Lady of punk, has come full circle: she now wants young ladies to dress like their mothers. Unfortunately, her decision to use girls as young as 13 to display her latest collection has created a new furore over the use of schoolgirl models.

While MPs expressed moral outrage, the fashion world defended the right of young teenagers to model designer clothes, and Westwood - once the queen of controversy - sought yesterday to quell the row.

Her office said: "We are not using young girls to cause a sensation but to prove a point that they can look amazingly beautiful in their mother's clothes." It issued a statement from the designer criticising young girls who dressed in the youth fashion of their peers. "Just because you are chasing about a bit ... doesn't give you the right to insult your mother," she said.

Westwood went on to describe her new Red Label collection which will be shown tomorrow at the opening of London Fashion Week. "The clothes are for grown-ups and I admit they're ladylike, exquisitely so," she wrote.

It all sounded rather stuffy from the designer who has sent models down the catwalk in fake-fur G-strings and phallic-symbol unitards. Was this the woman who publicly demonstrated that she was wearing no knickers when she went to Buckingham Palace to collect her OBE from the Queen in 1992?

Last month the 53-year-old designer described the Spice Girls pop group as "animals" who left her "morally outraged". Was she going soft?

Cynical observers noted that the mistress of hype had diverted the spotlight of London Fashion Week away from the main show at the Natural History Museum and onto her own "runway" being set up at the Dorchester hotel.

Others ascribed her use of 13-year-old models to a cynical attempt to exploit the cult of the schoolgirl in the Japanese fashion market. One critic said: "She is absolutely huge in Japan. The pictures of the show will go down a storm."

Shortly before Christmas, Westwood and her team began scouring schools and stage schools for young talent. Brenda Gray, registrar at the Arts Educational School in London, said: "Her office phoned me and said they wanted to look for girls between the ages of 14 and 18 to look like English roses."

Auditions were arranged and the Westwood team selected two girls aged 15 and 16 and a student of 17. Each will be given pounds 150 in Westwood clothes vouchers for their work.

Mrs Gray said she asked one of the girl's mothers to attend the clothes fitting to be sure that the outfits were not unsuitable. "The girls tell me that they are very exotic but not at all revealing. I just hope that's the case," she said.

Other models were picked from Wimbledon High School in south-west London and the Sylvia Young Drama School, north London. In all, Westwood selected 20 girls ranging in age from 13 to 18. One, 22, was told that she looked "too sophisticated" for the assignment.

Yesterday, as Lady Olga Maitland, Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam, south London, decried the "abuse" of teenagers, designers sought to defend the grande dame of British fashion.

Wayne Hemingway, the founder of Red or Dead, which is also showing at London Fashion Week, pointed out that Westwood's Red Label collection was aimed at a younger buyer. He said: "I would not be happy if kids that age were wearing our clothes to look sexy, but there is nothing wrong with kids wearing designer clothes if their parents can afford it."

At the Storm model agency in London, which took Kate Moss onto its books at the age of 14, models are normally expected to finish their GCSEs before starting work. Schoolgirls are only given work at weekends or in their holidays. Paula Karaiskos, for the agency, said: "It's a really tough business. Young girls are not physically developed or emotionally adept at dealing with rejection."

In which case, the greatest danger to the young models may be the rejection in the school playground when they arrive in their newly acquired Vivienne Westwoods, looking just like mum.