Interview: Vivienne Westwood: Fashion's pearly queen

Vivienne Westwood is still at it: winning awards for her clothes, living with a man half her age, and as batty and opinionated as ever. By Dominic Lutyens

Dominic Lutyens
Sunday 08 November 1998 00:02

You've got as much time as you like." For a journalist angling for the maximum information on Vivienne Westwood's life, the formidable designers's pronouncement is not only fabulous news but, coming from one so busy, something of a shock. But then this is Westwood all over. The 57-year-old designer inhabits a parallel universe with an entirely different timescale. Her replies are meandering, mercurial monologues, as voluminous as her crinolines: her sumptuous, floor-length versions, redolent of a less hurried age, mind, not her short, flirty mini-crinolines - or Crinis. And she eschews all abbreviations. She speaks (if at all) on the "telephone", not the phone. Her first perfume is called Boudoir, not VWI. And she despises minimalism, an aesthetic borne of modernism's love of speed.

But what of her reputation? Is the voluble, unrushed Westwood the battleaxe of legend? Hardly. She is sometimes patrician. (People - not her, of course - are mainly "uneducable" and she allows herself the luxury of madly contradicting herself.) But she is also gentle, retiring, naive, romantic and undeniably bonkers.

So here we are dallying in wayward Westwood's Conduit Street showroom, ostensibly to publicise the news that she is the first designer to be honoured by Moet & Chandon and the Victoria & Albert Museum's newly launched, televised Fashion Tribute. This annual award goes to "a leading light from the world of fashion whose creativity and vision ... has had a profound influence on our lifestyle". "Designers and performers from across the arts", the press release declares, will gather to celebrate Westwood's entire oeuvre, in the museum's Raphael Gallery, dedicated to the history of fashion. Just up rarefied Westwood's street?

Not exactly. In fact, she is not overly keen to promote the event. Dressed in a chic, black and white Westwood-meets-Chanel cardi and skirt set, Chanel-esque pearls and raspberry tights, her hair the colour and consistency of a lightly caramelised meringue, she makes only the most perfunctory attempts to weave it into the conversation. In fact, it's safe to assume the idea bores her rigid. In the course of a typically rambling answer (to the question, "Can fashion influence attitudes?"), she feels momentarily duty-bound to say: "And about this thing at the V&A ... Museums are very important. They give people a wider point of view. They can go there and get an idea of different values. It might not deepen their understanding, but at least you can start to get a broader experience..."

But she soon admits to dreading the event. "I'm not looking forward to having an encomium from different people ... this film being made where people are praising me..."

In fact, Westwood is being true to herself. She often bemoans today's obsession with marketing. "I'm different from any other designer, businesswise, in that I've built this company up and I own it. I never had business hype behind me to promote my image ... My image is real ... I have never had marketing people telling me what to do."

So, in her languid, chalky-soft Derbyshire tones, she chats eagerly about a plethora of other subjects: how she hated London on her visits there after moving from Derbyshire, to Harrow, in Middlesex, aged 17; the lamentable Americanisation of the world; her contempt for Tony Blair; the irrelevance of feminism. She loves thorny topics. And, as someone who takes her integrity very seriously, and prides herself on being ultra-rational - she can't talk highly enough of "ideas" - she doesn't mind if her contradictory statements are challenged. Even so, initially she is rather defensive, and bridles when interrupted. Interject and she will swiftly stop you with an "And I do feel...". Adding that final point to her answer to the previous question is her way of ever so gently keeping the upper hand.

Asked whether she realised she was less conventional than her parents early on, she replies, rather stiffly: "Yes, politically. I really cared about human suffering. I think I'll leave it there. I don't ... I don't like to dwell on things like that..." Then, changing her mind, and opening up a little, she expands: "I don't think my parents were conventional, really. Although I expect they were. My mother always voted Conservative."

Westwood was born Vivienne Swire in Glossop, Derbyshire, in 1941. Her father worked at Walls, the food company; her mother at a greengrocer. In Harrow, her parents ran a post office. Westwood preferred her Derbyshire days. "I was allowed to go out until I felt like coming home." She was fiercely independent: "I did my mother's shopping when I was three on a little tricycle." She protected lame ducks. At school, taking pity on a boy who'd been ostracised, she declared to everyone that he was her boyfriend.

She's starting to relax and is becoming more animated and intimate. She loathed London, she says. "It was so cliquey," she grimaces, before going off on a dotty tangent, a tirade against the superficiality of London's style press - "For example, a magazine like The Face - just the title, The Face...". Then she jumps back in time: "When I first got to London, I went dancing. And somebody asked me to dance, which I expected. But then nobody asked me to because I didn't dance like them. That would never have happened where I came from ... I didn't like Ronnie Scott's. I preferred a big band with all the people dancing. The kids would be jiving round the edge, or whatever..."

Westwood taught at a primary school for a year. She married Derek Westwood at 21. They had a son, Ben, but the marriage didn't last. Then came her relationship with Malcolm McLaren. (Their son Joe now runs Soho lingerie shop Agent Provocateur with Serena Rees; they have an 18-month-old-daughter, Cora.) For a while, Westwood sold jewellery on Portobello Road - "I was sticking together little square beads with bits you could buy from an electrical shop ... little cogs."

McLaren was the first of a succession of male svengalis high-culture junkie Westwood has looked to to provide her with knowledge. Just as Madonna has a personal trainer, Westwood has an intellectual mentor - Gary Ness, who "directs my reading and ensures I'm a fit reader". She says of her current 32-year-old Austrian husband and co-designer, Andreas Kronthaler: "He opens my eyes to things ... I learn a lot from him despite the fact he's not much more than half my age."

Westwood met Kronthaler when she taught him in Vienna. Did she instantly fancy him? Her response is typically spiritual: "I expect affinity is the first thing. You realise that that person is more interesting to you than anybody else in that situation." Their glaring age difference (25 years) doesn't come between them. Westwood openly admits that Kronthaler is a latchkey lover. Some might think she is playing with fire but Westwood, who seems refreshingly secure about her age, is utterly confident that he won't leave her. Why should she worry? The mere fact that's he a pattern- cutting genius is enough to send her into raptures. "When I met him, he knew more about couture fabrics than I did. How to work with them, how to keep them alive."

Back in the early Seventies, Westwood, along with McLaren, helped lay punk's foundations with their cult King's Road shops Let It Rock (flamboyant Teddy Boy drapes), Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die (biker gear with proto-punk zips and rips), Sex (sex-shop fetishwear as fashion) and Seditionaries (full-on, bondage-up-yours punk gear). She is proud enough of her punk days to proclaim: "I was a punk before it got its name..." "I had that hairstyle and purple lipstick," she says, suddenly sounding like a thirty- something fondly recalling her years as a punkette. "Girls stopped me in the street and said, 'Why do you wear purple lipstick?' or 'Look at the state of that!'." She astutely ditched punk after realising, "my ideas were being exploited. At that point I started to look into history," says she who created the Crini - not to mention wittily reinterpreted Harris Tweed, twin-sets, tartan, Watteauesque frocks and codpieces.

Designing for youth now holds no appeal. "It's a waste of time," she sighs. "The last people with any ideas are young people." Overall, she feels sorry for the young, though. "The age in which we live, this non- stop distraction, is making it more impossible for the young generation to ever have the curiosity or discipline ... Because you need to be alone to find out anything." Non-stop distraction? "This plethora of everything ... From sound to the latest opinions. I call them opinions but they're not opinions. It's just the last thing somebody said but it doesn't mean anything ... It's this bombardment by the media. You can't think if you watch television."

Today's youngsters also face the twin evils of Blair and Americanisation, she says. Westwood votes Labour, yet, as a rugged individualist, believes politics changes nothing. Blair is wrong-headedly smitten with democratisation. "Popular culture is a contradiction in terms. If it's popular it's not culture. If everybody loves it, it's not original ... It's dreadful to have the Dome. Domesday, someone referred to it as." She is tickled by a pun she feels is spot-on.

A Gitanes-smoking Francophile, she sees hope only in the study of French culture, which, thanks to its freethinking tradition borne of the French revolution, is far superior to English culture. Feminism, she feels, is a red herring, too. I suspect this is a defence mechanism. She wrongly assumes feminists are anti-sex, so perhaps believes they decry her saucier frocks. Not to mention the diaphanous knickerless outfit she twirled about in at Buck Palace the day she collected her OBE. "Women are different from men," she affirms. "They shouldn't try to be like men in a man's world. These kind of women like Margaret Thatcher ... Let's impress ... let's make the telephone call that sinks the ... what's it called? The Belgarno?"

Yet like Thatcher she's convinced she'd have got to where she is without the women's movement. "I've always felt heroic about my life... As a child, I remember little girls in the playground moaning about how boys could do more than they could. I didn't think that was the case at all. My parents didn't treat me as a girl."

How would the former primary school teacher, the ex-queen of punk, bring up her own children now? "I'd try to impose more discipline through their education, which is very, very difficult. You can tie a horse to a trough but you can't make it drink. Neither wanted to go to university. They wanted to go out into the world and earn their living ... They were both good readers from an early age. My eldest son is still a reader. But Joe is caught up in his business at the moment, I'm afraid." She sounds a little disapproving, then makes a surprisingly maternal comment. "I'm looking forward to this granddaughter of mine ... being able to introduce her to books."

At that, in readiness for her photograph, fashion's queen of baroque'n'roll rises from her chair in her vertiginous Westwood stacks and heads slowly towards a full-length mirror, topped with the company's orb logos. Ever the Francophile, she asks if my first name ends in "ique". Then, very languidly, very coquettishly, she dabs her mouth with lipstick. I'm immediately reminded of her earlier words to me: "You've got as much time as you like."


On youth 'The last people with any ideas are the young. The age in which we live, this non-stop distraction, is making it more impossible for the young generation to ever have curiosity or discipline' On culture 'Popular culture is a contradiction in terms. If it's popular, it's not culture. If everyone loves it, it's not original'

On her lover

'He opens my eyes to things. I learn a lot from him despite the fact that he's not much more than half my age'

On punk

'I was a punk before it got its name. I had that hairstyle and purple lipstick. Girls stopped me in the street and said 'Look at the state of that' On marketing

'I've never had business hype behind me to promote my image ... my image is real'

On coming to London

'I didn't like Ronnie Scott's. I preferred a big band with all the people dancing'

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