Meet the grande dame of Glossop

She refuses to read magazines, says Teletubbies is evil, and comes across like the Mrs Merton of design. But then Vivienne Westwood sees with 18th-century eyes, she tells Susannah Frankel

Tuesday 19 October 1999 23:00 BST

"I never read magazines. I never look at anybody's collections. I don't know what the others do," announces Vivienne Westwood with pride, in her dulcet Derbyshire tones - sounding not unlike fashion's answer to Mrs Merton. Of course, this doesn't stop Britain's most famous designer having plenty to say on both subjects, or indeed anything else she may stumble across.

"I never read magazines. I never look at anybody's collections. I don't know what the others do," announces Vivienne Westwood with pride, in her dulcet Derbyshire tones - sounding not unlike fashion's answer to Mrs Merton. Of course, this doesn't stop Britain's most famous designer having plenty to say on both subjects, or indeed anything else she may stumble across.

"Magazines are not only for the illiterate, they're for the visually illiterate as well. I've got this assistant who would read magazines all day if he could. He's just been in hospital in an isolation ward and I said: 'You were reading magazines all the time in there, weren't you?' And he said: 'Well, yes, actually, I was.' And I said: 'You've got a disease far worse than hepatitis!' You see, that was what he had at the time."

She tells me this as if we were two neighbours having a natter across the garden fence, adding, "Do you mind if I just have a sip of your tea? I've got a terribly dry throat."

Needless to say there is plenty she could say about designers and the designer fashion industry in particular, but today Westwood has a bee in her bonnet concerning the Teletubbies. According to her, they symbolise the evils of modern consumer society.

"They did research on what they thought little babies would like, and it's got nothing to do with educating or anything that will do anything, apart from making an 18-month-old little baby into a consumer."

It comes as no surprise that not only has she never in fact seen the Teletubbies, she doesn't even own a television set. Rather Vivienne Westwood is, once again, on a roll, an impossibly elliptical, irrepressible roll. Ask her the most anodyne question - why she likes Paris, for example - and don't be surprised if she comes up with a potted history of France - or rather, her own, personal version of the history of France.

At any given time, Westwood has at least two, maybe three ideas, even sentences, on the go concurrently - about history, politics and literature - that career and collide until they finally explode into meaning or peter out entirely, leaving the hapless interviewer stranded, desperately trying to make sense of it all. She is not unaware of her eccentricities, punctuating her stream of consciousness with asides to this effect. "Now then, where was I?"... "I can't help you, can I? But I am trying. I'll just keep talking and we'll see if something comes up."

It is the day before she unveils her spring/ summer 2000 Gold Label collection in Paris. The Gold Label is her most prestigious line, inspiring Vivienne Westwood Man as well as the more reasonably priced Red Label and Anglomania.

Westwood has just arrived at her Paris studio ("I love Paris; I'd live here if I could"), all blond wood floors, gilt-framed mirrors and overstuffed upholstery in peach, printed with scenes from Elysian fields.

I am guided through the rails by Jessica, Westwood's appropriately voluptuous London PR person, dressed in a saucy little plum jersey creation, sky-high wedges and, curiously, one ivory stocking and one navy. The collection - based on a bacchanalian summer picnic - features layered chiffon that can be strategically adjusted by the wearer to be as modest, or immodest, as she should desire. Dresses come complete with their own grass and wine stains to disguise any indiscretion that may arise. There are pagan prints of men doing unspeakable things to animals and a profile of a beautiful girl on a garment draped to conceal the fact that she has an unfeasibly large penis in her mouth.

"Oh," says Westwood, when I suggest this is perhaps a little on the saucy side for Paris, which remains distinctly bourgeois in its tastes, "but you won't see those on the catwalk, will you? Anyway, these things are Greek. There's always a bit of Greek inspiration in my collection, even if a lot of it is seen through 18th- century eyes."

The designer is dressed, today as always, from head to toe in her own designs: a tartan shirt with its little round collar twisted to one side, a weathered suede, knee-length skirt, a chunky-knit belted cardigan and pointed pixie boots. The colour palette is autumnal and Westwood has tinted her normally bright blonde halo of curls pale orange to match. She wears a splash of red lipstick and has shaded the sockets of her pebble-shaped eyes to accentuate their depth. Like a little girl playing with her mother's make-up, however, she has overlooked the blending. The overall effect is sweetly naïve. With her clear green gaze and alabaster complexion, Westwood is as pretty as a picture, every bit the English rose, at 57.

Vivienne Westwood was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in Glossop, Derbyshire, on 8 April 1941. Her father came from a long line of cobblers, her mother made a living in the local cotton mills. "I lived in a part of the country that had grown up in the Industrial Revolution. I didn't know about art galleries until I was 17. I'd never seen an art book, never been to the theatre." She describes herself, modestly enough, as "an attractive child to other children. I was adventurous, high-spirited and clever."

When she was 17, her parents moved south, to Harrow in Middlesex. Westwood worked in a factory for a short while and then went to teacher-training college and taught for a year before marrying Derek Westwood and having her first child, Ben. The marriage lasted three years, with Vivienne continuing to teach while making jewellery, which she sold on a stall in Portobello Road. At around this time she met Malcolm McLaren and had a second son, Joseph, who now runs the lingerie label, Agent Provocateur, with his wife Serena Rees.

In 1971, McLaren set up shop and Westwood wasted no time designing clothes with which to fill it.

With McLaren, Westwood dressed the punk movement before, in the early Eighties, moving her operation to Paris where she was the first designer to bring British street culture to the international catwalk. Vivienne Westwood now has an OBE - she famously twirled knickerless in a full tartan skirt outside Buckingham Palace after receiving the award - confirming her status as a national treasure.

She has recently moved out of the council flat in Clapham where she lived for 30 years, and into a more stately affair nearby. "It's a beautiful house. But I still love my flat. I never wanted to move. I brought up my children there. I had a very happy life there - unhappy some of the time - but I've had my experience there."

Today, describing herself as "an incredibly happy person," Westwood is married to Andreas Kronthaler, many years her junior, who is also now her design partner. Her face lights up when she speaks of him. "Well, he's the most talented person I've ever met. Everybody likes to promote their husband and nobody ever believes them but... he's got such an eye. If he'd have been a woman he would have just been the most amazing woman!" It takes one to know one, as they say.

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