Vivienne Westwood, the British fashion icon instrumental in shaping the punk and new wave movements of the 70s and ’80s, died on Dec 29 at the age of 81. Tributes have been pouring in from fellow designers, cultural figures and fashion industry insiders – with many posting their messages on social media. Most remember the former primary school teacher-turned-fashion designer for her trailblazing ideas and for shocking the establishment as the lead agent provocateur of punk culture.
She upturned the retail landscape in the ’70s through her iconic Sex boutique in London’s Chelsea district, which she opened with her then-partner Malcolm McLaren. Westwood described the store as “the very embodiment of youth’s assumption of immortality”, thanks to its eyebrow-raising offering that span fetish gear, pornographic T-shirts and the ilk.
Vivienne Westwood, who was conferred the title of Dame in 2006, was also known as the godmother of punk for her role in defining the subculture’s aesthetic. She passed away peacefully, surrounded by her family, on Dec 29 at Clapham, South London.
Then there is her namesake label. It staged its first fashion show in 1981 with the seminal Pirate Collection, which would go on to form the bedrock of the New Romanticism aesthetic. The brand – which today spans womenswear, menswear and a highly popular bridal line – is run by Westwood right up till her death with her husband and creative partner Andreas Kronthaler, whom she wed in 1992. Kronthaler, a former student of Westwood’s who is 25 years her junior, stated: “We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with. Thank you darling.”
Boy George described the late designer as the “undisputed Queen of British fashion”, while Stella McCartney said Westwood “invented historic fashion design moments that woke us all up and shook the industry to its core.” Legendary milliner and close friend Stephen Jones expressed on Instagram: “Without Vivienne (there would be) no Rei (Kawakubo), John (Galliano), Lee (Alexander McQueen) and a hundred others.”
Indeed, Westwood was a pioneer in the field for her use of unconventional materials and unconventional silhouettes that included sweaters knitted with exposed holes, slashed T-shirts and deconstructed tailoring. The subversive nature of her work appeared in designs that often incorporated political and social messages. Activism was something intrinsic to Westwood: Besides backing the Just Stop Oil movement and fiercely advocating for action to tackle the climate crisis, the designer was also a vocal proponent for the release of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.
In recent years, Westwood’s work – namely the iconic orb necklaces and the Victorian-inflected corsets with all-over prints of Renaissance paintings – has regained prominence among fashionable youths who are acquainted with her call for smashing the status quo. Perhaps this line from her 2016 memoir sums up how she continued to play the role of the eternal rebel, right to the very end: “What I am doing now, it still is punk. It’s still about shouting about injustice and making people think, even if it’s uncomfortable. I’ll always be punk in that sense.”
Below, young admirers of Westwood pay tribute.