Vivienne Westwood: 81 Years Later

Vivienne Westwood: 81 Years Later

On December 29, 2022, Vivienne Westwood died peacefully at 81 after a long, healthy, revolutionary life. In 1970s London, punk rock culture inspired VW’s style and activism, which came to define an era. Known for being the catalyst that brought provocative and punk style to high fashion, she is a true icon. Her identity was strong, and she did everything with purpose. I hope that in the wake of her death, the messages she stood for as a designer and as a businesswoman are able to speak to the power of purpose and ambition. In honor of her life and work, let’s look back on her journey to iconism. 

VW was born in rural England in 1941. She took a liking to the arts as a child, and at age 17, took a jewelry course at an art school. She left after one term. 

I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world”

She worked a factory job as she studied to become a teacher. During her days as a primary school teacher, she sold handmade jewelry at a stall beside the road. At 21 years old, she married Derek Westwood, and created her own wedding dress for the occasion. This marriage, however, ended after she met Malcolm McLaren. VW continued to teach until she was 30 years old, all the while designing clothes with McLaren. As McLaren pursued his music career and came to manage the Sex Pistols, VW and MM were pivotally a part of the punk scene in London as of 1971. The designs worn by the band members had people talking.

At this point in her life, VW retired from her teaching career, and she and MM opened a shop called Let it Rock at 430 King’s Road in London. Their ability to synthesize music and fashion characterized the punk culture of the time. The unconventional shop garnered traction for the designs, and VW and MM went on to create multiple collections as a partnership, before VW broke off as an independent label in 1982 at 41 years old. Her designs quickly garnered an international reputation for herself. 


Corsets, platform shoes, and mini-crinis: VW’s take on victorian crinoline skirts


In the memoir titled “Vivienne Westwood,” VW explains “people seem surprised still that you can have been in punk and then also be in couture, but it’s all connected.”

“It’s not about fashion, you see. For me, it’s about the story. It’s about ideas.”

“I did not see myself as a fashion designer but as someone who wished to confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed and dressed others.” 

Her first era as an independent designer she defines as “The Pagan Years,” where a shift occurred from punk rock style to parodies of the upper class. This era was from 1987-1992, as VW created clothing with fabrics like tweed to put her own spin on what could be considered classy. Her Fall/Winter ‘87 collection took inspiration from a little girl on a train wearing a low bun with a tweed jacket and a bag with a pair of ballet slippers inside. Effortless, romantic, composed, yet out of the box.





In 1992, VW received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II for her jaw dropping vision in fashion. She wore no underwear to the ceremony to accept her award at Buckingham Palace, and flashed everyone. The fame really never changed her, a true visionary who did everything in style.




From 1993-1999, VW modified her aesthetic. Historical art references and plays on proportions and tailoring take center stage as VW enters, arguably, her most iconic era. The rise of supermodels in this time also characterizes the era, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell walking shows and defining moments for the brand. My absolute favorite Vivienne Westwood collection is that of her Fall/Winter 1993 show. Outrageous plaids, flattering and eccentric silhouettes, and absolute originality. To me, this is what fashion looks like. 









Her focus come 2000 ultimately shifted to activism over fashion. While her priorities changed, her means of conveying them did not. She was able to use fashion as a vessel for her beliefs about climate change, capitalism, war, gender constructs, and other political issues. She used slogans on garments and displayed protests on the runway for causes like global warming and free speech.

Her Fall/Winter 2015 collection, called “Unisex,” portrays one of my most important personal values regarding fashion design. The collection showcased androgynous looks on all different kinds of models. Androgyny is a word for when characteristics of both sexes are presented on a single individual, and in biology, when a person has fully developed sexual organs of both sexes. This word is thrown around a ton in fashion to describe things that would be traditionally viewed as feminine, when on men. Really, it all boils down to constructs. Androgyny is a term used because of societal connotation of physical garments with certain genders or even sexualities. But, by principle, clothes are genderless, and VW was arguably the first to convey this on the high fashion runway. 


VW left our earthly realm screaming a message to us all. She projects a stance strongly against capitalism, claiming it to be the root cause of “war, climate change, and corruption.” An unconventional statement coming from a luxury clothing designer. However, Vivienne Westwood is actually one of the last independent global fashion companies. That is, she never sold her label to a larger fashion house or company. VW found herself at the root of her company until the very end, the pulse of the brand coming directly from her passion for love and light and life. 

“Buy less, choose well, make it last.”

Not only is VW my favorite designer because of her designs/aesthetics/values, but also because of her story. She came from humble beginnings, and found ways to incorporate creativity and design into her everyday life before the idea of a luxury brand was even in sight. It was the course of events of her life that brought her there, and all the while she was simply doing what she loved, wherever she was or whatever situation she was in. She made a name for herself simply by living the way she wanted to, and expressing herself creatively. Her life is so inspiring to me.