Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren: The rebellious duo that inspired a generation of punks
In the spring of 1972, when the arch disrupter Malcolm McLaren persuaded his schoolteacher girlfriend Vivienne Westwood to give up her day job and join him in running his new Chelsea boutique Let It Rock, the education world’s loss was wider culture’s gain. At 31, the unmarried mother of two young boys lacked fashion experience and training and so was the most unlikely design partner, even for the trouble-making McLaren, who had recently emerged from an eight-year spell testing the authorities at a series of London art schools with his Situationism-inspired high jinks.
But the art-school friends who assisted McLaren in setting up Let It Rock as a tribute to the 1950s had melted away and Westwood was already helping out by repairing and sprucing up the deadstock and second-hand clothing he sold through the shop. Since this was drying up, McLaren was keen to introduce new designs and Westwood soon proved herself not only capable of realising his wild notions for provoking the status quo by fusing rebellious music with extraordinary visual style, but also his match in terms of innovation and invention.
Like Lennon and McCartney, the symbiotic nature of their partnership became difficult to divine as she joined him on the wildest ride in fashion history. They rang the changes every few years by repeatedly refitting the tiny shop’s facades, interiors and its name, switching the stock from Let It Rock’s Teddy Boy-wear to rocker regalia (when it was called Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die) to fetish and bondage gear (calling the shop Sex) to punk (as Seditionaries) to the New Romantic visions of pirates and apaches under the name that endures to this day, Worlds End at 430 King’s Road.
Early on McLaren talked about incorporating blanched chicken bones on T-shirts to spell out such words as “ROCK”, but it was Westwood who produced the solution for hanging them from the garments, drawing on skills she had developed when making jewellery to sell on London’s Portobello Road.
And it was McLaren who came up with the idea of appropriating homoerotic artwork of two semi-naked cowboys by the American illustrator Jim French, and juxtaposing it with dialogue referring to boredom and apathy. However, the shock value was magnified when it appeared on the simplest and most effective of Westwood’s designs – a top she created from squares of hand-stitched jersey with seams on display and simple holes for the arms and head. When the shop was raided, after a customer wearing the cowboys shirt was arrested for obscene public display under the outdated Vagrancy Act, McLaren and Westwood’s dreams of baiting the establishment came into focus.
Similarly, it was McLaren’s proposal that they produce the infamous zippered bondage pants by tying a strap between the knees, but Westwood was the one who came up with the ingenious loops that held the binding in place. When worn by the Sex Pistols with anarchy shirts, Seditionary boots and long-sleeved muslins proclaiming “Destroy”, these bondage trousers became part of what McLaren described as “the uniform of the disaffected”. Knock-offs flowed from rag trade merchants but Britain’s stodgy mainstream fashion industry continued to overlook Westwood’s audacious talent.
This in part had been provoked by McLaren’s hard line against such outlets as Vogue; the important stylist and photographer Michael Roberts – who came up much later with the Tatler cover which cast Westwood as Margaret Thatcher – recalled how he was sent packing from the shop without explanation one day simply because he contributed to the magazine.
In fact, the only media which consistently covered the sartorial developments at 430 King’s Road in the 1970s were soft-porn and sex education titles such as Club International and Forum, much to McLaren’s satisfaction. Style guru Peter York was a rare exception, describing Seditionaries clothing in a 1977 issue of Harpers & Queen as “garage cum paramilitary, surprisingly well made”.
The collapse of the Sex Pistols the following year, the subsequent deaths of bass player Sid Vicious and his partner Nancy Spungen, and the legal battles between McLaren and singer Johnny Rotten so disillusioned Westwood that she considered changing her vocation by opting out of the shop and studying for an art degree as the decade drew to a close. Westwood later related that McLaren – a tailor’s grandson whose parents ran an East End womenswear factory – challenged her by advising, “Fashion every time”.
Reinvigorated, Westwood began the flight from punk’s chaotic post-modern assemblages into the historicism that became the hallmark of her design approach, using a copy of the British historian Norah Waugh’s pattern book, The Cut of Men’s Clothes: 1600-1900 as a starting point.
This inspired the pair’s 1981 collection Pirate, which coincided with the refurbishment of 430 King’s Road as Worlds End and was shown at the London Designer Collection, the forerunner of London Fashion Week. Their personal relationship at an end, Westwood stepped out from the ebullient McLaren’s shadow; she was featured in style bible The Face and hailed by Women’s Wear Daily as “the hottest designer of the new look”. Meanwhile Pirate’s voluminous cuts and sensual fabrics appeared in a shoot in the issue of Vogue that trumpeted the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer to Prince Charles.
Significantly, when McLaren proposed reinventing the shop once again, this time as a mock-archeological dig complete with scaffolding poles and tarpaulin, Westwood put her foot down and insisted that he find other premises for what became the short-lived sister outlet Nostalgia of Mud in London’s West End.
Westwood was also critical of McLaren’s new group Bow Wow Wow, which he formed to promote Pirate, and over the next two years, as they showed five catwalk collections in Paris as well as London, she pulled away from him professionally.
Backstage in Paris she met the Italian fashion PR Carlo D’Amario, who now controls Vivienne Westwood Ltd. He helped reinvent her business following the far-from-amicable dissolution of the partnership with McLaren in 1984, and the following year was by her side when she reopened 430 King’s Road. It was the beginning of a journey that led to recognition as Britain’s foremost fashion designer, a reputation nevertheless rooted in the unique and confrontational clothing created over more than a decade with the iconoclastic McLaren in the 35ft x 15ft space at the “wrong” end of the King’s Road.