Why I loved Dame Vivienne Westwood
Earlier this month, Dame Vivienne Westwood was quietly put to rest in a private ceremony in Derbyshire, England, where she grew up.
To say that there was no one in fashion quite like Westwood, who died on 29 December aged 81, sounds trite. But it’s hard to think of another designer whose legacy extends so far beyond clothes and into something more philosophical.
She has, of course, plenty of iconic designs to her name: the brown, oversized buffalo hat from Westwood’s Fall/Winter 1983 collection, thrown back into the spotlight in 2014 by Pharrell Williams, Dita Von Teese’s iridescent purple wedding dress and her jewellery line snatching pearl jewellery from the clutches of the upper class, to name a few.
However, her contribution to fashion is perhaps eclipsed by her infamous straight-talking nature, punk rock spirit and refusal to be anyone other than herself. As someone who helped define the style of the punk era, she became synonymous with the subculture and lived it until the end.
Former Beatle Sir Paul McCartney was one of those to pay tribute to Westwood after her passing, saying she “rocked the fashion world and stood defiantly for what was right”.
Tributes have also been paid by a group of anti-fracking protesters from the North of England who she joined in 2018. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whose detention she protested, reportedly requested leave from the high-security prison where he is held to attend her funeral.
She wasn’t without her critics though. She was both anti-establishment and The Establishment. While most tributes to Westwood referenced her activism, she was also described as “the undisputed Queen of British fashion” by singer Boy George and “the sun” of fashion, whom everything orbits around, by supermodel Bella Hadid.
She was a multimillionaire, a fashion brand and property company owner, and was made a dame by the Queen in 2006. Westwood’s son turned down his MBE a year later in protest of the UK government’s role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In 2015, she was accused of tax avoidance for using off-shore accounts.
The climate crisis activist has also been accused of greenwashing for not practicing what she preached with her own label. While her quote “Buy less. Choose well. Make it last” has become something of a mantra for sustainable fashion campaigners, her brand scored just 21 out of 100 in non-profit organization Remake’s sustainability index in 2018.
For all the criticism, Westwood has always held her hands up to her shortcomings, apologizing and learning from mistakes made whenever necessary.
In response to the tax avoidance accusations, she said at the time: “I am concerned at the allegation in the papers. It is important to me that my business affairs are in line with my personal values. I am subject to UK tax on all of my income.” Since 2018, her brand has introduced more sustainable materials and cut down the size of its ready-to-wear and bag collections, among other sustainability initiatives.
It is perhaps this, and her unerring commitment to speaking truth to power over the years, that made her a favourite with Gen Z, and helped her ride the wave of cancel culture largely unscathed.
Westwood's clothes are regularly worn by younger celebrities including Hailey Bieber, Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya, as well as sustainable fashion advocates such as Emma Watson and Lily Cole. The instantly recognizable orb logo of her brand is a viral hit on TikTok and the business returned to profit in 2019 and didn’t head back into the red during the pandemic.
Not being the perfect punk is, perhaps, the most punk thing of all, and that is something the next generation of fashion could learn from.
It’s hard to imagine how someone like Westwood could have achieved what she did under the Instagram-perfect pressures of today.
She defied many of the barriers she faced largely because she didn’t care what others thought of her. From a working-class background, she dropped out of her jewellery and silversmith course at University of Westminster because of the financial instability of a career in the arts.
She transitioned her career from primary school teacher to fashion designer at the age of 30 with two young children. She retained majority control of her business up until two weeks before her death enabling her to never lose creative or financial control. She never quieted herself, even in her old age.
While Vivienne Westwood may not leave behind the perfect blueprint for how to fight injustice or even run a sustainable fashion brand, she leaves behind something more valuable: an army of people inspired by her.
Designer and long-time animal rights and environment advocate Stella McCartney wrote on Instagram “Vivienne Westwood inspired my career as a designer with bravery and bollocks... I hope more become like her. More fight like her, more create like her, more celebrate like her.”
She paved a way for fashion and activism to coexist and there has never been a more pressing time for it. Action on climate change can’t wait for perfect, it needs punk. Now.