Vivienne Westwood, the ever-provocative grand dame of British fashion, talks to Katie Trotter about empowerment, feminism and why we all look dreadful.
Up close, Vivienne Westwood has the palest skin I have ever seen. It's almost translucent, like parchment paper. Her wild eyes glint like marbles, and her candyfloss hair is the colour of burning embers. It is hard to believe that Dame Vivienne Westwood, the original queen of punk and protagonist of modern fashion, recently celebrated her 68th birthday. Although transcending time and trend, hers is not a face of particular beauty. With its impish dimensions, eyebrows that look as if they have been drawn in with crayon and playful expression that defies her years, she looks not unlike Queen Elizabeth I. Observing the life and career of Vivienne Westwood is, as she herself says, like trying to get a ship into a bottle. A professional provocateur, the designer responsible for giving a visual expression to punk and the methodical creator of faultless drapery, she is arguably Britain's most instrumental fashion designer. I have been firmly briefed by her PR machine ahead of this interview. Along with many other guidelines, I am warned that Vivienne does not like "frivolous" types. Fantastic. It seems that somehow I have managed to annoy "Queen Viv" before we have yet spoken. I wonder if it is these sorts of experiences that have caused the British media so often to portray her as humourless, something that is difficult to understand. After all, this is the woman who used Pamela Anderson as a muse, who sent models down the runway wearing underwear as outerwear, who created 10-inch platforms, and who collected an OBE from the Queen wearing a flesh-coloured, see-through dress and no underwear. She was born Vivienne Swire in 1941 in Tintwistle, a small village on the Derbyshire/Cheshire borders in northern England. Her upbringing was not a remarkable one - her father worked in a sausage factory and her mother in a grocer's. It strikes me as odd that such a spectacular persona sprang from somewhere quite so, well, unspectacular, although, by her own admission, she says she sensed from an early age that she was destined to be less 'white bread' than her upbringing might have led her to be. In 1962, after the family moved to Harrow, on the outskirts of London, to find work, she fell in love and married Derek John Westwood. Soon after her wedding (she made her own dress, and was already a dab hand with a needle and thread) she settled in Willesden, north London, where she became a primary schoolteacher and had her first son, Benjamin. Domesticity and Westwood were never going to fit, and the marriage disintegrated after three years. It was around this time she met 18-year-old Malcolm Edwards, an untameable art theorist and musician who later found fame as Malcolm McLaren (the manager of the Sex Pistols) and had her second son, Joseph (now the co-founder of lingerie chain Agent Provocateur), with him. In 1971, she and McLaren opened their first London clothing shop, Let It Rock and, "The rest is history," she peeps. In the four decades since, the self-created Westwood has had a phenomenal effect on the way we dress, her eccentricity providing light relief in an industry that can often be seen as rife with banality. By 1979, punk had given way to the New Romantic style, and in 1981, Westwood launched probably her most famous collection to date - the pirate. Following its success, she established an international reputation, and was invited to show in Paris (the first British designer to do so since Mary Quant). When it comes to the socio-cultural principles of fashion (one of the few topics aside from politics she cares to discuss at any length), Westwood believes that clothing should be charged with a physical presence, should provoke a reaction, should make ourselves and the observer feel uncomfortable. Anything short of that quite frankly bores her. "The majority of people on the street look quite dreadful," she says. "They are lazy in their dress and take no time to express themselves through clothes." I remind her of the time she once said that fashion was dull, and instead of defending the obvious contradiction she steamrollers on: "Minimalism is a dominant force because people are afraid of committing an error in taste. They prefer to say nothing rather than make a mistake." Her views on the role of woman in society are notoriously antifeminist, which seems strange for the founder of politico-erotic clothing. "I am not a feminist," she insists. "Equality for women is important, but not the overarching problem with the world in which we live. Women should try to be women even - or rather especially - when wearing trousers. Do you dress for yourself or others? Does it matter?" Westwood has a knack for combining the outrageous with the traditional, and each piece, meticulously created, reminds us that in times like these it is comforting to see that the true essence of couture is still very much alive. Femininity is the essence of her design, and there is something in the cut that encourages the fabric to cling to all the right places and seems to heighten the sexuality of the wearer. "My clothes are uncompromising in the sense that they are what they are, and if you want them to, they can make you incredibly strong," she says. "You have to decide. If you wear my clothes you are basically saying, I am here, I am something to be reckoned with, so take it or leave it'." Westwood doesn't do modern, and chooses only to source her inspiration from historical references. Her design aesthetic is, and always has been, about the deconstruction and reconstruction of a garment, originating from her punk years. I wonder if this is a product of growing up in make-do-and-mend wartime Britain. "I am more interested in history than in the present," she replies. "It is only by thinking things through methodically that one can have opinions worth mentioning. "My clothes are quite theatrical, inviting people to come and talk to you. The added bonus is, you are not going to be bothered by conservative types coming up to you, because they won't." Although time may have watered down her somewhat (by her own admission) idealistic punk theories, her commitment to using fashion as a means of personal propaganda has not. Her own views on fashion are themselves unfashionable and she feels that it is purely a jumping-off point for her creativity: "Fashion is something I didn't want to do in the first place. I wanted to read books, but I knew I was good at it." As anyone close to her will tell you, Westwood, always passionate about her current line of inquiry, has become almost evangelistic about politics of late, and her previous couple of collections have been used as a canvas for her own political messages. "It's a good way to protest," she tells me, and the only way to be overtly political within fashion. People like to feel like they are not the only ones against the machine." I am not surprised to learn that her most recent collection, named "Do It Yourself", stems from her growing concern over deforestation, especially that of the world's rainforests. "I wanted to use the show as an opportunity to catch the imagination and inspire people to change their behaviour," she says. "I wanted to encourage an open and creative mind towards ideas in regeneration as well as encourage sustainability and versatility in our views of dressing." Now that times are tough, fashion design has had to turn back to its powers of invention. Westwood is in prime position, for unlike so many of her contemporaries, she will not allow her vision to be hampered by anything as mundane as commercialism. "My clothes allow the wearer to be truly individual, which goes against the thinking at the moment," she says. "They allow you to project your personality, and are quite theatrical in the sense that they are real clothes, well-designed, but still giving you a chance to express yourself." The age of conspicuous consumption is over, and it seems that inspiration over aspiration is the point of reference for Westwood. She slams the British system of education, claiming that it is training up a nation of consumers rather than thinkers. For her, scepticism should be the guiding force. "Our culture is stagnant," she says. "We need to question everything. People must know that every time they look up a word in the dictionary or look at paintings instead of a magazine, they are resisting propaganda." Westwood wants us to buy less, to make a choice, yet her diffusion lines (also known as the money makers) would surely be suggesting we do quite the opposite? "Fashion is all about branding and styling now, more than creativity. People should stop buying relentlessly. There is this idea that somehow you have got to keep changing things, and as often as possible. People should stop and take some time to think about what they want; what they really like." Westwood is one of those hyperkinetic personalities you want to become friends with because your life would become a whole lot more interesting if you did. She holds out a promise of new inventions, and is only ever truly comfortable hovering on the periphery of ordinary. Enquiring and articulate, her speech is peppered with evocative fragments of art, sociology, literature, history and politics (albeit fashionable ones), rolled into one tremendous tumbleweed of a monologue that you just can't help be excited by. It is impossible to remain indifferent to such an inspired maverick, and it is difficult to portray her in the spectacular light that she so desires (or deserves for that matter), because like most inspired exhibitionists she has no time for popular taste, and I have a feeling that, deep down, she opposes conventional media as much as she does conventional fashion. Her recent show notes read the simple words: "In times like these dress up". And that is just what I will do, but then again, that would be frivolous, wouldn't it?