LONDON – Vivienne Westwood, the influential fashionista who played a key role in the punk movement, died on Thursday at the age of 81.
Westwood’s eponymous fashion house announced her death on social media platforms, saying she died peacefully. The cause has not been revealed.
“Vivienne continued to do the things she loved, right up until the last moment, designing, working on her art, writing her book and changing the world for the better,” the statement said.
Westwood’s fashion career began in the 1970s when her radical approach to urban street style took the world by storm. But she went on to enjoy a long career highlighted by a series of triumphant catwalk shows and museum exhibitions.
The name Westwood became synonymous with style and attitude even as she shifted focus from year to year, her range was wide and her work never predictable.
As her stature grew, she seemed to transcend fashion. A young woman who despised the British establishment eventually became one of its leading lights, even though she dyed her hair that signature shade of bright orange.
Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said Westwood and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren — her former partners — “gave the punk movement a look, a style, and it was so radical that it broke away from anything in past.”
“Torn shirts, safety pins, provocative slogans,” Bolton said. “She ushered in postmodernism. It’s been so influential since the mid-’70s. The punk movement never went away—it became part of our fashion vocabulary. Now it’s mainstream.”
Westwood’s long career was full of contradictions: she was a lifelong rebel who was decorated several times by Queen Elizabeth II. She dressed like a teenager even in her 60s and became an outspoken advocate against climate change, warning of planetary doom.
In her punk days, Westwood’s clothes were often deliberately shocking: T-shirts emblazoned with drawings of naked boys and “tie pants” with a sado-masochistic undertone were standard offerings in her popular London stores. But Westwood has managed to transition from punk to haute couture without missing a beat, sustaining her career without descending into self-caricature.
“She was always trying to reinvent fashion. Her work is provocative, transgressive. It’s very much rooted in the English tradition of pastiche, irony and satire. She’s very proud of her English background, and she’s still sending it up,” said Bolton.
One of the disputed designs featured a swastika, an inverted image of Jesus Christ on a cross, and the word “Destroy.” In the autobiography she wrote with Ian Kelly, she said it was part of a statement against politicians who torture people, citing Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. When asked if she regretted the swastika in a 2009 interview with Time magazine, Westwood said no.
“No, because we were just telling the older generation: ‘We don’t accept your values or your taboos, and you’re all fascists,'” she replied.
In her early years she approached her work with gusto, but later she seemed to tire of the clamor and noise. After a decade of designing, she sometimes spoke wistfully of taking a step back from fashion to focus on environmental issues and educational projects.
“Fashion can be so boring,” she told The Associated Press after presenting one of her new collections at a show in 2010. “I’m trying to find something else to do.”
Her shows were always the most fashionable events, attracting stars from the glittering worlds of film, music and television who wanted to bask in Westwood’s reflection of fame. But she still spoke out against consumerism and conspicuous consumption, even urging people not to buy her expensive, beautifully made clothes.
“I just tell people, stop buying clothes,” she said. “Why don’t we protect this gift of life while we have it? I don’t take the view that destruction is inevitable. Some of us would like to stop it and help people survive.”
Westwood’s activism extended to supporting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, posing in a giant birdcage in 2020 to try to stop his extradition to the US. She even designed the dress Stella Morris wore when she married Assange in a London prison last March.
Westwood was self-taught, with no formal fashion education. She told Marie Claire magazine how as a teenager she learned to make her own clothes by following patterns. When she wanted to sell 1950s-style clothes in her first store, she found old clothes at flea markets and took them apart to understand the fit and construction.
Westwood was born in the village of Glossop in Derbyshire on 8 April 1941. Her family moved to London in 1957 and she attended art school for a term.
She met McLaren in the 1960s while working as a primary school teacher after separating from her first husband, Derek Westwood. She and McLaren opened a small shop in Chelsea in 1971, at the end of the “Swinging London” era ushered in by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The store changed name and focus several times, operating as “SEX” — Westwood and McLaren were fined in 1975 for an “obscene display” there — and “World’s End” and “Seditionaries.”
Among the workers in their shop was Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, whom Westwood called “a unique, determined, single-minded, talented lady” in a statement to The Associated Press.
He said it was a privilege to “meet her in the mid-’70s at what was the birth of punk and the world waves it created that continue to reverberate and reverberate today among malcontents, hipsters, and wiseguys around the world. .”
“Vivienne is gone and the world is a less interesting place,” tweeted Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders’ frontwoman and another former employee.
Westwood launched into a fresh type of design with her “Pirates” collection, shown at her first fashion show in 1981. The breakthrough is credited with taking Westwood in a more traditional direction, showing her interest in incorporating historic British designs into contemporary clothing.
It was also an important step in the ongoing rapprochement between Westwood and the world of fashion. Over time, the rebel became one of the most famous stars, known for reinterpreting gorgeous dresses from the past and often finding inspiration in paintings from the 18th century.
But she still found ways to shock: her 1987 Statue of Liberty bra is remembered as the start of the “underwear as outerwear” trend.
She eventually branched out into a number of business ventures, including an alliance with Italian designer Giorgio Armani, and developed her Red Label ready-to-wear line, her more exclusive Gold Label line, a menswear collection and fragrances called Boudoir and Libertine. Westwood stores have opened in New York, Hong Kong, Milan and several other major cities.
The British Fashion Council named her designer of the year in 1990 and 1991.
Her uneasy relationship with the British establishment is perhaps best exemplified by her trip to Buckingham Palace in 1992 to receive an OBE medal: she wore no underwear and posed for photographers in a way that made it clear.
Apparently the Queen was not offended: Westwood was invited back in 2006 to receive the even more favorable title of Dame Commander of the British Empire — the female equivalent of a knighthood.
Westwood left behind her second husband, the Austrian designer Andreas Kronthaler who had a fashion line under her brand, and two sons.
The first, fashion photographer Ben Westwood, was her son with Derek Westwood. Another, Joe Corre — her son with McLaren — co-founded luxury underwear line Agent Provocateur and once burned what he said was a collection of punk memorabilia worth millions: “Punk was never, ever meant to be nostalgic,” he said.