She showed her first runway collection at 40. She was unafraid to send powerful political statements down the runway. She proudly marched to the beat of her own drum. She challenged the demure and made friends with the subversive. She tore down the barrier separating luxury fashion from countercultural streetwear. Vivienne Westwood, a Fashion Icon, has left behind a powerful legacy.
Born to a working-class family in the midst of World War II, Westwood grew up with her mother sewing and repurposing clothes for her and her siblings to wear. Her working-class roots led to her adopting the political beliefs, but not the aesthetic, of the hippie movement of the 60s.
A schoolteacher with no formal training, Westwood began working as a seamstress with McLaren in his storefront, SEX. Despite going through several name changes, the clothing remained the same, drawing inspiration from historical eras, the British punk scene, and fetish attire.
"...because we were just saying to the older generation, 'We don't accept your values or your taboos, and you're all fascists,'" she said.
In 1981, the Vivienne Westwood label finally graced the runway in a swashbuckling display of her first-ever show, Pirate. Although the punk aesthetic isn't present in this unisex collection, Westwood shared another source of inspiration: her love of art and history. Rips and safety pins were replaced by bright colors and romantic imagery, ushering in the New Romantics movement.
Even when punk visuals weren't directly present, Westwood remained an agent of change and igniter of new fashion trends.
One of her most iconic runway shows, Café Society, graced Paris Fashion Week in 1993. Models in the show were encouraged to make their own personal statement, from smoking cigarettes to supermodel Kate Moss famously eating an ice cream bar as she walked. The collection was inspired by various historical eras, from the Elizabethan to the French Rococo.
This show produced one of Westwood's memorable pieces: the mini-crini. Inspired by the 19th century crinoline, Westwood created a powerful display of female sexuality by subverting historically modest clothing and traditions through a modern lens.
Westwood's unwavering activism even as her brand hit the luxury stage shows that even as her brand evolved, she never backed down from her punk roots. It's not uncommon to see political statements on a runway, but her mastery of shock and brazen messaging was never diluted for the refined luxury market.
The designer has been a consistent advocate for climate change awareness throughout her career, from calling on other luxury brands to increase their own sustainability efforts to donating money towards climate change organizations.
Her Homo Loquax show, presented at London Fashion Week in 2019, sent models down the runway in clothing covered with statements protesting consumerism and climate change. She showed this collection at 78 years old.
Westwood's ethos and countercultural style captured the love and support of a new generation with the viral success and eventual selling out of the mini bas relief choker, taking over TikTok and other social media platforms. The piece's popularity within various internet subcultures preserved Westwood's brand for future leagues of young punks.
Source: Vivienne Westwood
Even as time passed, Westwood's devotion to punk politics and controversial displays of protest didn't slow down. Regardless of the size of her platform, she didn't shy away from spreading awareness to the causes she was passionate about. Whereas some would quiet their statements to appease the mass market, she held up a megaphone.
Westwood's political stunts will always be remembered because her stance never changed throughout her career. From her youth to her final years, her actions, words, and designs touted the same messaging. One could even argue that Westwood became even more punk as she aged.
A society that values a youthful appearance, pours millions of dollars into anti-aging treatments, and produces little in the realm of mature fashion reinforces the tired notion that fashion is only for a small demographic. Throughout her life, Westwood defied this in her personal dress.
Yes, she dressed celebrities and supermodels on the runway. But before that, she dressed whoever was willing to step into her store. She dressed the fringes of counterculture, and did it proudly. Westwood's advent of punk wasn't just a look, but a mindset as well.
Westwood's contributions to the fashion industry will never be forgotten. She held tightly to her beliefs even in the face of controversy. She produced thought-provoking pieces with immaculate craftsmanship. She was unapologetically herself, and she was punk before punk was cool.
Westwood's legacy reminds us all that conviction, activism, creativity, and - of course - punk, will always have a place within fashion history.