Dame Vivienne Westwood: fashion designer died at 81 years old

Iconoclastic British designers rose to fame outfitting the Sex Pistols during the punk boom of the 1970s

Dame Vivienne Westwood, a pioneering British fashion designer who played a key role in the punk movement, has died in London aged 81.

Westwood died "peacefully, surrounded by his family" in Clapham, south London, on Thursday, his representatives said in a statement.

She continued to do the things she loved, including designing, working on her book and making art, "until the very last moment," they added.

Her husband and creative partner, Andreas Kronthaler, said: “I will continue with Vivienne in my heart. We have worked until the end and he has given me a lot to work on. Thank you darling."

Born in the village of Tintwistle in Derbyshire in 1941, Westwood's family moved to London in 1957, where he attended art school for one semester. A self-taught designer with no formal fashion training, Westwood learned how to make clothes as a teenager by following patterns and taking apart used clothes he found in the market to understand their cut and construction.

She met band manager Malcolm McLaren in the 1960s while working as an elementary school teacher following her separation from her first husband, Derek Westwood. The couple opened a small shop on Kings Road in Chelsea in 1971 which became a regular for many of the bands he supported, including the Sex Pistols, who were managed by McLaren.

His provocative and at times controversial designs came to define the punk aesthetic, and Westwood would become one of England's most celebrated fashion designers, blending historical references, classic tailoring, and a flourishing romanticism with a tougher and sometimes too flashy political message.

The Westwood and McLaren stores changed their names and focus several times, including rebranding as Sex, which saw the pair fined in 1975 for "indecent display" there, as well as Worlds End and Seditionaries.

Westwood's first catwalk show, in 1981, for his Pirates collection, was an important step in the punk rebel becoming one of the world's most recognized fashion stars. But she still finds ways to shock: her 1987 Statue of Liberty corset is credited with starting the “underwear as outerwear” trend.

Even as Westwood's design empire grew into a multi-million pound business, the designer never lost his activist spirit. In 1989 she posed for the cover of Tatler magazine dressed as Margaret Thatcher, with the caption reading: "This woman was once a punk". He later told Dazed Digital that "the suit I was wearing had been ordered by Margaret Thatcher of Aquascutum, but she later canceled it".

From his early punk days, Westwood mixed and reversed his image of the British monarchy. When he was awarded the Order of the British Empire medal in 1992, the designer received the honor from Queen Elizabeth II while wearing a gray frock suit. Outside Buckingham Palace, she circled to waiting photographers, revealing to the world that she was wearing no panties.

Westwood was invited back in 2006 to accept the more lucrative Dame Commander of the British Empire appointment.

In the mid-2000s, Westwood shifted his political focus toward the climate crisis. In 2007, he published a manifesto entitled Active Resistance to Propaganda, in which he wrote: “We have a choice: to become more educated, and therefore more humane – or by not choosing, to become destructive and self-destructive animals, victims of our own intelligence (To be or not to be).

As an anti-consumer, Westwood happily undermines his own business interests. In 2010, she told the AAP: “I'm just telling people, stop buying clothes. Why not protect this gift of life while we have it? I do not take the position that destruction is inevitable. Some of us want to stop that and help people survive."

In 2015, he drove a tank to prime minister David Cameron's Oxfordshire home, in protest against fracking. As a vegetarian, Westwood lobbied the British government to ban the retail sale of fur alongside other top designers including Stella McCartney.

He is also a vocal supporter of Julian Assange. In 2020, he suspended himself in a birdcage to protest the extradition of the WikiLeaks founder from Britain. In 2022 he designed the suit and dress that Assange and his wife, Stella Moris, wore at their wedding.

Until recently, Westwood regularly wrote about climate and social justice issues on his website No Man's Land. Last month she made a statement of support for climate protesters who threw soup at Van Gogh's Sunflowers, writing: “Young people are desperate. They wore T-shirts that read: Just Stop the Oil. They're doing something.”

Tributes poured in for the designer on Thursday night. “Vivienne is gone and the world is a less interesting place. Love you Viv,” tweeted Chrissie Hynde, Pretenders frontwoman and former employee at the couple's store.

Model Karen Elson, who frequently collaborates with the designer, wrote on Instagram: “She tore apart notions of femininity, sex and was one of the first to demand that fashion be better in terms of climate and is without a doubt one of them. the most easily original person I've ever met. Fashion, art, culture will mourn the loss of a giant woman who shaped how we wear and what we wear.

Fashion commentator Derek Blasberg writes that while textbooks may remember Westwood for “bringing London counterculture to high fashion… I think he is most wanted to be remembered for his advocacy, particularly [regarding] global warming… His life was aggressive, relentless and great fun. Completely original.”

Westwood is survived by Kronthaler, who was her second husband, and her two sons, fashion photographer Ben Westwood, son with Derek Westwood, and son with McLaren, Joe Corré, who co-founded lingerie company Agent Provocateur.

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