I had the pleasure of meeting Vivienne Westwood in Paris, in January of this year when we both attended the same party, where she and six other "heavy hitter" designers were being honored for the handbag designs they had created for the one hundredth anniversary of the legendary and "oft imitated but never equaled", Louis Vuitton leather goods company.
For the occasion, Azzedine Alaia created a purse, Isaac Mizrahi created a tote, Sybilla a backpack, Manolo Blahnik a weekend bag, Romeo Gigli a shoulder bag, and Helmut Lang, a rather original DJ's box.
But Westwood, in an expected departure from the norm, created a "bum bag" to mark the occasion. A uniquely shaped leather vessel, in the signature LV insigniaged fabric, designed to wrap around the wearer's hips, and gracefully enhance the posterior. Ms. Westwood's creation, (pun intended) clearly "stood out" from the rest.
The enhanced backside is just the latest in an arsenal of tools that the designer has been known to use over the years to get pulses racing and tongues wagging. When the first bustled behinds appeared on her runway a few fashion seasons ago, some of the British press (among others) went ballistic. The day after the show, London's Daily Mail proclaimed in a front-page story; "Vivienne Westwood dragged haute couture to a new low yesterday." Others, more amused and in tune with the designers thought provoking eccentricities proclaimed it, "clever" and if sublime." Such is the edge that Ms. Westwood walks on. The avant garde, in many arenas, but particularly in fashion design, has come to be known as the domain of the British and in this respect, Westwood stands true to her roots. It could be said, that she is "largely" responsible for this perception of British fashion as it exists today. Born in 1941, in Gossop (Derbyshire), she moved to London with her family at the age of 17.
She began designing in 1971, when she and Malcolm McLaren opened their shop at 430 King's Road, the so called "wrong end" of the otherwise prosperous London street, which eventually came to be called "World's End."
But Westwood and McLaren claimed the location as their own with their chameleon like boutique, which changed names and decor every time the larger-than-life duo had a new idea. In it's first incarnation, in '71, it was called "Let It Rock" selling '50's Rock'n'Roll records and clothing at a time when hippies were still in fashion and Rock'n'Roll was never played on British radio. In 1972, it became "Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die," offering '50's records, Zoot suits, "Rocker" clothing, zips, chains and the like. In '74 the creative team took the idea to its next level offering "SEX." The name was displayed on the front of the shop in ten foot high fluorescent pink plastic letters. The items for sale inside included leather bondage clothing, pornographic T-shirts, rubberwear and T-shirts with zips, holes and seditionist slogans.
SEX coincided with, and in fact, helped to shape, the emerging lifestyle, music style and fashion style which later became known as Punk, and it was during this time that McLaren decided to form the band The Sex Pistols, who were named after the shop and intended (at least in part), to serve as models for Westwood's latest creations and attract attention to the boutique.
It's safe to say, that history has recorded this association and its aftermath as one which leaves Westwood, inextricably attached to the world of music and to the shaping of Punk. But she has managed to both bask in the glory of and transcend this association over the years, proving herself to be an ever evolving creator of fashion and ideas. With 1976 came "Seditionaries" and by 1979 the shop was called "World's End".
In late 1981, Westwood showed her first runway collection at the Olympia in London. It was called "Pirates," and revived a late eighteenth century cut which, instead of following the lines of the body opposed them, creating folds and sags. Models wore billowing "pirate" shirts, had their hair in ringlet curls and sported gold teeth. The show reached international success and triggered the popular trend which became known as New Romantic. By 1983, Westwood had her first show in Paris, and was the first British designer to do so since Mary Quant, thus establishing herself as a bona fide "insider" in the fashion world. It became clear from her first Paris collection, called " Punkature," that she was gathering confidence in presenting and propelling her unconventional ideas not just into the fashion world but the world at large. In describing some influences of that collection, she has been quoted as saying; "We needed a definitive break with all that sicklysweet hippie look, to move away from retro fashion. We also felt totally opposed to the hypocritical, conservative politics of the time. The result was studiously torn baggy T-shirts, cloths that were purposely lacerated, stained and pre-aged, studded black leather or Skai, platform shoes, spiked hair, etc." All this, fifteen years before anyone even spoke of the looks which would be called, "deconstructed" and "destroyed."
In 1983, she opened a second shop in London, called "Nostalgia of Mud," but ended up closing it at the end of 1994. This event also coincided with the end of her collaboration with Malcolm McLaren.
Westwood continued on her own and introduced the "Mini Crini" including boned corsets, fluorescent tube skirts, "Armor" jackets, and skirts slashed to the crotch. She turned traditional Harris tweed on its heels adding sex appeal to the staid status conscious fabric, and deconstructed traditional English style by juxtaposing elements from the Queen's wardrobe with mini-kilts and eighteenth century bustiers. These were just some of the headlining and controversial looks she presented over the next six years. But controversy, alone, is not what serves to inspire a Westwood creation.
She has in the past, and continues to possess the uncanny ability to sense social and cultural changes in the air and to morph these messages into fashion collections, which are more than mere pieces of clothing, but rather symbols of the moods of a time. After all, this designer who has been known to quote philosophers and late nineteenth and early twentieth century novelists believes that making something is pointless unless you have an idea, and even more so, "An idea is pointless unless you can give it form." By the end of the I980's she successfully discovered this credo as her own and claimed the decade as the one in which she established herself as one of the most influential designers in contemporary fashion. John Fairchild, President of Fairchild Publications and Editor of the fashion "bible" Women's Wear Daily, confirmed this when he rated Vivienne Westwood one of the six most influential designer's in the world, in his 1989 book "Chic Savages". It was during this time, that the British, in their distinct way of acknowledging all those who are "special" as royalty, began to refer to Westwood as "Queen Viv". With the '90's came complete menswear collections from Westwood along with critically acclaimed womenswear collections including those which featured photo prints of old master paintings on jackets and corsets, her gender bending "Portrait" collection, and of course the infamous "bustle".
Her current Fall '96 collection, "Storm In A Teacup" was presented in Paris earlier this year and was described by one fashion writer as looking like "ladies who lunch on LSD". The collection included rainbow swirl sweaters with pom poms, one shoulder evening concoctions, and mix and match plaids and wacky equestrian looks. Some suits contained one small and one large shoulder and asymmetrically cut fronts. Make-up was corpse-like; pale and pasty with ghoulish color rimmed eyes. But all in all, it was what has been come to be known as classic Westwood. Those who got it, commended the visionary for bringing the notion of subversive elegance and artifice to a world that has become common in it's tastelessness. Those who didn't, just didn't.
The 90's have also seen Westwood acknowledged for her accomplishments and opinions both in and out of the ordinary realm of fashion. She was crowned "British Designer of The Year", both in 1990 and 1991 , the only designer to have been given this prestigious award two years in succession. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire and received by the Queen in 1992. A member of the Royal College of The Arts, she held a chair as professor of fashion at the University of Vienna from 1989 to 1991 and has since been the Professor of Fashion at Berlin's Hochshule Der Kunste. She also, created a sensation by posing on the cover of the high-society magazine Tatier, disguised as Margaret Thatcher, and because of her heretical opinions is in constant demand by the media for them with regard to many issues. The designer who once predicted the end of the world by crying "No Future" in the '70's can now be often heard quoting Bertrand Russell; "Orthodoxy is the grave of intelligence".
So it's with this continuing "unorthodox" view that she created the "bumbag" for the traditional and rather conservative Louis Vuitton company. Yet, she was invited to participate in such a project precisely for her unusual point of view. At the party, to mark the occasion she was acknowledged by her peers and other industry icons for having done just that; creating a whimsical original, and outrageous design, as she has been doing for over twenty years.
After the party, I had the good fortune of being invited to a friend's house along with Westwood and her husband Andreas. When I arrived, she was already there, sitting with perfect posture in a straightback chair in a corner of the room. She sat apart from everyone else, looking, with her translucent skin and pale blond hair, like a pearl emerging from her oyster colored gown which fell in folds around her and down past her ankles covering her shoes. Upon being introduced to me, she asked me what I do, and I told her I was a writer, to which she replied, "I have always believed that if you are going to be a writer you must read." After that, we proceeded to have an hour long conversation about reading, writing, and the intellectual's place in society. She spoke quickly, almost as if her brain were moving faster than her mouth, but was careful not to squander one word on anything trivial She mentioned 18th and I 9th century French writers, Aidous Huxley and a bevy of philosophers.
I have over the years, admired Westwood's fashions, her uniqueness and creativity, but it was during this conversation that it became most clear to me, exactly why she has earned the exclusive and revered title of "Queen Viv".
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