By Martha Ewing ’26
The world has just lost a fashion icon. On Thursday, December 29th, 2022, Vivienne Westwood died in Clapham, England. She has arguably had the biggest influence on British design, forming the punk scene in London. Coming from a small background to creating one of the most famous fashion houses in the world, how did she make her name, and what makes Vivienne Westwood stand out?
Born on April 8, 1941, in Tintwistle, England, Vivienne was an elementary school teacher interested in fashion, but didn’t think she could pursue it as a career. At night, however, she would travel to Portobello Market in London to sell handmade jewelry. Through her brother, Gordon Swire, she met Malcolm McLaren and realized that she could achieve the glamorous life she had dreamed of. They got married, and while as a couple, Vivienne made clothes for them both. Onlookers were taken aback by their unique street style. Londoners were shocked and amused by the garments they wore. A man named Bradley Mendelson offered Malcolm the back of his newly opened shop for his own retail space in which they sold recycled denim items that Vivienne had designed. They believed there was enough fabric in the world, and didn’t want to become another fast fashion company. This sustainable mentality followed Vivienne throughout her occupation. Their philosophy and Vivienne’s clothes were a hit, and they eventually took over the whole store, naming it “Let It Rock.” This was the beginning of her fashion career, and Vivienne ran a few other successful shops before becoming a global sensation.
Her store catered to the rebellious youth of London who protested against matters such as police brutality, and she came to be known as one of the founders of punk style. She was known for her graphic tees with slogans, imagery, and outrageous designs. As her business became more and more lucrative, Vivienne expanded her Let It Rock brand to include a wider variety of items such as jackets, shoes, and accessories. The men she worked with, The Teddy Boys, started to garner a bad reputation from the public as they were accused of being racist and misogynistic. Vivienne cut off ties with them and rebranded the store “Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die”. This store name was changed soon after the rebrand as it was too long to say, but the skull emblem that came with it has remained a symbol in Vivienne’s clothes and brands throughout her career. As she rebranded and became more successful, her scandalous clothing and persona pushed away people like the Teddy Boys and helped Vivienne and Malcolm cultivate their following of “punks.” After a few more rebranding efforts, the store was named “At World’s End” which was a name that has stuck, even to this day as a trademark slogan, and Vivienne began to take the spotlight, as a designer to be respected in the industry.
Finally, Vivienne presented her first official collection at London Fashion Week in the Autumn/Winter of 1981. This collection shocked the fashion industry as it showcased striking colors and patterns. It was also the first collection to take exact historical garments and reconstruct them for the modern day. The show was a huge success, with other brands following in her footsteps. It resulted in “At World’s End” being able to open another boutique in London. Gradually, Malcolm McLaren grew jealous of Vivienne, and they parted ways just after the Autumn/Winter show of 1983 was put on. Eventually, Vivienne rebranded for the last time, and her company was named Vivienne Westwood. Just after the AW83 collection was put into stores, Madonna wore one of Vivienne’s skirts in a music video for “Borderline” in her debut, self titled, album Madonna. This was huge for the brand, and its sales soared for the following months. From Spring/Summer 1984 to 1987, Vivienne Westwood continued to incorporate her glamorous, punk styles into her collections. Her Autumn/Winter collection of 1987 presented the quintessential “orb” logo, which transpired from her partnership with the Harris Tweed Authority, who made the traditional Scottish fabric featured in the collection. Not only did she keep the trademark orb, but she also saved the Harris Tweed industry in Scotland from dying out. Even though Vivienne became incredibly successful, she still wasn’t fully respected as a designer, with the people at the Designer of the Year awards refusing to give an award to her and giving one to every other designer possible. Eventually, she was given one after the designers began to refuse the award until Vivienne had one herself in 1990.
Vivienne Westwood went on to open stores in Japan, impacting Japanese fashion to this day. She created a wedding dress line, a menswear line, a popular jewelry line (featuring the orb logo in most of the designs), and for a while, a perfume line, among other successes. She married Andreas Kronthaler, who impacted her brand, and even has his own collection, Andrews Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood. She received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth and became Dame Vivienne Westwood. Most importantly, she was well known for her activism, using her platform to speak out against many social justice topics such as human rights issues and climate change, donating millions of dollars to charities across the globe. She was an inspiration to many, and changed fashion across the globe forever.