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May 1, 2011

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British fashion royalty

IT'S 2:30 in the afternoon, and Dame Vivienne Westwood needs a little pick-me-up.

"Just wait a second. I think I'd like to have a glass of wine," says the flame-haired British fashion designer, avant-garde as ever at 70, wearing a low-cut blouse that shows off an oversized heart-shaped pendant and offers a peek of her ribbon-trimmed bra. "I just need to get going a bit for some reason."

She has an excuse: The previous evening, Westwood, a 40-year industry veteran, celebrated the opening of her first stateside store in more than a dozen years with a star-studded party that stretched into the night. Fashionistas and the famous such as Marilyn Manson, Christina Hendricks, Malin Akerman and Dita Von Teese packed the new two-story boutique and showroom (with impressive rooftop views of the Hollywood Hills) on Los Angeles' trendy Melrose Avenue. Afterward, Westwood hosted a private dinner for her closest colleagues.

Now she is relaxing on the patio outside Chateau Marmont, a Hollywood hideaway since 1929, with husband and collaborator Andreas Kronthaler by her side. And her pinot noir has just arrived.

Westwood and Kronthaler (who is more than 20 years her junior) independently own and create the Vivienne Westwood brand.

"Andreas does half the work," Westwood says of her partner since 1993. "He's a designer. He's my husband but he does as much design as I do."

It was he who helped set up the new store in Los Angeles. The couple found it a natural home for the brand's American operations, "especially because we do these great dresses for the red carpet," says Westwood, who scored credits on Oscar night for Anne Hathaway and Helen Mirren.

More practically, Los Angeles, compared to New York's Soho, where Westwood closed her store a decade ago, offers an ideal location for shipping throughout the United States and Asia, Kronthaler adds. In case you couldn't tell, Kronthaler is the more business-minded of the pair.

"It's like a gateway, so it's an incredibly big opportunity for us," he says. "It's like a door is opening."

For Westwood, this is only the latest chapter in a career that began in 1971, when she opened her first clothing store with then-partner Malcolm McLaren. He went on to create the Sex Pistols, and she pioneered a new London street style characterized by zippers, safety pins, scrawled messages and torn fabrics.

Music has always been tightly woven into the Westwood label, and many - including rocker Marilyn Manson - consider her the queen of punk.

"There's a bit of an opinion on the Sex Pistols, the Stooges or the Doors on who invented punk rock, but for me, she did," says Manson, who attended the grand-opening bash. "The entire thing was a process, very much an art piece, and that's what made it punk rock."

Westwood is reticent to call fashion art, but she hints that maybe, sometimes, it can get close.

"Art is always original," she writes in her "Active Resistance to Propaganda" manifesto, which she published in 2005.

Today, she says, "I'm proud in the past to have invented silhouettes that didn't exist if I hadn't have existed, in an age of conformity, really."

Indeed, without her, the world likely would be without Rocking Horse platform shoes and mini-crinis (crinoline-flared short skirts), among other things.

"I certainly think fashion makes your life better, that you have a more positive outlook," she says. "It's a way of engaging in the world. Fashion is a way of communicating and projecting an image of who you feel you are and the kind of person you wish to attract."

Westwood makes fashion personal and political, putting slogans on T-shirts since her earliest design days. Recent messages on the now-US$90 tees include "I (heart) crap," "I am not a terrorist, please don't arrest me," and "Act fast, slow down, stop climate change."

Perhaps ironically, the designer, whose dresses and suits sell for thousands of dollars, rails against consumerism.

"I think it's very dulling. It's not very alive to just be sucking up one thing after another without really choosing anything," she says, sipping her wine. "So I'm saying at the moment: Buy less, choose well."

And make fashion your own, she says. "I always like that anyway, you know. Sticking safety pins on you, even make a necklace out of safety pins and put a towel around you instead of a coat and pin it on you like a little dress or whatever, I love all that."

As her wine glass empties, Westwood closes an interview with an anecdote. Nearly 30 years ago, when she was first invited to show her collection in Japan, she and Calvin Klein, Gianfranco Ferre, Claude Montana and Hanae Mori faced an unprecedented barrage of reporters. One thrust a microphone in Westwood's face and demanded to know, "What is fashion?"

"Fashion," Westwood had replied, "is about eventually being naked."

That still applies, she says.

"I would say the best dress is to be naked, if you're young and pneumatic and you know … at my age, I would like a pair of high-heel shoes."


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