Vivienne Westwood has a request. Before we start our conversation, she wants to get on her soapbox about climate change, the issue that consumes as many of her waking thoughts as the fashion career that has brought her notoriety, adulation, and the title of Dame of the British Empire. Climate change is, Westwood says, her mantra.
And she insists it’s the only reason she does interviews. She won’t brook any interruptions; she simply wants me to sit and listen while she chants. In a world somewhat more ideal than this one, she would like to see the streets crowded with people compelling their governments to urgent action on the subject of climate change, which she attributes to the failures of the global financial system. And this has to happen now, before it’s too late.
I WAS very AGGRESSIVE ABOUT PUNK IN THOSE DAYS. IT WAS like A YOU’RE-WITH-ME-OR-AGAINST-ME KIND of THING.
One of Westwood’s favorite books is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, so one could see where she might be riding that apocalyptic train of thought if she were a pessimistic sort. Except that she’s not. At 71, Westwood is as fired up now by anarchic idealism as she was when she and Malcolm McLaren first stormed the battlements of the status quo over four decades ago. “Me and Malcolm, we hated the older generation,” Westwood says. Then she grew old herself, had her moment of despair at what she saw as the passivity of youth, realized the error of her ways, and finally swung back to fervent faith in the idealism of the young, helped, no doubt, by her marriage in 1992 to Austrian-born Andreas Kronthaler, 25 years her junior. Kronthaler is very much part of her design team—her Fall collection ran a gamut from body-shaping 17th-century silhouettes in silk to opinion-shaping 21st-century statements on tees.
Now she perches almost shamanlike on a swivel chair in her surprisingly ordered Battersea studio, delivering her mantra in her quietly determined little voice, weaving in education, imagination, activism, anarchy, and art. It’s easy to imagine Westwood doing the same thing in the tiny store at the end of King’s Road all those years ago—a store which, in its various incarnations (Let it Rock; Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die; Sex; Seditionaries; and Worlds End), galvanized generations and fomented fashion revolutions. And when the mantra finishes, the story begins.
TIM BLANKS: I’ve always loved the way you use aesthetics as a weapon—or at least as a power for good—like you’re a medium between high culture and the ordinary world. My latest favorite example is the nude portraits you did with Juergen Teller. I know you shot those in 2009, but I only saw them at his show in February. They reminded me of Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD: No, she’s got her back to you—a wonderful back, with beautiful pale limbs.
BLANKS: What’s the painting where the artist painted his subject both naked and clothed?
WESTWOOD: That’s Goya! I must have been thinking about nude paintings somehow because I had my hair loose. I don’t wear it that way normally because I think I’m too old to have my hair loose. It looks silly on a woman of my age to have long hair. Though it’s dyed red. If it was white, then I’d look like a witch. Anyway, Juergen was quite happy to do it like that.
BLANKS: Was it your idea or his?
WESTWOOD: Oh, no. I would never have dreamt of it. But I just have to trust him and let him do what he wants because I believe in him. If he says, “I want to take a picture of you nude,” I don’t think, “Well, I don’t really want a picture of myself nude and what’s all this about?” I just think, “Okay, good, yeah, okay, sure you can.” [laughs]
BLANKS: I assumed the painterly element must have been from you.
WESTWOOD: Juergen just said, “Go on, sit on the sofa.” I must have sat on the sofa to get undressed and he must have thought it was okay. But the one thing I did was something with my hair. You know, a nude is never naked. You’ve always got a beautiful hairstyle, a beauty mark, or a ring, or whatever it is. You’ve always got to be “dressed” in some way. I said, “I want to do my hair.” And his wife, Sadie [Coles, the art dealer], and his little boy were there with him as well, so it was all quite okay. [laughs]
See the whole interview at Interview Magazine