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Vivienne Westwood, the rule-breaking, irreverent fashion designer who came to prominence along with the Sex Pistols in the 1970s, has died. She was 81.
On its Instagram page, her fashion brand announced that the designer — one of the original architects of the punk fashion look — died Thursday “peacefully and surrounded by her family in Clapham, South London.”
“Vivienne continued to do the things she loved, up until the last moment, designing, working on her art, writing her book and changing the world for the better. She led an amazing life. Her innovation and impact over the last 60 years has been immense and will continue into the future,” continued the post.
In a statement, Andreas Kronthaler, Vivienne’s husband and creative partner, said: “I will continue with Vivienne in my heart. We have been working until the end, and she has given me plenty of things to get on with. Thank you darling.”
With her then-partner Malcolm McLaren, Westwood opened the store SEX at 430 King’s Road in London in 1974 with large foam pink letters blaring the name on the facade. Selling everything from bondage gear to T-shirts carrying shock-the-establishment slogans, the store became a central hub for the city’s emerging punk rock scene.
Its customers included the founding members of The Sex Pistols (McLaren was the group’s manager) as well as Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Soux and Adam Ant. As musician Viv Albertine wrote in her memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys: “Vivienne and Malcolm use clothes to shock, irritate and provoke a reaction but also to inspire change. Mohair jumpers, knitted on big needles, so loosely that you can see all the way through them, T-shirts slashed and written on by hand, seams and labels on the outside, showing the construction of the piece; these attitudes are reflected in the music we make.”
Looking back on the punk era, Westwood herself once said, “It changed the way people looked. I was messianic about punk, seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way.”
Vivienne Isabel Swire was born April 8, 1941, in Cheshire, England. Her father, Gordon, was a grocer and then a storekeeper in an aircraft factory, and her mother, Dora, worked in cotton mills.
“I lived in a part of the country that had grown up in the Industrial Revolution,” she told The Independent in 1999. “I didn’t know about art galleries until I was 17. I’d never seen an art book, never been to the theater.”
While working as a teacher in the late 1950s, she created and sold her own jewelry out of a stall in the Notting Hill district.
She married Derek Westwood, a home appliance exec, in 1962 and had a son, Benjamin, but they divorced three years later. She met McLaren and they had a son, Joseph, in 1967. Four years later, McLaren opened a shop, Let It Rock (at the location that would become SEX), and Westwood designed clothes to fill it.
Together, they eventually launched a series of fashion collections before Westwood went out on her own in the mid-1980s. Her signature aesthetic evolved, mixing reappropriated tartan patterns with safety pins, tulle and corsets in looks that parodied the British upper class.
Westwood’s “Queen of Punk” status was cemented in the 1980s as she created some of her most iconic designs. Often edgy interpretations of pieces rooted in romantic or historical origins, her modernity was exhibited in collections inspired by everything from swashbucklers, the inspiration of the 1981 “Pirate” collection she shared with McLaren, to 19th-century crinolines, interpreted as a miniskirt (dubbed “Mini-Crini”) in a 1985 collection, as well as her legendary corset treatments, which reimagined the piece via innovative, provocative cuts and forward-thinking fabrications.
One of Westwood’s most celebrated corsets could be found in her 1990 “Portrait” collection, which included a design highlighting a decidedly erotic scene from a 1743 Francois Boucher painting, Daphnis and Chloe; today that corset is in the permanent collection of London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
In 2006, she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire after having previously received an Order of the British Empire medal in 1992.
Westwood’s unabashedly bold approach also extended to blending her celebrated activism with her designs. Passionate about using her platform to put a spotlight on everything from politics to climate change, she reveled in highlighting global problems through the lens of her work, and often courted controversy as a result, such as the “I am Julian Assange” T-shirt she wore at the conclusion of her Fall/Winter 2013 show.
For Fall/Winter 2018, Westwood took a stand against Brexit when one of her models walked her runway carrying the flag of the European Union. Other shows included statements that declared everything from “Fracking Is a Crime” to a protest against abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, as seen in her Red Label collection of Fall/Winter 2008.
Perhaps that activism, combined with Westwood’s aesthetic, is among the reasons Hollywood came calling. Her designs are seen in films including Elisabeth Shue’s costumes in 1995’s Leaving Las Vegas and looks for Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr. in 2005’s Shadowboxer, while Sex and the City fans will quickly recall the designer’s wedding gown (complete with a note Westwood wrote herself) in the 2008 film that followed the popular HBO series. That gown is due to make an appearance in Season Two of the series sequel, And Just Like That…
Indeed, in the ensuing years, her label likewise grew to become a global brand, with stores in the U.K., Asia and two in the U.S., in New York and Los Angeles. Stars who have recently worn Vivienne Westwood include Salma Hayek, Timothée Chalamet, Lady Gaga, Emily Blunt, Hailey Bieber, Sofia Carson, SZA (at the 2022 Met Gala), Olivia Rodrigo (at this year’s Grammy Awards), Lily James and Elle Fanning. Last year, one of the designer’s jewelry designs — a three-strand pearl necklace featuring her crystal orb logo worn by the likes of Janelle Monáe, Bella Hadid and Dua Lipa — went viral on TikTok, sparking a rush of interest in the label.
The brand’s social media post announcing Westwood’s death also included a quote from the designer, who considered herself a Taoist: “Tao spiritual system. There was never more need for the Tao today. Tao gives you a feeling that you belong to the cosmos and gives purpose to your life. It gives you such a sense of identity and strength to know you’re living the life you can live and therefore ought to be living: make full use of your character and full use of your life on earth.”
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