British designer Vivienne Westwood had no intent in becoming a world-renowned fashion icon. Her story began as a young woman breaking from the comfortable path prescribed for her. Born Vivienne Swire on April 8, 1941 in a village around Derbyshire, England, Westwood would grow out of her role as a local primary school teacher by following her passions. Her designs were pulled from the pages of history books, modernizing and altering where she believed fit. With a rebel heart, Westwood became one of the key figures who influenced the wave of against-the-rule-attitude fashions of the ’90s that continue to inspire looks today. See below some of the life moments that led Westwood to becoming the legendary designer she is today.
1960S Westwood developed an early interest in design, studying silversmithing at a nearby school only to leave one term after starting.”I didn’t know how a working class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world” she said. Westwood’s upbringing deterred her from pursing art as a means, so she turned to becoming a primary school teacher while making dresses and jewelry on the side.
1962 In 1962, Swire met Derek Westwood, a Hoover vacuum factory apprentice. At 22 years old, she married him and even designed her own wedding gown for the ceremony. They moved into a flat and had a child together, but Westwood wasn’t happy with the domestic life. “I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t content looking after my child. I needed to know more of the world. I think of him with great affection, but I grew out of him,” she said.
1970S When Westwood met the manager of ’70s punk band The Sex Pistols Malcom McLaren, her marriage was practically over. Westwood craved the fast-paced lifestyle that she found through McLaren and desired more, ultimately leaving her family and teaching job in 1971 for sex, drugs, and punk music.
1971 In 1971, McLaren and Westwood opened their boutique in the Chelsea district of London on the roots of the punk youth movement. The Kings Road boutique cycled through different titles each year like SEX and Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die, changing each time they released a collection. The shop was where Westwood would display her early works as a designer, including rubber dresses and creeper shoes, making fetish fashionable.
1975 McLaren and Westwood garnered huge success as a backbone of the Sex Pistols, co-designing their iconic band tees. They often displayed images of British culture in messy collage form. From cut-up Union Jacks to Queen Elizabeth II with a safety pin through her lip, the duo popularized band tees that bridged music and fashion.
1977 From the beginning, Westwood displayed rebellion in her taste for fluid dressing. She wore the same spiky hair and ripped T-shirts as her male muses David Bowie and The Sex Pistols.
NEW ROMANTIC, 1981-1985 Westwood partnered with McLaren, debuting their first collection in 1981 with the angle of punk becoming mainstream. Her first collection, titled Pirates, dominated the ’80s look. The collection provided Westwood with a platform for future influences in her work, including Victorian era romanticism, dubbing the period of her career from 1981 to 1985 New Romantic.
1982 Westwood and McLaren collaborated under World’s End label for around five seasons before both their relationship and partnership dissolved. “He was very jealous of me,” she said. “He would say things like, ‘She’s just a seamstress,’ and, ‘Vivienne would not be a designer if she’d never met me.'” Here, McLaren poses with his thumb up after walking in one of their final shows, the Fall/Winter 1992 show Buffalo Girls/Nostalgia of Mud.
1985 Westwood marked her Spring/Summer 1985 collection as the cardinal change in her career, shifting from the flowing styles of the ’60s and ’70s towards more fitted styles. She created the famous mini-crini, a subversive, abbreviated version of the conservative 17th century crinoline dress. Westwood would deliberately pull inspiration from historical fashion, reworking old design methods throughout the rest of her career.
HARRIS TWEED, 1987 One of her most iconic shows was the Fall/Winter 1987 collection titled Harris Tweed, inspired by a girl she saw on the London subway. “She couldn’t have been more than 14. She had a little plaited bun, a Harris Tweed jacket, and a bag with a pair of ballet shoes in it. She looked so cool and composed standing there,” Westwood said.
THE PAGAN YEARS, 1988-1992 From 1988 to 1992, marked the beginning of what Westwood called The Pagan Years. The designer defines this period as distancing herself from punk and parodying the upper class. Westwood’s light-hearted spirit became evident in her shows, known for always generating a few laughs. She often gave models props to use on the runway. This suit from her Fall/Winter 1992 collection is designed after the traditional English hunting uniform, giving the model both a shotgun and moustache.
MARTIN KEENEGETTY IMAGES 1992 Westwood received the high honor of an OBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for her work in British fashion from Queen Elizabeth II in 1992. As captured by a photographer at Buckingham Palace, she accepted her award knicker-less. “I have heard that the picture amused the Queen” she said. In 2006, the Queen advanced Westwood’s honor to a higher DBE (Dame title, which is the female equivalent of knighting).
FALL/WINTER 1993 Nineties supermodel Naomi Campbell took one of the famous spills in fashion history over a pair of purple python platforms on Westwood’s Fall/Winter 1993 runway. After, Campbell stood back up and kept walking, brushing it off with a laugh and a smile.
1993 In 1993, Westwood met Austrian student Andreas Kronthaler while teaching a class at the Fashion Design at the Vienna School of Applied Art. Though Kronthaler was half her age 25 years old, she fell in love with his design artistry, saying that his skill was “completely off the scale.” The two have been happily married for over 25 years.
ANGLOMANIA, 1993-1999 From 1993 to 1999, Westwood identified her designs as a dialogue between the histories of France and England. With the tailoring genius and refined charm of English fashion merged with a French sense of proportion and excess, the designer found her signature aesthetic. In her Fall/Winter 1994 show, Westwood satirically tailored the natural shape of the body, using tartan derrière padding, a 17th century fashion practice of defining the hips while minimizing the waist.
FALL/WINTER 1994 One of Westwood’s most famous borrowings from fashion history is the corset. As corsets are historically worn as underwear, Westwood was one of the first to introduce them as outerwear. Her tight corsets were reminiscent of her fetish fashions back at World’s End. Some corsets even had removable sleeves inspired by Medieval armor.
SPRING/SUMMER 1995 Makeup and hair themes in the shows tended to follow 17th and 18th century beauty standards, which icons like Marie Antionette and Queen Elizabeth I followed. Models often had their hair in ringlet up-dos, a white cast over the face highlighted with pink, and lips drawn into a tight pucker. This was present in Westwood’s Spring/Summer 1995 Erotic Zones show, in which supermodel Kate Moss walked the runway wearing a micro-mini skirt topless and eating an ice cream bar. If you look closely, you can see fellow designer John Paul Gaultier seated from row applauding one of the most humorous and glamorous moments in fashion.
2000S In more recent years, Westwood has made the political messaging in her designs more explicit. Around the mid 2000s, Westwood used her platform as a way to campaign against climate change, nuclear weapons, and unlawful imprisonment. In addition to displaying messages in her designs, Westwood would also campaign herself in person.
2007 In 2007, Westwood got her on-screen break as a costume designer for the Sex and the City movie. The bridal gown designed by Westwood becomes somewhat of a spectacle of the film after it’s gifted to character Carrie Bradshaw by the designer herself.
2008 In 2008, Westwood named Baywatch bombshell and ex-Playboy bunny Pamela Anderson as the face of her label. The two developed a longtime friendship over their bond for environmental activism, and Anderson even became the designer’s subversive femme fatale muse, walking in her runway show.
2008 Westwood received an honorary degree at Heriot-Watt University in Galashiels, Scotland. She was made a Doctor of Letters for her contribution to the industry and use of Scottish textiles.
FALL/WINTER 2015 In the early trends of androgynous fashion, Westwood was one of the first luxury designers to blur the lines of designated dress throughout her collections. Her Fall/Winter 2015 collection titled Unisex was fully dedicated to fluid dressing with gender-neutral garments.
2014 Westwood shaved her head in 2014 as a form of silent protest against climate change. “Vivienne cut her hair because we must all wake up to climate change,” her spokesperson said.
2014 CEO of Virgin Group Richard Branson partnered with Westwood in 2014, creating uniforms for the 7,500 employees under Virgin Atlantic Airlines. Men’s uniforms were a three-piece suit made from burgundy Oxford weave wool while women were dressed in a vibrant red tailored suit with a nipped waist and exaggerated collar.
2018 In 2018, Burberry announced their collaboration between the classically British house and Westwood. Creative Director Ricardo Tisci names her as one of the designers who influenced him early on in studying fashion. “When I first started at Burberry, I knew it would be the perfect opportunity to approach her to do something,” said Tisci. The collaboration was based on some of Westwood’s iconic collections mixed with the houses’ staples. Part of the proceeds were donated to Cool Earth, a rainforest conservation charity in Westwood’s honor.
2019 Westwood seated beside Carine for Andreas Kronthaler For Vivienne Westwood show’s during Paris Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2019.