Dame of Flames: Vivienne Westwood
Vivienne Westwood is a one-woman revolution. Mere words and overly simplified definitions fail to do the immensity of her legacy justice. Considering her hyper-informed and socially engaged disposition, one can easily forget just how firmly she belongs to the world of fashion and its pantheon of iconic, game-changing designers. Her work, both in the private and public sphere, goes far beyond the paltry label of punk. Westwood is an activist in the truest sense of the word. When I first called her for our interview, after exchanging the usual salutary pleasantries, there was a brief pause before Westwood launched into a systematic, introductory breakdown of exactly what is going on in our world in all its complex, yet intricately linked, problems.
In Westwood’s well-founded perspective, “our politicians are criminals,” leading all of humanity down the path towards irreversible “debt and destruction.” Our world is being run by around 147 private banks, including the Federal Reserve System and the World Bank. This small contingency of nefarious, power- hungry businessmen are responsible for not only controlling the ups and downs of our international economy, but also for the printing of billions of dollars of intrinsically valueless money. This fabricated currency is then lent to nations, plunging them ever-deeper into an increasingly unrepayable hole of debt. In turn, the only way countries can lessen this burden is, “in the form of real wealth,” taken from taxpayers, or made through the exploitation of the earth’s finite resources. Simply put, our banks are responsible for orchestrating, “a giant pyramid scheme [that] will crash as money becomes more and more worthless.” Furthermore, this blind profiteering is driving climate change forwards at an unprecedented rate, with no consideration for the ramifications. “We are facing mass extinction of all the animals,” Westwood says, “like tigers and insects, everything will go, except a few things and most of the human race will perish in this extinction.” Though this may all sound like doom and gloom, it is, in fact, a very serious, increasingly threatening reality of our daily existence that Westwood feels is her “job to try and make people aware of.”
Over the course of these ten minutes or so of elucidation, Westwood was concise, thoughtful, and persuasively articulate. Her fervor on these topics is palpable, both even-keeled and impactful. With a passion tempered by optimistic practicality, she transitioned seamlessly from this free-form exposition to our more tightly curated conversation. “So that’s the situation,” she concluded, “you can go ahead and ask your questions now.”
What made you want to make the jump from designing for the store to designing in a more traditional, runway context? Did it ever feel contradictory to you to be attached to the burgeoning subculture of punk and simultaneously accepted by the fashion industry at large?
Well, firstly, I wasn’t aware of the scenario. I didn’t think about that. It was a very simple thing. The first collection I designed was the Pirates collection, before that we had been doing punk—Malcolm McLaren and I—so we got the idea from there. At that point, I realized the influence I had had on fashion. My designs were being copied on Paris catwalks and I decided to go ahead and enter the fashion world. There were two reasons I wanted to do it: one was definitely ambition. The other one was that I come from a part of the world that is really a backwater, culturally. But it was a different time, when hippies were actually politicizing people and I thought that in order to understand the world, to know what’s going on in the world, I shouldn’t be little Donny Danger in the country. I should be learning from the discussions we had and actually reading my books to understand how that world was run. What interested me was that I didn’t have any backing, I didn’t have any big machine of fashion. So, could a talented person become successful in promoting their interests, their designs, and the clothes they had? Because of all that, I thought I should [enter the world of fashion]. I think I did it out of a sense of duty because I was good at it and I wanted to find out if I could make it work and also get the credit.
What do you think your collections convey to your audience? Is there something at the core of the Westwood aesthetic that you hope comes through or is it constantly changing?
There’s something that’s always there, and that is the idea of the hero: somebody who wants to stand for something, engage with the opportunities that life has to offer. You know, not be conformist. It’s a sort of heroism, that you want to look absolutely the best. That doesn’t mean that you want to look different than anybody else, it means: I want to look really great. That to me goes with this sort of heroic attitude towards life. I want to understand things and I want my life to mean something.
You draw inspiration from all these very different sources, like political figures and street urchins. How do you blend together these very disparate worlds?
Fashion people want women to look a certain way, which might not be the way I want them to look. But they think that they will look more beautiful, or more elegant, or whatever, in the clothes that they have designed them in. So, what I do is create the clothes in a vacuum, a type of parallel world I could imagine people walking around in, looking a certain way. And so this is a sort of parallel, more ideal world than the world we live in. You talked about street urchins, these different things. We can talk specifically why I would want someone to look like a street urchin, if you’re asking me that. Sometimes you might want people to look like, you know, a Mod or the poor people— and not only me, but loads of people. I mean, look at distressed clothing, for example. To me, my reasoning for that is, we’re not living in the 19th century in France again, with Frederic Worth or any of these great, great designers. We’re not trying to look opulent in the sense of having the most incredible fabrics that cost a fortune. People now, we’re all consumers and we lack experience. For us, to look poor means you can give yourself some sort of experience. You know, faded denim jeans that are worn out, torn, whatever, means you’re not just living an empty life; somehow, you’re at least a workman, or you’re suffering in some way. But it gives this status to the clothes, a sense of an experience, and then you take that experience and through those things it’s created—not by you wearing them, but you buy them already roughed up. But also, it is that some of it can look nice, people can look nice poor and whatever. It’s not just about going ahead and tearing things; it’s all about you literally having this idea of who is that character that is wearing those clothes.
What do you consider to be your legacy in fashion?
I think more than anything, the way I’ve been cutting clothes. It’s very similar to some of the couturiers making rectangles with cuts and then you put them on and then somehow make it drape. But I think that the way my clothes are cut has made a really big difference in the way that everything looks. And it was taken up by people, not necessarily because they had the same set of principles, but because it somehow makes things look like they’re hung together. I think my clothes have, because of these cutting principles, a terrific dynamic against the body—it makes the body look very active, nervous, expressive. I think that it’s probably that that interests people, more than the clothes, more than anything. One thing that makes my clothes last is, very literally, there has to be a certain character. It’s not anybody that actually necessarily exists, it’s more of a type. If you do that, I think the clothes stay very classic, they stand the test of time. Somehow or other you see that they’re worn by a certain person, it gives them a story and they tend to last.
Throughout your career you’ve had an acute understanding of youth culture, not only in terms of what they want to wear, but also what they’re interested in and what issues they want to talk about. How do you manage to stay on the pulse of youth culture?
Well, I don’t necessarily think I do. But what I do have is, I can make people look different. Young people are interested in romantic things and I think my clothes are a romantic thing. It’s the most eccentric ones often that want those clothes and try to get them, but I make an effort to do fashion shows where I try to encourage people to do it yourself, to try and make things out of two squares—that was all very punk, anyway. My graphics are definitely aimed at young people. I think everybody could lead a better life if they’re more informed. And I try to inform people through fashion. By the way, I do have this reputation as well, which young people are very interested in. I’m always trying to confront the system and I guess some other people relate that to the way the clothes look. [Young people have] been really happy regarding my talks about climate problems. Speaking up and trying to do something with this Climate Revolution is something that I’ve been respected for. And I really think that my credibility as a fashion designer has helped me speak up.
You wore a Bradley Manning pin to the Met Gala and had your interview rudely cut off. Why was that an important statement for you to make at that event?
First of all, it wasn’t cut off—they were giving everybody just a sound bite, it was not just me. And I was perfectly happy because, by luck, I had stopped and they happened to ask me, what are you wearing? And I just jumped into it and said let’s talk about the jewelry, this picture pinned to my breast with Chelsea Manning on it. I think Chelsea Manning is just such a hero. He’s had to run the gauntlet of the illegal legal system in America and in the world, so he just needs all the support we can give him. I used my opportunity [at the Met] to try to affect the trial, but nevertheless we have to keep remembering him and trying to support him by protest—civil protest if we can. Actually, what I will do [is] I will write to him because I think that’s important. While he’s in jail, he needs as full a life as possible and I think I have things I could tell him that he’d be interested in. And also so he knows that people support him. Even though we lost the battle, you have to keep trying to fight for him all the time. Never let them settle with what they’ve done.
Can you tell me a little about your Active Resistance Manifesto?
It began when I started to do some graphics of what I would tell young people these days. The first thing I decided I should really tell people is this idea of the three evils. One of the evils is organized lying; the other is the appeal to your sense of patriarchal national spirit; and the greatest evil is non-stop distraction, that we live in this consumer society where we’re not thinking, we’re just sucking anything up without thought. And because of that we’re not experiencing being alive and what it means. So, I just thought, this is what you need to warn them about. And the thing is that popular culture is consumption, it’s not anything to do with true culture. True culture is about the evolution of the human race. That we can become better, we can become more intelligent, we can become more beautiful, more aesthetic, more understanding of what human values really have to offer. Active Resistance was a manifesto and a journey to discover art, to try to let people understand true culture and also make them aware of it. [Alice and Pinocchio] are two of the greatest books ever written, if people want to learn anything about true culture, the best two books they should read are Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio. They’re really about ideas and how to live a life that is human. Anyway, I used to do [staged] readings. I used to go to universities and different places and the people there, they’d take all the parts of the characters and we’d do it as a communal reading. We were called Active Resistance to Propaganda because pop consumption is propaganda and mass distraction is propaganda, and culture is the anchor that you need that stops you from being influenced. That means you start to think for yourself and start to understand the genius of the universe and what it can do, and not listen to all the crap that you’re being fed. It teaches you about the world; you engage with the world. It’s definitely a part of Climate Revolution. For example, if people only bought beautiful things we probably wouldn’t have an ecological disaster. The trouble is we just consume all this rubbish. So regarding my business, what I’m trying to do is to aim for quality rather than quantity. At this time, I’ve got too much quantity and I’m trying to cut that down. I’ve been saying to people: buy less, choose well, make it last.
I don’t mind if my company goes bust, that wouldn’t bother me. We’re all alright, there would be enough left to pay the people who work for me some sort of consolation. But forget about the factory, forget about the people in the company, forget them completely. I generally think that people shouldn’t just buy things because they can afford it. Just wait a bit and see what you really would like to have and then when you can decide, you can afford it. Most of the things you’ve got you don’t need. Anyway, that’s the thing, make it last.
You’ve always worked to promote civil liberties and human rights. How do you continue to fight for those beliefs today?
Well, everything is connected. It’s all connected so I never stop doing anything regarding that. Bianca Jagger, for example, her main thing is women, women’s rights and particularly violence towards women, and I completely agree with her. I went to her luncheon the other day and if I can help her I certainly will. You can’t fight for everybody, of course, but when you get the opportunity, yes you do. Violence towards women is a bigger killer than some of the biggest killers combined: more than venereal [diseases], traffic accidents, etc. So what I said to her is, Bianca, you have to go chat up the Pope. I wouldn’t go with her, of course, because I don’t want to meet him. But if the Pope would agree to birth control, then you would solve half the problems in the world. You would change attitudes towards women, as well as giving women control. That’s a big WILD Wish for me. That the Pope might do something. You have to try, don’t you?
What would you say to people who don’t think they can make a difference on such massive problems, such as global warming, or civil rights, or women’s rights?
Everything makes a difference and it’s really, really important; the idea that everything is connected and that whatever act of kindness you give makes a difference. It makes a difference to the environment, everything. Particularly, I think people should go to an art gallery. If you would go to this Chinese exhibition of art in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it’s one of the greatest things that’s ever been done. If you go to it, it’s probably the most important thing you can do because it will change your attitude, it will change your vision of the world, it will change your values. And all these things connect. When you think about the information, you will think about climate change and you’ll think about global warming—so everything you think affects what you do. You will do things, even if it’s just talking to someone else; it’s all terribly important. Of course, the great thing would be if people would physically demonstrate, but these days, people aren’t doing that very much. But the important thing is that we know what we want, what we’re aiming for, and then, hopefully, we’ll find a way to do even more concrete action.
Everything from your fashion, to your life, to your politics seems to be this sort of fight against conformity. Why do you think people are afraid to go against the status quo, even if it would improve their living conditions or make them happier?
Maybe we can say that it is mostly to do with propaganda. People have been conditioned, they’ve been trained to be consumers, trained like animals to be consumers, like a little performing dog. It’s all about money; money is paramount. Everything depends on money. So it’s very, very easy for people to be influenced by governments as soon as they talk about growth, which is an impossibility, and we should see that now. At the moment, we’ve got a problem with fracking which we’re trying to stop in this country, it hasn’t really started yet. What they’re basically doing is taking this energy bill, and somehow connecting this with the fact that they need to do fracking and then we’ll have cheaper energy. The whole thing is a total lie. It’s just criminal government activity again and people believe it. I think this is what makes people conform. It’s the fear of being able to pay yourself. And it’s connected with consumption, as well, because 30 percent of the people in England live on ready made food. I think it’s more than America. And 80 percent of people rely mostly on pre-prepared food. I mean, it’s incredible, if you cook your own food and do your own shopping, you’re engaged with the world. It’s an actual activity that makes you more engaged with the world you live in, more engaged with your life, with your two feet that stand on this planet. It makes you more aware of who you are, rather than just going fucking things up all the time. Anyway, it’s an awful lot of propaganda through marketing and through direct, political misinformation.
There’s this really brilliant thing that Noam Chomsky said: If you want to keep people pacified and complacent, the smart thing to do is to limit information and thereby limit discussion of insurgency and then within that limit, to encourage free and fair discussion. So everybody’s discussing the world, but they’re all discussing it within the box. We forget the fact that we can step outside that box and see the world differently and so we’ve got this conformity.
So where do you get the courage to be so outspoken on these topics? Is it just being open to that type of information and not accepting the limitations?
It is courage. I expect information is courage. It gives you courage when you know what’s going on. You don’t have courage when you don’t know what’s going on. So there’s two things, it’s sort of a chicken and egg thing. I think I love to find out what’s going on because I want to understand the world I live in, and because that’s my way of getting a life. I’ve got a life, so I make sure I get it, and I make the best of it. The other thing is, I wish to be able to tell other people that things can improve and that the world can become a better place. It’s not presumptuous, at all.
Do you think it’s possible for people to incite these types of massive global changes that need to occur through the already established capitalist and political channels? Or do we need to find alternative ways? How do we even begin?
I don’t think you can get people on the streets very much, but it is absolutely the best thing and great if they can, if they want to. For example, when England went to war with Iraq, a couple of weeks before the government’s decision, there was a mass rally in Hyde Park against the war. There were, officially, one million people there, but the real figure was two million people. I don’t think there was ever such a rally with so many people in one place, but the government ignored it completely and went ahead and pretended that they were on the search for weapons of mass destruction and chemicals. Then it was discovered that that was a boldfaced lie. The government has the power to go to war if you vote them in, they can go to war whether you like it or not. They did not listen to people. People often quote that as being the reason people don’t go to the streets anymore, because you’re just being ignored by the people on top anyway. But I don’t know, times change. My friends, Julian Assange and Bill McKibben, who runs 350.org, think that this happening is even better because there are lots and lots of small demonstrations happening all the time. Noam Chomsky says that even if he talks to really reactionary people, for example in the American South—what we’d call rednecks at one point— they’d know what he’s talking about. If he had talked to the same people in Nixon’s time, they wouldn’t have had a clue what he was talking about. If he talked to even the most extreme, protesting hippies at the time, they wouldn’t have known what he was talking about. So, what Noam, Bill, and Julian Assange are saying is that these meetings, these small demonstrations of people just talking to each other, all these things are really, really important to people get[ting] a very good idea of what’s going on. Of course, these three people are very interested in the idea of somehow consolidating that through social media and the Internet and having that as a big demonstration of people’s real concerns. To me, it’s to get people on the street, that’s a great thing that they can do. You have to keep up with [physical] protest.
How do you think the fashion industry would change if designers made a more concerted effort towards dealing with real issues that affect the humanity that they clothe?
Well, the thing is that everything is subsidized. I mean, there are a percentage of poor people in America who only live on hamburgers and they can’t afford green vegetables. Green vegetables actually cost more than hamburger. So, somehow, things cost an awful lot more when they actually cost an awful lot less. Farmers in America have to take out these terrible loans from the banks so they can buy all this machinery and everything, and then end up owing two million pounds to the bank when they’re only making twenty thousand pounds a year. They’ll never pay that back. They’ve got this debt and it backfires on everything. So what is really happening, if Climate Revolution happens, is that things would cost more, but then it would be a much more equal world. You wouldn’t have this incredible gap between rich and poor. The money system would have to be different. At one time, chickens were only at Christmas, they were such a luxury. We would have to change how we think. You’d be eating better and healthier.
I read that you don’t watch TV or read newspapers or magazines. How do you stay abreast of current issues?
Well, this was true at one time. Certainly, I haven’t watched TV in a very long time; I also haven’t looked at magazines in a very long time. There’s too many of them. That’s what makes magazines so boring. I don’t even want to look at a magazine, there’s nothing in there to interest me. But I did read newspapers, up to a point, and I did listen to the radio. But now, I’m just so sick of hearing it. I don’t really listen to it very much anymore. Every now and again, yes, if it’s nine o’clock and the news is going to come on, I’ll slosh the bottle and I’ll listen to it on the radio. If I’m at an airport, I might suddenly decide on that journey to read the newspaper from cover to cover. But I generally don’t do that. I rely on my colleague Cynthia who runs the Climate Revolution website. She reads the newspaper online and gets me stuff from all these other sites that are so interesting, that are telling you stuff outside the box. She prints out things that she thinks are important for me to know. I don’t use a computer either, I write my blog in longhand and give it to Cynthia. Young people have got to discover this information, that’s what they can do. I heard something about this WILD Wish. That’s one of them.
What is your other WILD Wish?
Probably, it would be that China would fight for Climate Revolution. That they would stop doing what they’re doing, which is borrowing the formula of how to ruin the earth that’s being practiced by every other country, and set an example to everybody else. The Chinese were the most civilized people that ever lived for a thousand years. The West had superior weapons to the Chinese and they forced the Chinese to, well, to crumple… Their civilization crumpled and eventually the Chinese adopted our way of doing things. Mao tried to do that and killed more people than Genghis Khan or anybody that ever lived. But the Chinese have an amazing past, an amazing civilization. They are very different people, and they still have some of the values from that great civilization. I just wonder if China might be improved if they could afford to have happier people instead of people who are working for nothing to supply all this stuff for the West. I want people to start doing what Climate Revolution recommends, which is: What is good for the planet is good for the economy, what is bad for the planet is bad for the economy. If they could take that maxim and fight for Climate Revolution, then they would set an example for the rest of the world. They should mimic the culture that they want to have and maybe, by engaging with their past, they might then be able to continue to have that full culture. They might be able to reinvent their culture. Their country is large enough to be absolutely self-sufficient. They don’t need anything from the West; they don’t need anything at all. I think that of Europe as well, but at the moment, I don’t see much hope. But China is a very good start. It would be great.