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Vivienne Westwood - Biography

All you need to know about legendary fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and her grip on punk British style

Vivienne Westwood - Biography
Updated: 28 June 2023
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Dame Vivienne Westwood was a British fashion designer and businesswoman who was renowned for pioneering punk and new-wave fashion. She is widely considered one of the most legendary and boundary-pushing fashion designers to date. Westwood rose to fame in the late 1970s when her early designs helped construct the punk subculture.

Born Vivienne Isabel Swire on April 8, 1941, in the English town of Glossop in Derbyshire, Westwood came from a modest background. At the age of 17, Westwood's family moved to Harrow where the future star worked at a local factory, subsequently enrolling at a teacher training school. She married Derek Westwood at age 21, with whom she had son, Ben, and continued to work as a teacher. The marriage dissolved and she met Sex Pistols manager and fellow punk pioneer Malcolm Mclaren.

Vivienne Westwood and the rise of punk

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The designer is one of the most iconic and referenced in history, and the story of how she began her namesake label is steeped in cultural importance. Influenced by acts of rebellion and typical 1950s clothing, music, and memorabilia, a young Vivienne Westwood and her then partner Malcolm McLaren (manager of the Sex Pistols) opened a small boutique called Let it Rock (subsequently SEX) at number 430 Kings Road, Chelsea in London in 1971. The style was a complete departure from the popular hippie fashion movement that was trending at the time. Two years later, the Sex Pistols song ‘God Save the Queen’ went to number one in the charts but was refused airtime by the BBC. The shop then reopened as Seditionaries, transforming the straps and zips of obscure sexual fetishism and bondage into fashion, and inspiring a D.I.Y. aesthetic worn by the band. The mass media labelled this aesthetic as ‘Punk Rock’, a fashion movement that Vivienne became renowned for throughout her career. Vivienne's clothes were perfect for the youth trend: bondage trousers, slashed shirts and provocative God Save The Queen T-shirts. The monarch may not have loved it, but London was intoxicated.

Vivienne Westwood's fashion career

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Her first runway show was in 1981, dubbed the ‘Pirate’ Collection informed the aesthetic of her Boutique with its pirate’s galleon and ship features. This collection was filled with romantic looks in gold, orange, and yellow which burst onto the London fashion scene, ensuring its place in the house’s history of influence. This moment also marked a major change in her approach to designing and a radical change of direction, as the designer began to look to Saville Row for tailoring inspiration.

Following a stream of successful shows, in December 1990 Vivienne opened the Davies Street boutique in London’s Mayfair. Vivienne then received the award for Fashion Designer of the Year for two years in a row in 1990 and 1991 by the British Fashion Council. Vivienne received an O.B.E at Buckingham Palace from her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll in 1992 (ever the rebel, she collected the accolade sans underwear - which apparently amused her majesty), the same year she introduced wedding gowns into her collections. The designer married her longtime collaborator Andreas Kronthaler in 1993, whom she met in 1988 whilst teaching in Vienna.

 In 2006 she was made a Dame for her services to the fashion industry and in 2007 Vivienne received the Outstanding Achievement in Fashion Design award at the 2007 British Fashion Awards. Things took a new direction for the fashion house in 2016 when her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, debuted his first official collection at Paris Fashion Week Autumn-Winter under the name Andreas Kronthaler For Vivienne Westwood, replacing Gold Label. “Over the years Andreas has taken on ever more responsibility and I wish this fact to be reflected in public perception,” Vivienne said at the time.

Vivienne Westwood's activism

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Westwood was known for her outspoken political views,  tackling everything from gender norms, mass farming, Wikileaks, Margaret Thatcher, fracking, animal rights and Scottish independence. “We don’t accept your values or your taboos, and you’re all fascists," became one of the designer's most iconic, provocative slogans. 

Other examples of the designer's aptitude for shock include her stripping off for PETA in support of vegetarianism, launching Climate Revolution by protesting at the 2012 London Paralympics closing ceremony, impersonating Margaret Thatcher on a 1989 cover of Tatler, delivering a box of asbestos to former PM David Cameron at 10n Downing Street and protesting anti-terror laws with a line of T-shirts that read 'I AM NOT A TERRORIST.'

Vivienne Westwood's death

vivienne westwood obe© Getty

Westwood passed away on 29 December 2023. In a statement posted on Instagram, her eponymous fashion house explained that “Vivienne Westwood died today, peacefully and surrounded by her family, in Clapham, South London. "The statement continued, “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.”

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