LONDON — Vivienne Westwood, an influential fashion maverick who played a key role in the punk movement, died Thursday at the age of 81.
Westwood’s eponymous fashion house announced her death on social media platforms, saying she died peacefully. The cause has not been released.
“Vivienne continued to do what she loved until the very end, designing, working on her art, writing her book and changing the world for the better,” the statement said.
Westwood’s fashion career began in the 1970s, when her radical approach to urban street style took the world by storm. But she went on to have a long career highlighted by a series of triumphant runway shows and museum exhibitions.
The name Westwood became synonymous with style and attitude, although she changed from year to year, her scope was vast and her work was never predictable.
As her figure grew, she seemed to transcend fashion. A young woman who despised the British establishment eventually became one of its leading figures, even though she kept her hair dyed that signature bright shade of orange.
Andrew Bolton, curator of The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, said that Westwood and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren – her former partners – “gave the punk movement a look, a style, and it was so radical that it separated itself from anything in the past.”
“Torn shirts, safety pins, provocative slogans,” Bolton said. “She introduced postmodernism. It’s been so influential since the mid-’70s. The punk movement has never faded — it’s become part of our fashion vocabulary. Now it’s mainstream.”
Westwood’s long career was full of contradictions: She was a lifelong rebel, honored several times by Queen Elizabeth II. Even in her 60s, she dressed like a teenager and became an outspoken advocate against climate change and warned of planetary doom.
In her punk days, Westwood’s clothes were often deliberately shocking: T-shirts emblazoned with drawings of naked boys and “bondage pants” with sadomasochistic undertones were standard items in her favorite London stores. But Westwood has managed to go from punk to haute couture without missing a beat, and has kept her career going without stooping to self-caricature.
“She was always trying to reinvent fashion. Her work is provocative, it’s transgressive. She’s very much rooted in the English tradition of pastiche, irony and satire. She’s very proud of her Englishness, and yet she sends it,” Bolton said. .
One of these controversial designs included a swastika, an inverted image of Jesus Christ on a cross, and the word “destroy”. In an autobiography written with Ian Kelly, she said it was meant as part of a statement against politicians who tortured people, referring to Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. Asked if he regretted the swastika in a 2009 interview with Time magazine, Westwood said he did not.
“No, because we were just saying to the older generation: We don’t recognize your values or your taboos and you’re all fascists,” she responded.
In her early years she approached her work with gusto, but later she seemed to tire of the shouting and buzzing. After decades of designing, she has sometimes spoken wistfully of moving beyond fashion to focus on environmental issues and educational projects.
“Fashion can be so boring,” she told The Associated Press after unveiling one of her new collections at a 2010 show. “I’m trying to find something else.
Her runway shows were always the most elegant events, attracting stars from the glittering worlds of film, music and television who wanted to bask in Westwood’s reflected fame. But she still spoke out against consumerism and conspicuous consumption, even urging people not to buy her expensive, beautifully made clothes.
“I’m just telling people, stop buying clothes,” she said. “Why not protect this gift of life while we have it? I don’t take the position that destruction is inevitable. Some of us would like to stop it and help people survive.”
Westwood’s activism extended to supporting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who posed in a giant birdcage in 2020 to try to stop his extradition to the US. She even designed the dress worn by Stella Moris when she married Assange in a London prison this March.
Westwood was self-taught, having no formal fashion training. She told Marie Claire magazine that she learned to make her own clothes from patterns as a teenager. When she wanted to sell 1950s-style clothes in her first store, she found vintage clothes at flea markets and took them apart to understand the fit and construction.
Westwood was born in the Derbyshire village of Glossop on April 8, 1941. Her family moved to London in 1957 and she attended art school for one term.
She met McLaren in the 1960s when she was working as a primary school teacher after separating from her first husband, Derek Westwood. She and McLaren opened a small shop in Chelsea in 1971, at the end of the “Swinging London” era ushered in by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
The store changed its name and focus several times, operating under the name “SEX” – Westwood and McLaren were fined there in 1975 for “indecent exhibition” – and “The End of the World” and “Outrageous”.
Among the workers in their shop was Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, who in a statement to The Associated Press called Westwood “a single, driven, free-spirited and talented lady.”
He said it was a privilege “to have with her in the mid-1970s the birth of punk and the worldwide waves she created that still resonate and resonate for the disaffected, the hipper and the wise across the world.” .”
“Vivienne is gone and the world is a less interesting place,” Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde and another former employee tweeted.
Westwood moved into a new type of design with her “Pirates” collection, shown on her first catwalk in 1981. This breakthrough is attributed to Westwood moving in a more traditional direction and showing her interest in incorporating historic British designs into contemporary clothing.
It was also an important step in the continuing rapprochement between Westwood and the fashion world. The rebel eventually became one of its most celebrated stars, known for reinterpreting opulent dresses from the past and often finding inspiration in 18th-century paintings.
But she still found ways to shock: Her 1987 Statue of Liberty corset is remembered as the start of the “underwear as outerwear” trend.
It eventually branched out into a number of business ventures, including an alliance with Italian designer Giorgio Armani, and developed its Red Label ready-to-wear line, the more exclusive Gold Label line, a menswear collection and a fragrance called Boudoir and Libertine. Westwood stores were opened in New York, Hong Kong, Milan and several other major cities.
In 1990 and 1991 she was named Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council.
Her uneasy relationship with the British establishment is perhaps best exemplified by her trip to Buckingham Palace in 1992 to receive an OBE: She wore no underwear and posed for photographers in a way that made it clear.
The Queen was apparently not offended: Westwood was invited back in 2006 to receive the even more favorable title of Dame Commander of the British Empire – the female equivalent of a knighthood.
Westwood is survived by her second husband, the Austrian-born designer Andreas Kronthaler, who had a fashion line under her label, and two sons.
The first, fashion photographer Ben Westwood, was her son with Derek Westwood. The other, Joe Corre – her son with McLaren – co-founded luxury underwear line Agent Provocateur and once burned what he said was a collection of punk memorabilia worth millions: “Punk was never, never meant to be nostalgic,” he said.