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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Vivienne Westwood’s best creation was herself

Eric Musgrave
13 January 2023

In midsummer 1988 in a textile mill in the Scottish Borders I watched Vivienne Westwood flick through a large pile of tweed, check and tartan cloth swatches.

It was the time when her collections favoured in bold Scottish tweeds, as might have been worn by a slightly tipsy Miss Marple.

After poking about among the considerable selection in front of her, she said to the group of journos with her, in her distinctive Derbyshire accent, “Oh, this is confusing. Why don’t you lot pick something out for me?”

The occasion for this, the only time I met the designer, was Fashion 88, an ambitious promotional event organised over a few days by the Scottish Borders textiles industry. They brought to the region 18 fashion designers of various vintages, nationalities and stylistic attitudes.

Older readers might recall Jean Muir, Sonia Rykiel, Nino Cerruti, Chantal Thomass and Donna Karan. Jasper Conran and Bruce Oldfield are still working in the industry but with much lower profiles than in the past. Alastair Blair and Arabella Pollen were British designers who had their moment in the spotlight three decades ago. My unreliable memory says Michael Kors was also among the invitees.

Fashion 88, the idea of Scottish textiles veteran Hamish Carruthers, who at the time was design director of Claridge Mills in Selkirk, put this impressive group in the company of international journalists (at the time I was editor of Fashion Weekly) for a hectic round of mill visits, networking events and a fabulous gala dinner at Floors Castle in Kelso, home of the Duke of Roxburghe.

Vivienne Westwood in Scotland in 1990. Image: Alamy

Thirty four years later I am surprised by two things – that I now live and work about 30 minutes from Kelso and that Vivienne Westwood became the most revered and admired designer of that illustrious pack of fashion talent who were ferried between venues alongside the Rivers Tweed, Ettrick, Teviot and Gala.

The many obituaries that followed the death of Westwood on 29 December, aged 81, reflected the extraordinary position in the global fashion industry that the apparently shy and hesitant person had created for herself since 1988.

Pioneer. Icon. Legend. Iconoclast. Activist. These were some of the descriptions generally applied to her in the obits. I’d add another: Self-marketing expert.

I have long thought that Westwood spread her design talent thinly. To me she seemed to be very adept at unearthing a previous look and presenting it as her own. Her collections, for me, often prompted the question, is this fashion or costume?

It also raises the question, does a fashion designer need to be trained in technical skills, or is vision and personal “attitude”, for want of a better word, enough?

When the punk phenomenon exploded in 1976 I was 21. I hated the look then and I hate it still. To me it’s just ugly. I believe the whole anti-establishment, anti-capitalism theme of punk was commercialised very, very, quickly. Who can say how much Westwood and her then-partner Malcolm McLaren were responsible for cashing in on the social movement.

Vivienne Westwood

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood outside Bow Street Magistrate Court, after he was remanded on bail for fighting in June 1977

A few years later, after her split from McLaren, Westwood’s much-vaunted Pirates collection of 1981 was, according to The Guardian’s obituary, “saved from being fancy dress by Westwood’s feeling for the erotic potential of period detail”. Well, yes, maybe, but it looked like fancy dress to me. But it is much sought-after by fashion collectors today.

I recall her shop, Nostalgia of Mud, in St Christopher’s Place off London’s Oxford Street in 1982. I remember thinking, this won’t last long. Who is going to wear these clothes? It went bust in 1984 and I wondered how many people and companies were owed money after its collapse.

In 1987 Westwood introduced a corset into her Harris Tweed collection. Don’t corsets restrict and distort women’s bodies to suit a (presumably) masculine view of what a female should look like? I could never understand why Westwood’s obsession with corsets was seen as empowering women (but I am happy to be enlightened).

Ditto her obsession with ridiculously high platform shoes. In 1993 when Naomi Campbell understandably toppled on the catwalk while wearing Westwood’s crazy “Super Elevated Ghillie” towering heels, I did not think, “What a great fashion moment”. I thought, “What badly-designed shoes.”

The British fashion elite has long seemed obsessed with outrageous “creativity” instead of inspired “commerciality”. Vivienne Westwood benefited from this approach.

Westwood seemed to me to be a very busy magpie, picking up ideas she could recycle as her own. I still cannot understand how she managed to register her orb-and-ring logo when it is so like the Harris Tweed Authority logo, which dates from 1909.

For someone viewed by many as anti-establishment, Westwood happily accepted an OBE in 1992, and then a damehood in 2006. This has the feeling of having your cake and eating it too.

And who, like me, suspects the knickerless photograph after her 1992 OBE ceremony, which was mentioned in all the obits I read, was planned in advance?

Dame Vivienne Westwood smears cake on her face as she attends a picnic protest marking Wikileaks founder Julian Assange's 50th Birthday, on Parliament Square in London, 3 July 2021. Image: Alamy

What cannot be denied is that this former primary school teacher achieved a worldwide reputation and attracted a huge fan base, many of whom regarded her every utterance as a gem of wisdom.

I am more interested that Westwood set up her business affairs so that her ultimate holding company is based in Luxembourg to reduce its tax burden. In 2015 The Green Party excluded Westwood from a campaigning tour of English universities because of her use of off-shore tax havens. Is that the spirit of punk?

And as for her regular entreaties of recent years that we buy less to save the planet, she could, of course, have closed down her fashion company, couldn’t she? It has annual sales in excess of £66m, which even at Vivienne Westwood’s prices is a lot of clothes, footwear and accessories being produced every year.

Despite all of my comments here, I have a grudging admiration for Dame Vivienne Isabel Westwood (8 April 1941 – 29 December 2022), who I view as a mass of contradictions allied to a grasshopper mind. It has made for an interesting and sometimes entertaining combination.

In her chosen profession, she achieved more than most of us achieve in ours. The many comments posted online after her death (including from quite a few good friends of mine) underlined that over several decades Viv provided a lot of pleasure, fun and inspiration to a whole lot of people.

That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.

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