In memoriam: Vivienne Westwood (1941 – 2022)

We remember iconoclastic British fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, who has died aged 81

Vivienne Westwood on runway with handdrawn background
Vivienne Westwood at her S/S 2007 runway show
(Image credit: Photography by Michel Dufour/WireImage via Getty Images)

Iconoclastic British fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood, who rose to prominence during the punk movement of the 1970s and has remained an anarchic presence in fashion since, has died aged 81. 

Announced yesterday evening (29 December 2022), Westwood died peacefully surrounded by friends and family in her home in Clapham, South London. Andreas Kronthaler, Westwood’s husband and creative partner, paid tribute: ‘I will continue with Vivienne in my heart. We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with. Thank you darling.’

Westwood continued to ‘do the things she loved up until the last moment, designing, working on her art, writing her book, and changing the world,’ the statement continued. It also noted that Westwood considered herself a Taoist, an ancient Chinese philosophy which encourages harmony with the universe. 

Dame Vivienne Westwood dies aged 81

Vivienne Westwood with Malcolm McLaren in 1977

Vivienne Westwood with Malcolm McLaren in 1977

(Image credit: Photography by Daily Mirror / Bill Kennedy/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)

‘There was never more need for the Tao than today,’ Westwood is quoted as previously saying. ’Tao gives you a feeling that you belong to the cosmos and gives purpose to your life; it gives you such a sense of identity and strength to know you’re living the life you can live and therefore ought to be living: make full use of your character and full use of your life on Earth.’

Westwood was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in 1941 in the small village of Tintwistle, Derbyshire, before moving to the north London suburb of Harrow with her family in 1957. She briefly attended Harrow Art School, dropping out after a term to attend secretarial college and later become a teacher. She married Derek Westwood in 1962 and gave birth to her first child Benjamin Westwood in 1963, though they split not long afterwards. 

It was while working as a primary school teacher that Westwood met then-art student Malcolm McLaren – a music impresario who went on to manage the Sex Pistols – in a relationship that would prove formative. Part of London’s burgeoning punk movement, they opened the boutique Let It Rock at 430 King’s Road in 1971, selling vintage memorabilia and clothing. It would undergo various iterations in the following years – Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, SEX, Seditionaries and finally Worlds End – incorporating Westwood and McLaren’s own designs, which often featured provocative slogans and DIY construction. Other pieces were inspired by fetish wear.  

Woman on runway in pirate hat

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Pirates’ collection in 1981

(Image credit: Photography by David Corio/Redferns via Getty Images)

In 1981, Westwood and McLaren staged their first runway show ‘Pirates’, which marked a shift from punk and ushered in the New Romantics era (Adam Ant had drafted McLaren for a rebrand not long earlier; several of the designs came from outfits created for the musician). Drawing inspiration from historical portraiture of the 17th and 18th centuries, romantic flourishes – bell sleeves, pirate hats, sashes and powdered wigs – met the anarchic spirit of their previous work with studded and tattered elements. 

Such a dichotomy continued to run through Westwood’s collections throughout her career (the partnership with McLaren was dissolved in the mid-1980s). In 1985, she introduced the ‘mini crini’ – a thigh-grazing riff on historical crinolines – and later reintroduced the corset, worn exposed, in 1987 (versions of the corset have appeared in Westwood collections ever since). Such inspirations were oftentimes drawn from a collection of artists she particularly admired –  Jean-Honoré Fragonard, François Boucher and Thomas Gainsborough – noting her particular fondness for London’s The Wallace Collection gallery and its Rococo portraiture.

Tropes of traditional British dress would also be an inspiration point for the designer, most famously in her evocation of tartan. Presented in Paris, Westwood’s A/W 1993 collection was titled Anglomania and featured ‘MacAndreas’ tartan – named after husband Kronthaler – across a collection that the designer said was about English tailoring and ‘country charm’ through a French lens. 

Woman in tartan on Vivienne Westwood runway

Vivienne Westwood A/W 1993 ‘Anglomania’ collection

(Image credit: Photography by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)

‘On the English side we have tailoring and an easy charm, on the French side that solidity of design and proportion that comes from never being satisfied because something can always be done to make it better, more refined,’ she said. The show was also notable for one of Westwood’s most notable moments, Naomi Campbell’s catwalk tumble in a towering pair of ‘Elevated Ghillie’ heels. 

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Westwood would become one of British fashion’s most notable exports. In 1996, Vivienne Westwood MAN launched with a show in Milan; in 1998, Anglomania became its own diffusion line; while boutiques opened worldwide, from New York to Tokyo. In 2004, Westwood was celebrated with an exhibition at London’s V&A Museum titled ‘Vivienne Westwood: 34 Years in Fashion’, which was then the largest-ever exhibition dedicated to a British designer. Having been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1992, she was late made a Dame in 2006. 

Westwood remained an avid activist throughout her life, pioneering ethical and sustainable production with her collections, and supporting numerous causes, NGOs and charities – from Greenpeace to the Humane Society International, which attempts to prevent sales of fur in the UK. In 2012 at the London Paralympics closing ceremony, she began Climate Revolution which aims to unite various organisations in the pursuit of preserving the planet for generations ahead. ‘I want you to help me save the world, I can’t do it on my own,’ she said. 

Vivienne Westwood protesting

Vivienne Westwood at a demonstration ahead of her S/S 2016 show

(Image credit: Photography by Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images)

Later in life, she took an increasingly anti-establishment approach, denouncing over-consumption and capitalism – which she called ‘the root of war, climate change and corruption’ – and taking part in numerous protests. One particular cause was support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Dressing as a yellow ‘canary’ she stood in a cage outside the Old Bailey court in 2020, protesting against Assange’s extradition from Britain to the United States. 

These pursuits will continue with the advent of The Vivienne Foundation, announced yesterday, which will run under four pillars – climate change, stop war, defend human rights, and protest capitalism.

Kronthaler, who took over the Gold Label in 2016 – since renamed ‘Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood’ – will continue to show collections seasonally in Paris. ‘Vivienne still has the same bite and energy,’ he told The Guardian in 2021, ’although just a little slower. But I still rely on her totally: she’s the only person I trust to say when something is good, the only adviser and guide I can follow.

’She [articulates] ideas I’ve not even had yet. About fashion, yes, but more than that: a way to look at life.’

Fashion Features Editor

Jack Moss is the Fashion Features Editor at Wallpaper*, joining the team in 2022. Having previously been the digital features editor at AnOther and digital editor at 10 and 10 Men magazines, he has also contributed to titles including i-D, Dazed, 10 Magazine, Mr Porter’s The Journal and more, while also featuring in Dazed: 32 Years Confused: The Covers, published by Rizzoli. He is particularly interested in the moments when fashion intersects with other creative disciplines – notably art and design – as well as championing a new generation of international talent and reporting from international fashion weeks. Across his career, he has interviewed the fashion industry’s leading figures, including Rick Owens, Pieter Mulier, Jonathan Anderson, Grace Wales Bonner, Christian Lacroix, Kate Moss and Manolo Blahnik.