Vivienne Westwood, Fashion Designer and Punk Icon, Dies at 81

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Vivienne Westwood, Fashion Designer and Punk Icon, Dies at 81

The late designer helped popularize the British punk and new wave movements with her clothing

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood, June 2017 (Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Dame Vivienne Westwood, the rule-breaking fashion designer who helped bring the British punk movement into the mainstream with her clothing, has died. In a statement, her representatives confirmed that she died today (December 29) “peacefully and surrounded by her family, in Clapham, South London.” Westwood was 81 years old.

Born Vivienne Isabel Swire in Hollingworth, England on April 8, 1941, she began working with jewelry when her family relocated to Harrow, Middlesex and she took a silversmith course at the University of Westminster. Disillusioned with the idea that a working-class girl could make a living in art, she left to start a factory job instead and created her own jewelry on the side before becoming a primary school teacher. After marrying Hoover factory apprentice Derek Westwood in 1962, she gave birth to her first son Benjamin Westwood. A few years later, however, they divorced and she married Malcolm McLaren. She gave birth to her second son, Joseph Corré, in 1967.

In 1971, Westwood left her teaching job to create clothing full time, with McLaren designing many of the looks. The couple opened a boutique specializing in revival outfits, but it wasn’t until they renamed it SEX in 1974 and stocked it with rebellious clothing—defined by ripped t-shirts, plaid patterns, integrated rubber, mohair tops, and safety pins as embellishments—that it took off, serving as a meeting space for key figures in the music scene at the time such as Sid Vicious, Siouxsie and the Banshees guitarist Marco Pirroni, and the Pop Group singer Mark Stewart. When McLaren became the Sex Pistols’ manager shortly afterwards, the band started wearing the couple’s designs, bringing that British punk look into the mainstream and forever linking the two in history.  

“It changed the way people looked,” Westwood said of her early punk clothing in an interview with the Independent. “I was messianic about punk, seeing if one could put a spoke in the system in some way. I realized there was no subversion without ideas. It’s not enough to want to destroy everything.”

In the 1980s, Westwood shifted her design focus from the punk scene to parodies of women in the upper class. It didn’t hit Westwood that she was a fashion designer until she debuted her official fashion collection, Pirates, in 1981. From there, she introduced the “mini crini,” a reinvention of the Victorian crinoline as a mini skirt, and began pushing at the boundaries of clothing as a representation of women’s sexuality. In the years that followed, Westwood would go on to design academic dresses for London’s King’s College, create uniforms for Virgin Atlantic flight crews, and mock up digital garments for video game characters like Lunafreya Nox Fleuret in Final Fantasy XV.

Although she’s best known for helping define the so-called “look” of British punk, Westwood believed that there was no singular style to represent who you are or what you believe in. “If you invest in art, if you study yourself, you become a freedom fighter immediately because your life changes, you get off the consumer treadmill, and you start thinking,” she told the Guardian in 2011. “My thing as a fashion designer [is] I said buy less clothes. Keep wearing things that you’ve really chosen that you really love. That is status. It’s not that you have to keep consuming. A status symbol is a book.”

Throughout her career, Westwood routinely used her platform as an activist. She was outspoken about her support of Julian Assange, appearing at numerous public rallies, and regularly spoke at environmental justice events. In 2012, she created the Climate Revolution, an initiative to combat global warming and climate change. “Capitalism is as corrupt as a rotten apple,” Westwood wrote in a Climate Revolution manifesto. “It’s the economy, stupid! U accept because u think there’s no alternative. But we have hope (war is fought 4 land + cheap labour). Change the economy – NO MAN’S LAND.”

Earlier this year, Westwood premiered the documentary Wake Up Punk, which featured interviews with the late designer and her two sons, Ben Westwood and Joe Corré, about the shapeshifting form of punk. In 2016, Corré hosted Burn Punk London, an event where he burned his valuable collection of punk memorabilia, much of which was passed on to him by his parents.

After learning of Westwood’s death, numerous artists have paid tribute to the late fashion designer, including Yoko Ono, Massive Attack, Slowdive’s Rachel Goswell, the Avalanches, Leon Vynehall, Garbage,  the Blessed Madonna, and Maggie Rogers.

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