Anarchist in the U.K.

At SEX and Seditionaries, Vivienne Westwood channeled punk rock's rip-it-up ethos into the fashion statement that helped to codify the punk look as we know it. But these days, she's more interested in learning from tradition than shredding it

Published April 30, 2013
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If punk has a matriarch, it is Vivienne Westwood. With her then partner, Malcolm McLaren, Westwood did as much as anyone to both foment punk in the U.K. (by cobbling together the Sex Pistols—named for their shop, SEX, and assembled of the malcontents who hung around at it) and codify its wardrobe (by dressing them). At their King's Road shop—rechristened, in punk style, for every new movement it embraced, moving through Let It Rock, SEX, and Seditionaries in the seventies—Westwood and McLaren gave punk both a home base and an ever-replenishing atelier.

Westwood's fashion career flourished long after punk had begun to ring hollow (she helped to cement the New Romantic look in the early eighties, and she riffed influentially on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dressing and the trappings of the English upper classes, too), but she's never quite slipped the shackles of her association with punk. Not that she dwells. Journalists—guilty as charged—insist more on her punk credentials than she does these days. Westwood herself moved on to fighting the latest of her chosen battles with vigor and clamor (among them, climate change, exonerating the jailed Native American activist Leonard Peltier, and supporting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange). All this while overseeing a global fashion empire that comprises multiple lines of menswear and womenswear, accessories, and fragrance. Her contributions were recognized by a damehood from the Queen (whose image the Pistols famously defaced) and a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in 2004. Here, Westwood speaks with about the enduring allure of punk, its patina versus its politics, and how she's carrying on the spirit of punk today.

Punk is coming to the Met, and your name is inevitably attached. You've been critical of journalists who—I'm quoting an interview you recently gave to The New York Times—"every time punk comes up…think of me as a kind of trophy." I think that's a fair critique. Do you think the specter of punk has been overemphasized in discussions of your designs? How significant a place do you assign to punk fashion, however you might define that, in your entire body of work?

I don't think punk fashion is a specter or overemphasized—it made a big impression, as there had never been anything like it before. The Sex Pistols enhanced the punk fashion we were making, and then Adam Ant took on our Pirate collection, which made this look more popular. Yet every one of my collections has been something different—if there had been a band attached to each, they might have been just as influential.

Was there one thing you designed that summed up punk for you?

The anarchy sign—this idea of "Destroy." The hippies had politicized my generation, and I was so upset with the death, destruction, and corruption in this world. That's what I wanted to destroy, that's what it meant to me. At the time, the movement was just iconoclastic, but for me it meant more.

To what degree was punk an accident and to what degree was it a creation by you and Malcolm McLaren?

As far as I know, it didn't exist. For us, it began as a culmination of the hippies' look, fifties teddy boys' fashions, and fifties pinup magazines ([with their] torn clothes), then it morphed into rockers and Hells Angels—we called the shop at this time Let It Rock. The next step was rubber wear and bondage-inspired clothes, so we changed the name of the shop to SEX. We changed the name of the shop to fit each look. The clothes were a synthesis of all the things we were interested in—rebellion. We started to look back over our own lifetime's culture of motifs.

When we started to do punk, we put all of these things together to create the look of an urban guerrilla—a rebel. It was a creation that evolved through our shop. When we started to do punk, I think it was the first time people saw clothes like ours, and they could buy them from our little shop. No one was wearing anything like it.

Photos: (Portrait) Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood; (London) Tim Jenkins / Fairchild Archive

You've also said "punk has entered the iconography of fashion." How true is what passes as punk fashion to the spirit of punk? Has fashion gotten punk right?

It's true the punk fashion itself was iconographic: rips and dirt, safety pins, zips, slogans, and hairstyles. These motifs where so iconic in themselves—motifs of rebellion.

What is it that continues to attract the fashion industry about the idea of punk and punk style?

What continues to attract the fashion industry is that people can look great dressed as punks. You do look rebellious; you do look noble and heroic. You still do. Even a young kid who's trying to look like that looks like he's trying to find something out—he wants to do something.

In an essay for's magazine, Nick Tosches dated the first chord of punk to 1972, "when Laszlo Toth took a hammer to Michelangelo's Pietà in the Vatican." What and when would you say was punk's opening sally? Does it have an end point as well? Is punk dead, as many of the old punks like to grumble?

I mentioned the word destroy, but it's not enough. You've got to have ideas. For me, punk lost its interest because it ran out of ideas. It's about trying to change the world, not just jumping around and spitting. You've got to have ideas, which don't just fall into your lap. You have to get those ideas by studying and understanding the past—by reading, by looking at art from the past. Certainly today I believe in tradition, and I'm totally against the iconoclasm of the twentieth century, which tried to break tradition, with the result that nobody has any ideas.

"you could say punk has earned its place in the museum. The ideas in punk were kind of superficial. It was about the fashion; what you see is what you get."

Has punk earned its place in the museum?

OK, you could say it has. The ideas in punk were kind of superficial. It was about the fashion; what you see is what you get. Except, for me, it always did have a deeper meaning.

What I'm really proud of is how effective the punk message has been. In January, we had our Vivienne Westwood Man fashion show in Milan, and I talked to some of the boys who had modeled, and I was so impressed. They really did know what was going on in the world. They did not believe the propaganda of the status quo, and trusted no government. The punk stance gave young people a political focus, which is so healthy, and it's such a hopeful fact that many young people think it's cool to be against the government and not trust them. Whether they do or not, I'm not sure—but the fact that it's their stance is very important.

Photos: (Sex Pistols) ©Dennis Morris—all rights reserved; (Shop) David Dagley / Rex USA

So did the aesthetics of punk come to overtake its politics? Does the appreciation of punk style—even the fetish for it—undermine its drive for change in some way?

Thank you very much for this question—you really understand what punk was about. I think I have answered this question already.

Political action, especially on issues of climate change, has been a huge part of your focus for many years now. Do you see this as a continuation of the punk ideals you had a hand in establishing in the seventies? Or is this a new direction?

It's exactly the same motive that causes me to have this interest as what motivated me for punk. It's the same thing. Justice. Everybody should have a fair deal; everybody should have the chance to life in this world. If we were evolved as human beings, we would hopefully be able to alleviate suffering in the world. So my motives come from the same cause. I'm not sure if other punks at the time were doing it for the same reasons. A lot of them were doing it to have a great time and look good.

You've been unusually outspoken about the issues that concern you—environmentalism, Leonard Peltier, Julian Assange, and so on—and have often used your fashion and your fashion shows as a platform. How effective is fashion as a spur for change?

I'm just so glad you've mentioned Leonard Peltier. It's not a matter of simple vindictiveness—he has just had his transfer to a soft prison revoked, and it's such a crushing blow, especially to Leonard, who's totally innocent. I've just received a letter from him. He said he's not feeling good but that he's a warrior and we will have to keep on fighting. The spirit of this man is amazing. He's such a hero. The reason they won't let him out is because he won't admit to a crime he didn't commit, because he was framed. My thoughts are with Leonard more than anyone at the moment.

And Julian Assange is an absolute hero, and so is Bradley Manning.

With regards to how effective is fashion as a spur for change—we don't know. We can only keep trying. But it must help in some way, as it gets through to people—otherwise, you wouldn't be doing this interview with me, and I wouldn't have a voice. Climate Revolution means a whole change of values.

What needs to happen now?

Things are accelerating so quickly, [and] we have to hope that the Climate Revolution grows. We have to change the system we live under, as it's so inhumane. If we win the Climate Revolution, then it will change our system of values; we must have human values first. If you happen to still be an iconoclast (a received opinion of the twentieth century), then you've got to make contact with tradition again, as it's the only way we will evolve. If you smash tradition, you also smash culture. It's like telling a scientist to smash his laboratory.

Do you feel independent thinking still exists today?

I've just been to a see a play about the arrest of Ai Weiwei, and of course I believe that free speech should be not only tolerated but encouraged. People should be free to say what they think. But at the end of the play, he addressed the audience, Brechtian style, and said that people weren't thinking, meaning the audience, and the whole play had been about people not thinking, but they had swallowed lock, stock, and barrel the iconoclasm and received opinion of the twentieth century. What I felt like saying is, freedom of speech really has no value unless people have something to say. We are dangerously short of culture.

Photos: (Lwin) Denis O'Regan / Getty Images; (Ant) Hulton Archive / Getty Images
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