Part of: In Camera

Interview: Vivienne Westwood

published on 21 April 2004

One of the most influential living fashion designers, whose influence across both fashion and contemporary culture spans three decades, Vivienne Westwood became the seventh cultural figure to discuss her life and work with SHOWstudio and the public at large via our live In Camera interview. In trademark Westwood fashion, the discussion ranged wide from her design inspirations and techniques to her representation in the media and notions of iconoclasm.

This interview was showcased online with a series of live stills updated throughout the course of the interview, and a real-time transcript typed and edited live.

One of the most influential living fashion designers, whose influence across both fashion and contemporary culture spans three decades, Vivienne Westwood became the seventh cultural figure to discuss her life and work with SHOWstudio and the public at large via our live In Camera interview. In trademark Westwood fashion, the discussion ranged wide from her design inspirations and techniques to her representation in the media and notions of iconoclasm.

15 Q&A Posts

Q. Vivienne Westwood, we have invited you to be the seventh person in our series of live interviews with leading image-makers because over the past 35 years you have broken so many new territories in terms of what a fashion designer could be. In every case your taste, your intellect, your sexuality and your body are central to the brand and as such, are public property. Have you any need for escape from your public persona? What do you keep private? Penny Martin, Editor in Chief, SHOWstudio, London
I'm a fashion designer. The greatest thing about my job is that I get to wear really great clothes. I am the centre of my look in the way that Chanel was. It's easier for a woman to do that than a man, I am conscious of it. Through it, I can exploit my business. It is useful. I'm also aware that people are interested in me because of what I do. The important thing in my life is that I want to understand the world I live in. Although fashion is part of that, I exercise my brain in many other ways. In the course of my career, I'm constantly inundated with people asking me things. People are more concerned with my opinions than in looking at my clothes and there is a reason for that. I am a very small company, without access to large funds to support advertising and promotion. What happens is that I do have a respect from people that see that my clothes are real and not just hype. So, time has been on my side, I have a lot of credibility at this stage in my life. To answer the question, the honest truth is that I try to communicate what I think. So, I don't see myself as any sort of star or public property. If you feel that you have anything to say that might help, then you appreciate having the platform to say it.

Q. You are pretty much a self-taught designer, do you feel that this has helped or hindered your career? Laura Mackiness, London
That's an interesting question. We live in an age where young people are flattered into believing that they can do anything that they want. It's not true and you have to have an aptitude for something. A talent for it. The general syndrome regarding education is that people are trained not to think: that thinking is dangerous. Nobody who's a sheep is ever going to be a fashion designer. The next important word is discipline. The only important discipline is self-discipline. There are some children that will never need to be self-disciplined, they do it for themselves. They discover it by applying themselves to something they are interested in. They do it themselves. An example would be a young girl learning to be a ballerina. A great teacher will know how to push that girl. They'll know what will interest her. She absolutely has to learn technique. Without technique, self-expression is impossible. So the more you can have somebody teach you, the better. The more you will know. But at the end of the day, you have to do it for yourself. A better example might be a gardener. You can read as many books about gardening as you like, but you have to do it yourself. To find a way yourself. The only place to find ideas is by looking at what people did in the past. It's the only way you can be original. You can't be original by just wanting to do something. Nothing comes from a vacuum. You have to find it from somewhere.

Q. What have been your main inspirations, throughout the years and in the present day? Imbina BianjovellioI, London / Mark Raidpere, Estonia / Alin, Israel / John A Leslie, California / Geert Neefs, Belgium / Pablo Gimenez Zapiola, Houston / Dario Rumbo, Barcelona / Cristina, Florida / Diana Keogh, Brisbane / Gil, London
This is the question I am asked all the time. The second question I am asked -following right after that one- is 'what are you doing next'? The last thing I am interested in is keeping up with the times. Just like the two journalists that ask those two questions, they are so busy trying to keep up with the times that they miss everything that's in front of them. So, I can't give any specific answer to this. There are all kinds of things you notice and realize that you can translate into something new. I always make my students copy things first because you have to fall in love with things. You have to imagine, for example, Queen Elizabeth. You are used to seeing a painting of her that is very formalized. But imagine if you were a rich person that was traveling along mud roads, in danger of being molested by highwaymen, on your way to see her. Finally, you are allowed into an audience with her. She would be so glittering, so white, she would look like a being from another planet. Imagine what that would look like. I have interpreted her in ways that don't look at all like the way I have just described. A classic example was where I reinterpreted an eighteenth century corset. It was so light - those panniers - like a flower. This is a much nearer example where I have taken something from the past and made it ready-to-wear for today. Usually, you don't see the source of my translation. It has been transformed into something else by the time I present it. I think the real powerhouse of why you want to continue is that you want to continually surprise yourself. My clothes get more 'free', the more and more I continue. The technique becomes so automatic. You can practically do whatever you want by the time you get to that stage.

Q. What impact has the V&A and the Wallace Collection had on your inspirational collections? Fiona Wylie, Leeds
The first thing to say is that the Wallace Collection is the best school in the whole country. There is more to learn from there, in that small building, than anywhere. The most interesting part of the collection are the eighteenth century painting, furniture, clocks collected by the 3rd Marquis of Hertford in the middle of the nineteenth century when nobody wanted it and it was cheap. The kind of things the French revolutionaries threw out of the windows and burnt in the courtyards. My husband, Andreas, told me when he was studying the French Revolution at school that he cried not about the people having their heads chopped off but at the destruction of all the beautiful things. Nobody who lives in the world today could paint one flower on the service porcelain in that collection. All those crafts have gone. I've mostly used the V&A for its costume and fabric prints. William Morris and the Pre Raphaelites are anathema to me, but there are nevertheless many wonderful things in the V&A collection.

Q. What is it about the art of Francois Boucher and the (Rococo) that captures your imagination? Rosalind Savill, Director of the Wallace Collection, London
My favourite painter is Titian and Velasquez and also Vermeer. I particularly love 17th century Dutch painting. The laughing cavalier, he's marvellous. What I visit the Wallace for in particular is that, the 17th century. But then you have the three eighteenth century geniuses: Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard. All three of them, they say so much of that age. These decorative, pretty, pretty things, it was so easy for Boucher. Watteau, those Comedia Del'Arte, they have wonderful things in there. There are two fantastic Bouchers as you come up the stairs, one is Apollo about to get into his chariot, surrounded by all the nymphs as he rises from the ocean. It's absolutely fantastic. Boucher is really sentimental, but you can't call him kitsch because he has such incredible facility. Playful but cynical somehow. He comes from an age that was very convenient for painters, all that mythology was part of a way of communicating in those days. Aert Van De Neer: he's famous for his paintings in moonshine, all these paintings of canals, you feel cold when you look at them. The other side of that is being able to go to a cosy home: you get both sides. To look at a painting is to enter a world. I love that Eighteenth century version of the pagan world. It's an absolute delight.

Q. I have read in past interviews that you feel that the British have no culture. Yet we are obviously a nation with a rich history of style and your use of that heritage in your work is testament to this. What do you mean by 'culture'? Simon Foxton, London
When I talk of culture, I'm talking of something very high. I'm not using it in its anthropological sense, to indicate the difference between societies. I'm Eurocentric. That is, European culture is the only one that interests me, except for the Chinese. Regarding European culture, this began in the Renaissance when people re-discovered skeptical pagan thinking and ideas. The Renaissance migrated to the rest of Europe. It cam to England at the time of the Tudors and its finest flower was Shakespeare. There was so much happening: Elizabeth insisted - those courtiers would not be allowed at court if they didn't patronise art and culture. That's why you had such wonderful theatre. 'Lord so-and-so's men'. Culture has to be paid for by people that know what they're doing. (We recognize this today. But it's very doubtful that groups of businessmen have any taste so they throw their money away on rubbish.) This period of high culture finished probably by the time of the death of Queen Anne (1818). It was replaced by the industrial revolution. It continued in France up until the revolution. I can't think of any event in history that did more damage than the French revolution. Not only to culture, but also to society. Yes, I am English. It's in my bones. (Very unpatriotic and interested in French culture because although the revolution smashed so much, but nevertheless the French still had ideas up until the First World War). I consider the twentieth century a mistake - it had no ideas at all. Anywhere. Everywhere has become Americanised. Have the English got style? I don't know. I don't look to the streets for inspiration, that's for sure. I'd like to mention England's greatest painter, Gainsborough, he's up on the Pantheon. The other one was Hogarth.

Q. Do you feel constrained or liberated by notions of Englishness? Ian Rickson, Director of the Royal Court Theatre, London
I think that theatre is incredibly important. It's very well known that in any repressive regime, the first thing they do is close the theatres. I don't think that anyone can understand the world we live in unless they read Huxley and Bertrand Russell. They had ideas that came from previous traditions. I think modern theatre is far too much on the same level as being in the taxi, where the taxi-driver says they're writing a novel. As if daily life is something that everyone should have a chance to communicate their version of. Everybody's got a novel in them, but nobody's reading. They should be reading for ideas, not the current rubbish. Huxley and Russell, what they were saying is more applicable today than when they were writing it. It's absolutely vital. The one time I met Gore Vidal, he said to me that the Nobel Prize should be given to readers not writers. Sorry, I know this answer's a bit of a jumble, but I'm just saying that if people read more, we'd have better literature and theatre. So, I certainly being British, would like to promote two of the greatest thinkers who one should read.

Q. You once stated 'We need to allow a degree of anarchy to avoid stagnation'. Do you still hold this view with relation to contemporary culture? Ricardo, Gemma O'Brien, London
What you are referring to is the monograph by John Stuart Mill 'On Liberty'. He's certainly not the only one who has tried to deal with this subject: how free the individual can be in society. It seems to be that liberty is reduced in direct relation to that in which organisation increases. In fact, one of my bibles is a book by Russell called 'Freedom and Organisation'. It may have been at one time 'Freedom versus Organisation' its subtitle is '1818-1918', as if putting boundaries on the nineteenth century, the more organisation increases, the less freedom exists. To get back to Mill, he finishes On Liberty with a paragraph that says that for whatever reason, governments, in order to rule more easily, dwarf the intelligence of people. They will find that with dwarfed intelligence, it's not possible to do very much. So, unless governments are willing to function in an environment that allow people to think, we won't have ideas. This is why in the past, the French governments have had people smashing the windows on the Champs Elysees, because they allow their people to think, unlike the British public school system. Anarchy is dangerous of course, although I am not an anarchist. It does not mean to say that I believe in any sort of anarchist government. Individual liberty does involve anarchy - governments have to allow a certain amount, otherwise people don't think. The answer lies in education. We're being trained up as a bunch of consumers rather than thinkers.

Q. What part if any, does music play in your creative process? Mariechen, Berlin / Kate Shipman, London / Ryan Bissoon, Toronto
None. I listen to music rarely, when I'm at home because I'm always reading. But, I do go to concerts. That doesn't mean to say that I like all classical music. For example, I don't like the German romantics, including Beethoven. There again, my taste in music is French. By French, I mean Bach, Mozart, Chopin, of course all the great French ones, particularly Debussy and Ravel. Again, add in the Russians, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, [Prokofiev] and I like Shostakovich. I include all those as French to me, because they started at a time in Europe when culture was French. It included right up the First World War, so I include all that as French culture. Pagan sceptical.

Q. How did your original shops work economically? Archie Bourtos, Australia / John de Boer, New York City
My shop at 430 Kings Rd, World's End, it's a very famous shop because before I had it, some of the great fashion ideas had already happened there. What it meant for me was that I always had direct access to the public, right from the beginning of designing clothes. Although my company grew, it grew in the same way. I was always able to test my ideas by selling them direct. My company has the same identity today. I've never had businessmen telling me what to do. Having that outlet, my shop was very important to me. For example, I never had a sale in that shop. The ideas where strong, but there weren't so many of them. For example, if I had one or two great pairs of trousers, I didn't need ten in those days. We did start by making a lot of money. But this didn't continue because soon after I had a manager who stole for many, many years. After I discovered it, my business started to grow. So, it was a good idea having a shop for me. I really don't know how difficult it would work today: to have it and sell great ideas. What it did for me was that it gave me a way to work where I wasn't under pressure, where I could develop my ideas and technique.

Q. How do you feel now about the use of the Swastika on the original 'Destroy' muslin? I notice it's one of the few 'Seditionaries' designs that haven't been re-printed from time to time, to be worn by celebrity fashionistas. David Barnett, Music Biographer, London
I recently read the book 'IBM and the Holocaust' by Edwin Black. He had more than 100 people working for him voluntary over a period of time, they amassed all this information. His book is a [compilation] of this research regarding the activity of international business machines, from the rise of Hitler until right through the war. What it amounts to is a chilling indictment of the lengths that business will go to, to make a profit. Their proto-computers (punch card system) enabled Hitler to identify, first ghettoise and then transport the Jewish people to their deaths. Some of the machines were necessary in the concentration camps themselves, maintained by IBM staff. These particular profits were in direct relation to the number of people gassed, certainly uncomfortable reading. It was Malcolm's idea to add the swastika and he's half Jewish. It was added particularly for our Destroy T-shirt, with a great swastika, the Queen's head and Jesus on the cross, upside down. We hated the older generation and it wasn't young people, but old people we felt were responsible for the mismanagement and cruelty in the world still going on. It didn't stop when Hitler killed himself. To us, it was a way of saying to the older generation 'we don't accept your values or your taboos'. Really throwing it in their face: 'we are what you are'. The key word there to me is 'destroy'. What I realized from my experience of punk rock was that the idea of destroying something doesn't mean anything. not only that, it might even be harmful. I don't believe in this destroy any more. I believe in ideas (the secret is education). The world could change. What I learnt from punk rock was that you don't change the establishment by attacking it. In the case of punk, it's just an idea that could be marketed. Punk was a marketable commodity. At the same time was the pretense that we have free expression. I did not want to be a token rebel. I just went faster. You need ideas.

Q. Is fashion (and dress), inherently theatrical, if only for the street? James Cuno, Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, London
I definitely think that fashion is theatrical. I think it's a way of expressing your character. Beau Brummell certainly thought so, he went through all those neck-ties to express his spirit. I think that auto-irony is supremely elegant. You've only got to think of cross-dressing - e.g. women wearing tailored suits- to see how clothes help you to play a role, to see that clothes have the effect of giving you a role. Of course, people choose clothes because they want to be important. This is how they want to express themselves, and not always in the same way. They might want to change the next day. They are certainly about attracting the kind of people that you want to attract, therefore they are helping you project what you want. My fashion shows are extremely theatrical sometimes. The models, they can't help it, they behave according to the clothes. Theatre is a projection of a world and it seems that with our clothes, we wish to be a character in the kind of world we're looking for.

Q. Do you think fashion is a prediction of a yet un-experienced common desire, or the creation of one? Nick Knight, Director, SHOWstudio, London
I've always said that a good idea is a perfect surprise. People didn't know they wanted it because it didn't exist. When they see it, it's just what they want. For example, I did know that this would happen when I did this corset, because people hadn't seen the décolletage for two hundred years. When I see a fashion show, I am surprised. The phrase that is always in my mind is 'never before seen'. When I see it on the catwalk, I am shocked, because I never expected it to be what it is. It never is what I expect. It's always gone beyond that. We have fittings and we try the clothes on. But a lot of it is put together at the last moment. There's always a sort of gap between what I've done and what I see: I know the cutting process that produced that effect and I know the effects of the fabrics. All the things you need to know. But when I see it, what really surprises me is how free it is: it has a life of its own, and how it appears to me as a new creation. There is a sort of doubt in my mind; 'did I do that?'. At this point, I have created something that didn't exist before and hopefully, it will fulfil a common desire. But these things don't come from a vacuum, they come from somewhere. Where is that somewhere? From the past and from a translation from the past to the present, which is also a projection into a future-possible world. It's in the nature of fashion that it must change, quickly, once we've got used to something, Fashion sometimes goes away from something, or it fills a gap where something is missing. This is why you sometimes get more than one designer coming up with something similar. All fashion designers go back in history look to the past. Most of them haven't been back beyond the 60s, but now we hear it's the 50s. I don't think there are any vague longings, but it's not really quite possible to say whether you are realising what people are after or whether you create a desire. Nevertheless, the result is that thing that a designer does and I essentially think you do it from an understanding of the world in which you live. It's important to see the world from other perspectives.

Q. Why did you continue to give me your special blockbuster shoes after I fell down the first time, was it that you had faith in me? Naomi Campbell, London
I wanted you to do it again because we had two more shows to do, but I would never have tried to persuade you if I had thought you really didn't want to. I thought you would want to because you looked so beautiful. You just looked so incredible in them. You know, Naomi, I think you're the Aphrodite of the modern world and the walk of century, this and the last. Remember, we gave you a stick, which you nobly accepted and then held it, and then flourished it a chest-height, demonstrating that you did not need it. The fall was spectacular. Your fall was better than an animal that's just been killed, because although it was physically natural, it was also artificial. Civilisation is artificial, not natural. Fashion is part of civilisation. What I have faith in is your heroic pride.

Q. What made you become involved in the campaign to free Leonard Peltier? Joseph Corre, London
Leonard Peltier has been in jail for 28 years for a crime he did not commit. The federal authorities of the American government have admitted on record that he was convicted on their false evidence. They admit that they have no case against him. His case is nevertheless a very emotional one because he is an American Indian convicted (wrongly) of killing two FBI agents. But I'm not fighting his cause as an Indian, though he is a political activist, fighting for his people, who has just been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. I am fighting for justice before the law for any man or woman. The law should be a protection, not a weapon against human rights. Leonard's case is such a clear issue, his innocence is on record, yet justice is denied him. At the denials of his appeals, the arrogant contempt for justice and public opinion has been unbelievable. Freedom before the law is our most basic freedom. In fighting for Leonard, that's what we fight for.

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