Grande dame Vivienne Westwood (DBE) in her own designs, photographed by Alasdair McLellan for The Gentlewoman, Issue no. 9, Spring and Summer 2014.
They say you should never meet your heroes.
Impossibly mammoth expectations, coupled with the inevitable bumbling awkwardness of it all converge into a monster that will forever haunt you, an experience you’ll relive time and again both in your own head and aloud with others.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, David Bowie encounters, and general declarations of Bowie-hero-love seem, to this writer at least, cited more often in the press than any other. Marilyn Manson once said something along the lines of meeting Mr. Stardust, a personal hero, “He complemented my suit, and I felt like a little schoolboy.” There was artist Dawn Kasper’s brush-with-Bowie experience (read ’til pg. 3) at the 2012 Whitney Biennial. And painter Elizabeth Peyton spoke of Bowie and his accompanying 2013 V&A retrospective, “…I thought the tone of the show echoed how we all feel about him – total love and gratitude for his existence.” (The Gentlewoman, Issue no. 8, Autumn and Winter 2013)
Cue Vivienne Westwood. I have never met the woman per se, but the first thing I did when I moved to London was buy tickets to hear her speak at an event late 2012. And it totally effed with my head.
Total love and gratitude for her existence is a sentiment I could get down with.
Total love and gratitude is something I felt when, as a fashion design student at FIT with @bikepretty, I saw an exhibit devoted to her footwear designs in Italy, circa 2007.
Total love and gratitude is something I feel every time I scour ebay for secondhand castoffs of her designs, my heart swelling with every poorly-photographed asymmetrical seam, every oddball corset, every wonky tartan jacket that graces my search results, their many peplum hems draped just so. In short, I’ve always looked up to the woman. After that event however, I feared my opinion forever changed.
She ignored the moderator’s questions, choosing instead to speak about topics that she found more interesting, which included everything from saving the environment to making disparaging comments about her own design team – “They just copy designs from my archive” – or, my favorite – “They spend all their wages on childcare, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Why not just quit work and stay home with the children?” Maybe you should pay them more, I thought. She proclaimed herself less interested in her line, and in fashion, than ever. All artists today are crap. No one has any sense of history. And here’s my charity that you should all donate to, we’re saving the rainforest and it’s Really Important.
Several people got up and left the room. My boyfriend cast a pained look at me and whispered, “Mais…elle est folle!” (he’s French) and said he’d wait for me in the lobby. I remained in my seat until the bitter end, and left feeling cheated, a bit dejected. Folle, indeed.
Was this really the woman behind all those whimsically anarchic fashions of my dreams? She seemed so graceless and arrogant.
In the intervening time since, I have often parsed the many alarming diatribes that surfaced that evening- and so it was with mixed feelings that I saw her as the cover choice for the latest issue of The Gentlewoman,* my favorite magazine. I now take my Westwood with a grain of salt, thankyouverymuch.
But as I read through the interview, I found myself chuckling, gradually recognizing in Deborah Orr’s words what had eluded me those many months prior. The interview- *spoiler alert* – nearly mirrors my above experience. Living through it again was like a cheerful slap in the face:
Vivienne Westwood is a punk! One of the originals! And what could be more punk than doing whatever the bloody hell you want? E.g., subverting international press opportunities and public speaking events to serve as a platform for something you think the world really needs to hear about!
As Orr points out, Vivienne’s life and career “are already well documented, and she doesn’t need the publicity,” further noting “Westwood is not without arrogance, but that’s OK, because her high opinion of herself is backed up by her achievements, the mark she’s made on the world.”
Mmmm don’t get me wrong. I don’t need to go hear her speak again. But I will continue to stalk her work on ebay. And ok Viv, you got me: that shot on the bike, in your own designs, in your own heels, with that plucky, smug environmentalist’s smile on your face, and at age 72 to boot? That’s pretty punk rock, too. Something to aspire to.
#BikeWestwood, I think I’m into it.
Turns out the Dame Commander even sent a model down the runway on a bike back in F/W 12. Check out these internet (#bikewestwood) diamonds:
In London, January 2013, at a press conference to ban ecocide.
With husband and design partner Andreas Kronthaler, at the 2009 film premiere of “The Age of Stupid.” She rode her bike down the red carpet, and in what looks to be an asymmetrical peg-skirted dress, no less. So take that.
*The Gentlewoman is a brilliant biannual publication that is probably the only fashion magazine worth reading, or anyhow, the only one that is refreshingly manageable to keep up with. They once put Inez van Lamsweerde on the cover in a fake beard. ’Nuff said.