I met Dame Vivienne Westwood once. I was 17 years old and was on a sixth form theatre studies trip to see a play. I remember nothing of the play itself because, having spotted Westwood as she was taking her seat at the beginning, I spent the entire play rehearsing asking for her autograph in my head. Despite this, I still blurted out something gushy and unoriginal like, ‘I think you’re amazing!’ and asked her to sign the back of a school letter that was in my bag. I was in absolute awe – totally star struck – and, in many ways, it’s hard not to feel the same way when reading her biography, aged 25.
My favourite thing about this book is that so much of Westwood’s personality, intellect and alternative nature can be gleaned through her words. Ian Kelly gifts us with long uninterrupted segments of interview in which she speaks, amongst other things, about her Kings Road years with Malcolm McLaren and subsequent years without him. Westwood states that now, with McLaren no longer being alive, she is able to speak candidly for the first time about their tumultuous relationship, which was subject to much media attention over the years following bitter rows over ownership of work. The consequence of this being a frank, and sometimes quite shocking, account of what went on behind the scenes.
Although Westwood is famed worldwide as a British design idol and instigator of the Punk movement, outside of fashion circles the true extent of her contribution to modern dress is less well known. Westwood put the slogan on the T-shirt, the trainer on the catwalk and made clothing into a platform for political activism – all for the first time. To read the intimate details of how it all came to be, in the designer’s own words as well as from the perspective of those closest to her, is utterly captivating.
You get the sense that despite all of this, Vivienne Westwood ‘the world renowned fashion idol’ is still the same Vivienne Westwood who started out in that famous store at 430 Kings Road: still fiercely passionate, still infinitely questioning, still pushing the boundaries and most definitely still Punk. These attributes are now, arguably, more focussed on her political, environmental and humanitarian endeavours and it is equally inspiring to read about her continuing work in this sphere: Westwood is one of few celebrities who use their status to its full potential to change the world for the better, regardless of any potential impact on their commercial marketability.
This biography is an all-encompassing, honest and well-rounded portrayal of Vivienne Westwood’s life, creative process and character; allowing you to meet the designer, the grandmother, the activist, the visionary and the Punk all at once. It is an empowering read, of which the ability to inform and inspire far outstretches the confines of the fashion world.
Reviewed by Francesca Bassenger.