That a primary school teacher from Tintwistle, a small village in Derbyshire in England, became the most influential figure in punk culture and the pivot around which the foundations of a real cultural revolution were laid, reflects an axiom: it is not all clear from the beginning.
Vivenne Westwood, born Dame Vivienne Isabel Swire in 1941 to Gordon and Dora Swire, spent her childhood between the hardships and poverty of the post-war years, in what we might call a small bourgeois family, watching her mother Dora sew clothes for her and her brothers Gordon and Olga using every piece of fabric recovered.
In 1958 the family moved to London where Vivienne studied fashion and goldsmithing while she became passionate about reading and art. In the British context of the 1960s Westwood understands how important it is to have a stable and “serious” job, she leaves the university, studies shorthand, and finds work as a primary school teacher.
In 1961 she met Derek Westwood – from whom she took her surname – who she married the same year wearing a dress made with her own hands, from this marriage her son Ben was born in 1963.
She only needs a few years, two years to be exact, to understand that this is not the life she wants.
In 1965 she met a friend of her brother’s, Malcolm McLaren, that encounter will change her life and British culture forever, and not only forever, becoming the symbols of that tsunami called punk.
The two of them start dating almost by chance but they get along very well, they feel like each other’s accomplices. They have a son, Joe, and they decide to open a tiny clothing store at 430 King’s Road.
Over time the store changed its name several times, following Vivienne’s inspirations: “Let it Rock”, “Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die”, “SEX”, “Seditionaires” and at last “Worlds End” with the iconic clock spinning backwards.
When the store was renamed “SEX” in 1974, the rich and bigoted community of Chelsea expressed their indignation at Westwood’s bold move, which consolidated her anti-establishment position and as a landmark in the punk movement.
The opaque shop windows appeared to be those of a current sex shop and this prompted potential customers to enter to find out what was being sold inside. It was not a simple shop but a meeting point for the thousands of young Londoners who couldn’t stand capitalism, British materialism but above all the whole of the strongly pro-monarchic public opinion that saw only “young thugs” in punks.
Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren shaped punk fashion and dictated the aesthetic canons of the movement we still know today: Narrow silhouettes, safety pins, white T-shirts with swastika as an insult to the ruling class, bondage, latex, the immoderate use of tartan and of course the Sex Pistols, which shocked the UK and the whole world thanks also and above all to the bassist of the band (although he never really played), Sid Vicious and his nihilistic and rebellious lifestyle, of which MacLaren was the manager and Vivienne the stylist.
Once the long wave of punk and her love story with Malcolm McLaren is over, Vivienne raises her two sons with the little money left (also due to the theft of a large sum of money by one of her employees) but she doesn’t go down, on the contrary.
Westwood resurfaces stronger and more tenacious than before, founding her eponymous brand combining history, provocation, and modernity that will be the hallmarks of the collections she will present in the future.
Corsets, her sought-after mini-crini (a bell-shaped mini skirt), Vivienne Westwood plays with British tradition and upsets its dictates, attracting the attention of the media and the entire fashion world.
The Italian Carlo D’Amario, revolutionary, extremist, and businessman, convinces her to move her production to Italy, definitively confirming her commercial success.
She finds the love of her life and her current husband, Andreas Kronthaler, and becomes a grandmother.
At 79 years old, Vivienne Westwood continues to be a character who fights the system (despite the obvious dichotomy between her work and the battles she carries on), an activist against climate change and as she has defined herself, a sort of contemporary Pinocchio, “a rascal with a golden heart”.