A LOOK AT VIVIENNE WESTWOOD’S BIOGRAPHY From couture to counterculture

As a fashion buff, I’ve just finished reading Ian Kelly’s Vivienne Westwood’s biography, published in 2014 by Picador. It deals with this iconic designer’s achievements as an artist coming to grips with her creative process, as well as with more personal aspects of her private life. It could be added that this book was written by both the designer herself and her biographer, who previously dealt with the lives of Antonin Careme (2004), Beau Brummell (2005), Casanova (2005) and Samuel Foote (2012).

 WESTWOOD Vivienne, KELLY Ian, Vivienne Westwood, London, Picador, 2014

A real Fashion lady

The book starts with the end of Vivienne Westwood’s career, that is the preparation of her new and last collection in 2014. Through various outlooks on her character, her attitudes towards others, and her political, artistic and cultural choices, she’s depicted in a vividly human light. Emphasis is laid, too, on the strong bond she had established with the close knit team that supported her, she clearly didn’t work on her own.

Above all, this biography highlights the designer’s creative process, as well as her avant-gardism illustrated, for example, by her use of recycled materials, among other innovations. We’re given too the opportunity to slip through the back door, and stand in the wings during the shows. The book also insists on that great lady’s influence on the contemporary scene of the English fashion industry, with such names as Naomi Campbell, for instance.  

From the intimacy of youth to the floodlights of maturity :

Anecdotes about Vivienne Westwood’s early life show how potentially rich the environment in which she grew up was. The episode of the wedding dress may foretell the « DIY » attitude which was to become the very core of Punk culture and of the Westwood House. Throughout the book and its carefully-chosen illustrations, the reader clearly perceives how she grew from that perfect little girl into that famous Punk woman sporting a wild bleached haircut.

Quirky quotes by Vivienne Westwood, such as her reference to Marry Shelley and the topic of creation in Frankenstein, highlight a rather offbeat approach to popular culture. She indeed drew her inspiration from the street, as well as from the fringes of British society and culture, which differentiated her from mainstream Parisian creators. This state of mind pervaded all her work, and turned her into an icon of English pop culture, alongside with the Sex Pistols or Queen Elisabeth II.

Blowing up English « politeness » :

The name of Vivienne Westwood often conjures up the image of a time bomb. She was the advocate of a clothing style that blew-up the notion of politeness, if seen as the epitome of decorum, sociability, and political mainstream values. Every testimony in the book contributes to that overall perception, showing that the artist and the private individual were not that far apart.

The reader shares Vivienne Westwood’s inspirational outbursts through direct references to numerous fashion shows, and photo shoots, involving sentimental stories and dramatic career turning points. Her creative process was based on brilliant impulses and breakthroughs. She dared to break the stifling rules imposed by British society on body perception and sexuality. She broke all the codes, and wrote new ones, heralding some form of radical spiritual transformation among young people in Britain.  

Shop regulars Danielle, Alan Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Vivienne and Jordan spelling out their favourite emporium.

Between High and Low Art :

The author lays the emphasis on the notions of High and Low Art, which are keys to Vivienne Westwood’s creation. He mentions very famous paintings that were made fun of, such as queen Elisabeth’s portrait, and he draws a parallel between them and characters from low art and popular culture, such as Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City. Although a key Punk fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood was capable of classical achievements, as illustrated by pictures of exquisite and refined embroidery that could be considered as mainstream high fashion.

Vivienne Westwood Studio Sketch, Gold Label.

A committed activist :

Vivienne Westwood wasn’t only a designer, but also a committed woman who has made an impression on both catwalks and minds. A lot of material illustrates her committed, critical and militant views on both British and international issues, such as Nuclear Disarmament, or the use of water in the world.

Stylistic and narrative quality :

This biography is based on a « flash back » structure which sheds light on the meaning of its contents. In fact, we move from 2014, the peak of Vivienne Westwood’s career, to the early childhood of a young girl born in poverty-stricken post-war Britain.

This narrative choice makes us understand how British society evolved and what led to Vivienne Westwood’s artistic choices and urges which were to shape up, ultimately, her inimitable and renowned style. Just like Coco Chanel, who was inspired by the convent where she grew-up, Vivienne Westwood drew her inspiration from her social background, that is street, culture and handmade objects. As for Ian Kelly’s coarse and energetic style, it is a fitting homage to the strength of Punk rebellion.

Vivienne Isabel Swire. Aged four-and-three quarters. 

In short, this biography needs to be read in full, as it is an interactive combination of numerous visuals, quotations and anecdotes from Vivienne Westwood’s archives. The reader is led to share the designer’s most intimate personal and professional memories. The embroideries, fashion collections, and gorgeous works shown in the book highlight Vivienne Westwood’s colourful and daring character, in both her professional and private lives. Ian Kelly’s style reflects the Punk, raw quality of her work. The stylistic characteristics of this biography lay the emphasis on Vivienne Westwood’s Punk- like life through rude phrasing and provocative memories. This gripping tale is to be enjoyed without moderation!

Jeanne Vanden Wildenberg

Visual credits: WESTWOOD Vivienne, KELLY Ian, Vivienne Westwood, London, Picador, 2014 [Captions for illustrations come from the same biography]