Vivienne Westwood, fashion designer and style icon, dies at 81

Written by Nick Glass, CNN

British fashion designer and style icon Vivienne Westwood has died at the age of 81. She died peacefully, surrounded by her family, at her home in London on Thursday, according to an official statement from her namesake company.

To the media, she was “the priestess of punk” and the “queen of extremes”. To the fashion world she was a beloved character who energized and pushed the boundaries of the industry until her death.

She twirled sans culottes for photographers after being awarded the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 1992. In April 1989, she graced the cover of Tatler magazine, wearing an Aquascutum suit she said was meant for Margaret Thatcher.

Westwood, frankly, did nothing. As the oldest of the amateurs with periodically orange-tinged hair and an alabaster complexion, she has been ignominiously elevated to the revered status of Britain’s national treasure.

“I have a built-in perversion,” said Westwood’s, according to Jon Savage’s seminal “England’s Dreaming: The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock,” “a kind of built-in clock that always reacts against anything orthodox.”

She was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in Derbyshire, England on April 8, 1941. Her mother worked as a weaver in local cotton mills. her father came from a family of shoemakers. She started making clothes for herself as a teenager.

After a stint at Harrow Art School, she worked as a primary school teacher and married factory worker Derek Westwood in 1962.

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But everything changed when she left her husband and met Malcolm McLaren in 1965.

“I felt like there were so many doors to open and he had the key to all of them,” he told Newsweek in 2004.

It is impossible to imagine 1970s Britain without their creative collaboration. McLaren managed the Sex Pistols and from a shop on London’s King’s Road, Westwood helped develop a visual grammar for the punk movement.

"Sex Pistols" director Malcolm McLaren with Vivienne Westwood outside Bow Street Court in London.

“Sex Pistols” manager Malcolm McLaren with Vivienne Westwood outside Bow Street Court in London. Credit: Bill Kennedy/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The store has changed its name — Let It Rock. Too fast to live, too young to die. Sex; Stasis — but you couldn’t escape its impact on the road.

“It changed the way the world looked,” Westwood told Time magazine in 2012. “I was messianic about punk, seeing if someone could put a speech into the system somehow.”

Her outfits ranged from fetish bondage to huge platform shoes and slogan tees. Rebels famously sold a T-shirt showing the Queen with a safety pin through the royal lip.

Westwood eventually moved on. In 1981, at 40, Westwood launched her first runway collection with McLaren. Gender-neutral clothing harkens back to the golden age of piracy, highwaymen, dandies and buffoons. Westwood studied old tailoring techniques and turned them on their head, an approach later emulated by other British designers such as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.

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During the decade, Westwood was eclectically inspired by Keith Haring, “Blade Runner” and the French Foreign Legion.

She introduced the mini-crini (a cross between the tutu and the Victorian crinoline), flesh-colored leggings with modesty fig leaves and corsets worn as outerwear. He designed dress for women with breasts and hips (ask Nigella Lawson or Marion Cotillard, who both wore Westwood for dramatic influences). he would experiment with Harris’s tweed and tartan.

Vivianne Westwood takes a bow at the end of the Spring Summer 2003 fashion show in Paris.

Vivianne Westwood takes a bow at the end of the Spring Summer 2003 fashion show in Paris. Credit: Bassignac/Benainous/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

John Fairchild, then the all-powerful editor of Women’s Wear Daily, gave his blessing in 1989. In his view, she was one of the six most influential designers of the 20th century, along with Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Christian Lacroix and Emanuel Ungaro. Westwood was the only woman, the only Brit, and the only designer on his list who wasn’t already a multi-million dollar brand. (In 1989, she was still living in an ex-council flat in South London and was “almost broke”, according to Jane Mulvagh’s 1998 biography, Vivienne Westwood: An Unfashionable Life.)

Style writer Peter York summed her up in a 1990 documentary: “All the things that fuel her and all the obsessions around which she builds her work are typically British: The whole thing about class and sex, the particular obsession with the queen. don’t deploy them anywhere else.”

Vivienne Westwood and her husband and fellow designer Andreas Kronthaler at Paris Fashion Week 2013.

Vivienne Westwood and her husband and fellow designer Andreas Kronthaler at Paris Fashion Week 2013. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

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In 1992, Westwood married an Austrian design student, Andreas Kronthaler, 25 years her junior. They worked as co-designers before she took over her ready-to-wear line in 2016. In a statement released with the announcement of her death, Kronthaler said: “I will continue with Vivienne in my heart. We worked until the end and she gave me so much things to go on. Thank you my love.”

Westwood was an outspoken supporter of the planet, often promoting quality over quantity when it came to fashion consumption. For its Autumn/Winter 2019/20 show at London Fashion Week, Westwood sent models, actors and activists down the runway with political signs – one of which read ‘What’s good for the planet is good for the economy’ .

The Vivienne Foundation, a non-profit corporation established by Westwood, her sons and granddaughter in late 2022, will officially launch next year. According to her representatives, it will “honour, protect and continue the legacy of Vivienne’s life, design and activism”.

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