A collection of diary entries by fashion designer and political activist Vivienne Westwood, Get a Life is a fresh, unpredictable look at the life of one of the most influential artists and campaigners of our times. Spanning six years of Climate Revolution, fashion and activism, the book is as provocative as you would expect from Britain’s punk dame.
"My diaries are about the things I care about. Not just fashion but art and writing, human rights, climate change, freedom", Westwood said. "I call the diaries Get a Life as that's how I feel: you've got to get involved, speak out and take action."
How Vivienne Westwood fell in love with Prince Charles
A T-shirt emblazoned with an image of the heir to the throne might not seem like the likeliest showpiece from Vivienne Westwood’s AW15 collection – but perhaps the pair have more in common than we thought …
Monday 19 January 2015 14.38 GMT Last modified on Monday 19 January 2015 14.52 GMT
For a designer who has long used the establishment as a frame of reference for reaction, Vivienne Westwood – the anti-monarchist, anti-establishment, godmother of punk – dedicating her autumn/winter 2015 collection to Prince Charles in celebration of his environmental work was always going to polarise fans.
“I want to pay tribute to Prince Charles,” wrote Westwood on a set of briefing notes (emblazoned with an image of Charles in a beret) given to guests at her autumn/winter 2015 menswear show in Milan. “If Prince Charles had ruled the world according to his priorities during the last 30 years, we would be alright and we would be tackling climate change.”
The T-shirts, worn under blazers and by Westwood herself, are part of a Westwood perennial of using fashion as a political vehicle; fans might recall tops embellished with “I Am Not a Terrorist” for civil-rights charity Liberty, and an entire collection in 2013 dedicated to Chelsea Manning. The rest of the collection, though, was relatively staid for the designer, referencing traditional royal sartorial norms: sharp Savile Row-style tailored suits, trad brocade florals on blazers and coats in a houndstooth print.
Given Westwood’s history with the royal family – she has twice attended Buckingham Palace with no knickers on, and has regularly goaded the establishment in various ways over the past forty years – this homage might seem implausible. But she recently set her targets on the environment, and previously endorsed Prince Charles, saying he had done an amazing amount in this world.
Charles has long been an outspoken environmentalist, and was recently handed increasing responsibility of the Queen’s Sandringham estate as part of the “gentle succession”. He is expected to use the land to implement more changes, including organic farming, an activity Westwood has backed with equal candour.
It’s evidence of the designer’s continued move away from her roots. After all, along with her partner Malcolm Mclaren, she played a pivotal role in establishing the punk scene in the late 1970s and has previously described her motivation for adopting anti-establishment messages into her collections as “an heroic attempt to confront the older generation”. But as Westwood knows, the medium is the message – and what better way to send it home that by subverting expectation?
Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne Westwood & Ian Kelly, review: 'fabulously, fetishistically brilliant'
The life of Vivienne Westwood is told as an uproarious picaresque romp by Beau Brummell's biographer
By Philip Hoare1:00PM BST 25 Oct 2014
The Seventies may seem like another age, but it was not the decade that taste forgot. It was an era that utterly reinvented the modern world. In almost every aspect of culture, from politics to pop, the status quo was overturned. And in the fast-moving arts of music and fashion you could detect those tectonic shifts most distinctly. Bolan, Bowie and Roxy Music reconfigured the way an ordinary suburban boy such as myself could imagine the future. They evoked a retro-glamorous, science-fiction world, an epoch defined by George Melly’s Revolt into Style as a third period of pop culture, “its noisy and brilliant decadence” lighting up “the contemporary landscape as if by a series of magnesium flares”.
It is that landscape that Ian Kelly examines in Vivienne Westwood. As a practised, deft biographer, he’s already given us flash-lit lives of Beau Brummell and Casanova – and is thus a perfect match for the Enlightenment figure Vivienne Westwood aspires to be. The book is billed “as told to”, but one gets the impression it was one long stream-of-consciousness rant, careering off on an uproarious picaresque romp through a wild and often unaccountable life. Holding a legend to account is Kelly’s dilemma – and his skill. He accomplishes it by the skin of his buckskin breeches, with a wit and humour of his own.
In 1976, newly arrived at college on the outskirts of London, I’d make my pilgrimage down to the darker, emptier end of King’s Road, home to the black hole that was sex – announced by huge letters in what Kelly dubs “condom pink”. It took a lot of courage to cross that threshold. In the dim interior stood the intimidating figure of Jordan – the first person to receive an Arts Council grant for being herself. With her peroxide punk beehive, Kandinsky make-up and PVC fetish wear, Jordan was the living symbol of Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s startling new aesthetic. Indeed, the entire staff of the shop were Warholian superstars, awaiting their 15 minutes of fame, from Chrissie Hynde and Glen Matlock to Midge Ure and Toyah Willcox.
This was, recognisably, the birth of something – though we weren’t quite sure what. Scaffolding rails were hung with jumpers which were little more than nets knitted by giants, and bondage trousers with strapped knees and zips that ran right up your backside. This was more hardware than fashion; less style than anthropology, dealing in notions of tribalism and myth; more James Frazer’s Golden Bough than Vogue editorial. Towelling flaps slung around the groin were vestigial loincloths. Tartan kilts became pleated symbols. Gender was blurred and heightened. “Sex,” Westwood tells Kelly, “translated into fashion becomes fetish… the very embodiment of youth’s assumption of immortality.”
These clothes frightened people. I had to save up for a shirt roughly stitched together out of muslin with elongated, straitjacket sleeves and a screen-printed inverted crucifix over a swastika. It offended everyone, including me. But I wore it because Johnny Rotten did – indeed, Westwood claims she was as much the inventor of the Sex Pistols as McLaren. When Anarchy in the UK erupted, she tells Kelly, “the idea and the title were mine”. (Mr Rotten has since declared Westwood’s claim to be “audacity of the highest order”.)
Vivienne Westwood's autobiography, book review
By Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly
Andrew Wilson Thursday 9 October 2014 13:12 BST
Vivienne Westwood was at school when she wrote her first autobiography. Since then she has made various attempts to document the extraordinary story of her life, from the child of working class parents in Derbyshire to the mother of punk and later the creator of a global luxury brand.
Some time after meeting her friend Gary Ness in 1977 she collaborated with the ‘Canadian homosexual aesthete’ on a fifty-page memoir that they later set aside. Then in 1993 she asked the fashion historian and journalist Jane Mulvagh to write her life story, a project that Mulvagh accepted on condition that the designer did not vet the manuscript before publication. Westwood soon had second thoughts and promptly withdrew the offer of co-operation. On the publication in 1998 of Mulvagh’s insightful book the designer described the unauthorised biography as ‘a lot of rubbish’.
After this debacle, Westwood’s husband, Andreas Kronthaler - whom she met while teaching in Austria - insisted Vivienne write her own book to set the record straight. ‘I said the last thing I want to do is write about myself,’ she told an interviewer recently. And so it was that this new book was born, a publication trumpeted as a memoir but written by an amanuensis, the actor and biographer Ian Kelly (whose previous subjects have included Casanova and Beau Brummell). The resulting volume is a strange hybrid, neither memoir nor critical biography, and its beautiful pages emit the distinct odour of hagiography.
One of the problems of the book - thankfully mostly confined to the opening chapter - is the insistence of Kelly to place himself in the story. Phrases such as ‘My Year of Magical Blinging’ - a reference to the year the author spent interviewing and shadowing Westwood - and ‘the business that is show’ really grated, and I didn’t care how little sleep Kelly had during Paris Fashion Week.
The pace begins to pick up with the introduction of Westwood’s own voice about thirty pages into the book as she details her childhood. Here, we learn fascinating details that suggest that her character had been largely formed at an early age: she had a precocious visual memory, believed that she could make a pair of shoes at the age of five and, from the beginning, she was something of a rebel and non-conformist. She remembers being in the back of her aunt’s greengrocer’s shop when she was a girl and seeing a representation of the Crucifixion on a calendar. Her cousin Eileen told her about the death of Jesus Christ, which up until that point had been kept from her. ‘I could not believe that there were people in the world who could do this,’ she recalled. ‘And the truth of it is this: I became Derbyshire’s only five-year-old freedom fighter! Dedicated to opposing persecution!’
Kelly is particularly good at documenting Westwood’s co-creation of the British punk movement and her toxic partnership with Malcolm McLaren, the red-haired, pale-faced (courtesy of talcum powder) Situationist who helped change the course of 20th-century fashion and music. (It’s a shame, however, he gets the date of the first Sex Pistols gig at St Martin’s wrong: it was 6 November 1975, not 1976.) Incisive testimonies from Westwood’s two sons, Ben (from her first marriage) and Joe (the product of the relationship with McLaren) as well as her brother Gordon (who introduced Vivienne to Malcolm) reveal McLaren to have been an abusive control freak. Although the biographer has had access to Westwood’s inner circle (complete with anodyne quotes from a number of models, PRs and fashion insiders) there are some notable absences. For instance, Vivienne talks about her first husband Derek Westwood, but the man himself does not have a voice.
Kelly also passes over certain events that are crying out for more analysis and interpretation. For instance, on the way to have an abortion (paid for by McLaren’s eccentric grandmother Rose) Vivienne changed her mind and used the money to buy herself a cashmere sweater and a matching piece of fabric from which she created a skirt. I would have liked more on this, more on the psychology of fashion, the deep-seated reasons why Westwood felt so drawn to clothes. ‘Nothing from the past is entirely true,’ she told Kelly. ‘But you are only in those scenes properly when they are put together. That’s what we should do, you and I, Ian: sew together all the life scenes.’ In this respect, Kelly is a competent tailor, but my guess is that in the future there will be other, more adventurous seamstresses who will come along to unpick and restitch the Westwood story.
Andrew Wilson's biography of Alexander McQueen will be published in February (Simon & Schuster)