Mother Punk

Zoë Heller

  • Vivienne Westwood: An Unfashionable Life by Jane Mulvagh
    HarperCollins, 402 pp, £19.99, September 1998, ISBN 0 00 255625 1

In 1972, Vivienne Westwood, a 31-year-old mother of two, sat down at the kitchen table of her council flat in Clapham and began decorating white T-shirts to sell at Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, the shop at 430 King’s Road owned and run by her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren. Westwood’s previous T-shirts, which bore screenprint images of rock’n’roll idols and slogans like ‘Vive la Rock’, had not sold well. The last lot had ended up being converted into knickers. Her new ones were intended to make a stronger statement. Some were decorated with marabou feathers and little plastic windows on the breasts into which pictures of pin-up girls were inserted. Others sported two zippers allowing exposure of the nipples. The most memorable proved to be the bone T-shirts:

She then came up with a macabre device evoking a voodoo curse: letters constructed out of chicken bones attached to the T-shirts with chains and spelling out the words, ‘Perv’ or ‘Rock’. The bones were collected from Ricky Sky, then a waiter at Leonardo’s Italian trattoria on the King’s Road. Vivienne took the discarded chicken carcasses, boiled them to strip them of flesh and gristle, then drilled holes into the bones.

Not much emerges about Westwood in Jane Mulvagh’s biography that could properly be called endearing, but this and similar accounts of the designer’s proto-punk period have their rackety charm. In the Seventies, as an impoverished cottage industrialist, Westwood embodied a peculiarly English, hard-tack zealotry – the sort that, viewed in retrospect, can seem rather touching in its doomed dottiness. For McLaren, punk was an extended prank, a chance to make money out of making trouble: for Westwood, it was a far more serious and felt endeavour. The shock-garments that she churned out were meant to clothe the army of an imminent anarcho-socialist-youth revolution, just as her grim macrobiotic stews – soil, nuts and ‘herbs from the local park’ boiled up in the cauldron she used for dyeing clothes – were intended to nourish it. Sitting in the King’s Road shop (subsequently reincarnated as SEX, then Seditionaries and, finally, World’s End), and anxious to establish whether or not they were purchasing the chicken bones ‘for the right reasons’, Westwood would hector customers about their ‘commitment’ to her creations. Appropriately for someone presiding over a youth cult, she retained a perfectly adolescent, absolutist approach to matters of authenticity and allegiance. At a Roxy Music concert she went to with the not-yet-famous Chrissie Hynde, then working as one of her shop assistants, Westwood kept shouting ‘sexist bastard’ at Bryan Ferry until she was thrown out. For failing to show solidarity and leave with her, Hynde was sacked the next day. (‘Go with the flow,’ Westwood told her, pointing to the door, ‘it’s going that way.’)

The salad of ideas that made up Westwood’s politics during this period (McLaren’s art-school anarchism with some feminism, vegetarianism and free-floating class resentment thrown in) was relatively arbitrary, Mulvagh suggests. If Westwood hadn’t met McLaren, she would doubtless have battened onto another cause – Greenham Common, perhaps, or the SWP. Post-McLaren she has gone on to embrace any number of ‘philosophies’ contradictory to her initial revolutionary position – most recently, in her I-want-to-start-a-salon-like-they-had-in-the-old-days period, she has been touting ‘cultural élitism’. But no matter how many times her views have changed, Westwood’s earnestness has never been in doubt. Her true fealty is never so much to the specific belief as to the business of believing: the regime it imposes (the more exacting the better), the righteous minority status and licence for perpetual outrage that it confers, the cosy Manichaean system of heroes and villains it provides. One of the more famous T-shirts that she and McLaren devised in the Seventies bore a printed list of people and things divided into two columns of Loves and Hates: Christine Keeler, Ronnie Biggs, Joe Orton in the former; Bianca Jagger, Vogue, the suburbs and so on in the latter. McLaren understood such lists to be playful, provisional. Westwood did not. She was never quite in step with her boyfriend’s nimble opportunism and he eventually became weary of the dogged literal-mindedness with which she clung to his airy pronouncements: ‘During late-night drinking sessions ... McLaren would hold forth on the ideology of the shop, while Vivienne fed him questions. “But you know what I think about that,” McLaren would snap. “Yeah, well I want to hear you say it again,” she would reply.’ This, alas, was not the last time that Westwood would crouch at the knee of a dubious guru, attempting to memorise his not-so-brilliant sayings. Dodgy men with dodgy theories are her weakness and, like many bullies, she has a huge capacity for cowering sycophancy. (One of the best anecdotes in this book describes Johnny Rotten turning up late to a Sex Pistols concert, and expressing his ill-humour by smashing Westwood in the face; ‘I can understand how he felt,’ she is said to have remarked mildly, while rubbing her blackened eye.)

Since the partnership with McLaren dissolved in the early Eighties, Westwood has placed herself under the sway of creeps: Carlo D’Amario, an Italian wheeler-dealer with a glass eye, who was briefly her lover and remains the overlord of her business; Gary Ness, an elderly gay mentor, from whom, for several years, she received weekly, muddle-headed tutorials on culture; and most recently, Andreas Kronthaler, a bisexual Austrian art student, 25 years her junior, whom she married in 1992.

Mulvagh takes a pretty dim view of these men, reserving her most scathing disapproval for the dire influence that they have had on Westwood’s work. (The unsavoury Kronthaler, a man who campaigned unsuccessfully to have one of Westwood’s collections entitled ‘Golden Shower’, comes off particularly badly.) If Mulvagh has a theme, it is the triumph of Westwood’s talent over her own, and others’, best efforts to mess with it. Neither the raging idiocy of Westwood’s intellectual fads, nor her chaotic work practices, nor even the malign influence of her Svengalis, have stopped her, Mulvagh contends, from creating ‘astonishingly original and iconoclastic clothes for nearly two decades’ and becoming the ‘most important influence on fashion over the last twenty years’.

In making the case for Westwood as a ‘raw, unschooled, instinctive and passionate genius’, Mulvagh forgoes a number of rather easier options. (She doesn’t, by the way, mean ‘genius’ in its daffy, fashion-industry, adjectival sense, as in ‘I love your ponyskin Guccis – they’re genius!’: she really means genius.) She could have presented Westwood as an interesting figure in late 20th-century pop culture, or celebrated her as an English character. Instead, having dutifully catalogued the myriad eccentricities that have contributed to Westwood’s cult of personality, she concludes that they are irrelevancies, distractions from the real beef, which is Westwood’s talent. (Mulvagh is reluctant even to grant Westwood the status of a genuine eccentric: her contrariness is merely ‘constructed’, she says, to attract attention.) As a fearless fashion innovator, Westwood ‘changed the way people looked at covering the body’. She was first to feature ‘real people’ in her catwalk shows, first to ‘exactly copy the cut and construction of historical dress’. In making her collections ‘tell stories’, she was also the originator ‘of a narrative approach to fashion’.

One could quibble about some of these claims, but there’s no contesting the fact that Westwood has produced lots of fresh ideas, many of which have ended up being stolen by other designers. The question is: does this constitute genius? Westwood’s clothes, Mulvagh acknowledges, ‘often fail to reach the highest standards of fit and finish’. In fact, she is famous for being, as the fashion journalist Suzy Menkes puts it, ‘first but worst’ in fashion – inventing the imperfect prototypes of new looks that other designers then tidy up and commercially exploit. Amazingly, the syndrome is frequently cited, as it is here, in Westwood’s defence – as evidence of her true, raw artistry. I say hurray for the stealing designers. I prefer my fashion cooked. To take an interesting idea and make it hang well on a woman is an important and rather difficult business after all – more difficult, possibly, than executing exact, but shoddily-made copies of Peruvian nuns’ habits, or whatever. A great deal of Westwood’s work brings to mind Robert Frost’s remark about ‘playing tennis with the net down’. Which is to say, if you choose, as Westwood has done for much of her career, to ignore commercial imperatives, then creating innovative fashion – exploring the ‘aesthetic effect of a misplaced neckline’ or ‘tilting a shoulderline to create an arresting imbalance’ – might not be that complicated after all.

Biographers will always be inclined to exaggerate the importance of their subjects and, by extension, their own labours. All impacts become profound. All knacks become astonishing talents. Westwood does not need such trumped-up credits. As a non-genius, she is just as good value. From the chicken bones on, her life has been a demonstration of a seminal punk rock principle: talent is not a prerequisite for making waves.