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WE Ethical: VIVIENNE WESTWOOD, the climate heroine

Humanity is a great part of all creations. Dame VIVIENNE WESTWOOD never stops to put herself into fashion. She who crafts intellectuality and breathes revolts into couture is a climate heroine. 

WEethical-vivienne westwood copyForgive us if WE aren’t giving a flattering passage on vanity, for when it comes to Dame Vivienne Westwood, like how she may put it, fashion alone does not really make an interesting topic for four pages; her ethics and concern for climate change, which give her “an excuse to talk about” through the vehicle called fashion, do.

The conventionalised apotheosises of designers and fashion houses suppose us earthlings to look up to the runway with insanely blind veneration, as though every new product, they call it object of desire, is no less than a prodigy. It is this mediocrity that makes people like Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett godsend- looking. Though concern for the environment should never be deemed as a mighty virtue, Westwood’s awakening endeavour is indeed worthy of the ode.

“The Paralympics was the perfect opportunity to unfurl the Climate Revolution banner. She did not go to the dress rehearsal as Vivienne knew the organisers would discover what was beneath her copper taffeta cloak. When the time came she opened it up to reveal her message, Climate Revolution. The Revolution is already begun.

The fact of man-made climate change is accepted by most people. Through every walk of life, people are changing their values and their behaviour.

In 2008, the New Economics Foundation announced their “100 Months” campaign – the amount of time they estimate we have to stabilize the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere before the risk of uncontrollable planet warming becomes unacceptably high. We are now halfway through; with 50 more months to go – therefore we have to do it by the next Olympics. We have a choice: Hell or a Future better than the human race has ever known. Act fast against Climate Change.”

This is a latest production description copied from the brand’s website. Not a single word flaunted about chic or glamour; but every line bluntly tells the message behind the sold-out Climate Revolution t-shirt from Vivienne Westwood’s Spring/Summer 2013 Red Label Collection, which from its first presence on the runway last September has quickly caught the industry by storm, making headlines on every media across the world.

“The fact of manmade climate change is accepted by most people. The fight is no longer between the classes or between rich and poor but between the idiots and the eco-conscious. We need a formal inauguration of the revolution and a plan of operation. We have a choice: Hell or a Future better than the human race has ever known. Act fast against Climate Change,” the designer could not have made her influences in fashion, society and environmental protection any bigger.

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Wear clothes like a princess from another planet

For the artistry of Westwood comes more from her rage than from formal education, high status is never her goal; influence is. Born Vivienne Isabel Swire in Derbyshire, 1941, Westwood was parented by Gordon and Dora Swire, who was a local cotton mill weaver while Gordon came from a family of shoemakers. Already in her young age, vexation shaped her attitude to style. With her outspoken aesthetics favouring frilly and decorations, Westwood manifested her subversion against the status quo that pretty girls are those with curls. Her very limited spending money allocated by her parents would be expended on materials precisely used for altering her school uniform to pencil skirts and customising other modish pieces for herself, like a long, fitted ‘New Look’ dress, sleeveless shifts with a single seam and darts. Her world of tailor-making started there.

At teens, Westwood briefly attended Harrow Art College to study fashion and silversmithing but left after a term notably because “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world.” After that Westwood worked in a factory and trained to become a primary school teacher, whilst she would create her own jewellery and sell it on Portobello Road in London. In 1961 she met Derek Westwood, a factory apprentice at Hoover back then, and when the two married the following year, Westwood made her own wedding dress.

Despite the firm shape of her fashion skills, Westwood never thought about a career shift until she met Malcolm McLaren in 1965, ending her first marriage, and opened a boutique that struck as an antithesis of the hippie fad back then.

A 19 year-old lad back then, McLaren had just come out from an art school and enjoyed the idea of ‘using culture as a way of making trouble’. Obsessed with fashion and music, he saw them as inseparable parts of a Rock ‘n’ Roll spirit, what he called ‘the jungle beat that threatened white civilisation’. Drawing inspirations from youth rebellions of the 1950s and its related music, clothing and memorabilia, Westwood began making Teddy Boy and Girls clothes for McLaren. In 1971, they established a shop at 430 Kings Road called ‘Let it Rock’ (now known as World’s End), where the two sold ‘brothel creeper’ shoes, draped coats made by an East End tailor, mohair jumpers and drainpipe trousers made by a local seamstress.

By 1972 the duo’s aesthetic had evolved into a harder edged biker inspired by one of leather and zips. The shop was re-branded with a skull and cross bones logo and renamed ‘Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die’. Westwood and McLaren began to design t-shirts with provocative words emblazoned across them leading to their prosecution under obscenity laws. Their reaction was another re-branding and a determination to produce ever more hardcore offensive images.

Two years later the store was renamed ‘Sex’ with the slogan ‘rubberwear for the office’, selling fetish wear, and kitting out the elite of Britain’s punk scene with bondage gear, PVC, safety pins, razor blades and bicycle chains on clothing, and spiked dog collars for jewellery, coupled with outrageous and sometimes aggressive make-up and hairdo. On top of the significantly punk style, historic elements like pattern cutting techniques from the 17th and 18th century made Westwood’s designs even more riotously stimulating. Marco Pirroni of Adam and the Ants recalled “the country was a morass of beige and cream Bri-Nylon and their shop was an oasis. It took great liberalism and bravery to wear rubber in the streets. If you shopped there, you didn’t go anywhere else.”

The Sex Pistols, the band managed by McLaren, had a shot to fame in 1976 with ‘God Save the Queen’, bringing attention to the fashion label, which was then renamed as ‘Seditionaires’ with the slogan ‘clothes for heroes’. The look focused on strapping and zips, darkly obscure sexual fetishism and a distinctly DIY aesthetic. Westwood called it “a heroic attempt to confront the older generation”.

“I was about 36 when punk happened and I was upset about what was going on in the world. It was the hippies who taught my generation about politics, and that’s what I cared about—the world being so corrupt and mismanaged, people suffering, wars, all these terrible things.” She once said. “And I blamed the older generation for what was going on too, so we wouldn’t even accept their taboos. That’s how the swastika symbols came to be used in punk, for example.” 

Politics. Humanity. Activism

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Even when she met The Independent writer last year, she was still in her notable ‘Get a Life’ t-shirt. Fashion to the dame is always nothing if without a message to tell. This might be yet another slogan among the multitude she echoes; yet this motto has always been fulfilled in her brand throughout these years – getting real to life is everything her fashion means; and her strong position in world affairs as a fashion mogul is second to no one.

When Vivienne Westwood finally saw herself exclusively as a fashion designer in 1981, flaunting panache without thoughts still did not interest her. Instead, going explicit on her opinions has been her forever passion. The 1989 Tatler cover of her dressed as then Prime Margaret Thatcher with a headline “this woman was once a punk” was alleged to have infuriated the prime minister. She spoke publicly about Barack Obama and called Tony Blair a war criminal. Nonetheless when compared with what she does on the runway, these have pale significance.

Vivienne Westwood between 1988 and 1992 was through the ‘Pagan Years’, when her inspirations shifted from punks and ragamuffins to ‘Tatler’ girls “wearing clothes that parodied the upper class”. A chance encounter inspired one of her most important and influential collections, the Harris Tweed of Autumn/Winter 1987. By combining British themes with classical and pagan elements, she matched traditional drapery with tweed, Smedley underwear with ancient Greek pornographic overprints. The eccentric, contradictory fusion mirrored her respect for traditional and a love of parody and sexual liberty.

The Westwood rebellious protest grew sophisticated and explicit. Besides the seasonal collections celebrating craftsmanship and stories, Westwood took her activism to a new level – most significantly was her joining forces with British civil rights organisation ‘Liberty’ in 2005 as a new trustee; which she called the proudest moment of her life. Offering her supporters a way of “using money that’s more meaningful and more targeted towards human interest”, she launched a limited edition line of T-shirts and baby wear bearing the slogan ‘I AM NOT A TERRORIST, please don’t arrest me’, defending the fundamental law of habeas corpus. The same slogan was also sported by tank tops in her Spring/Summer collection the following year. According to Liberty, the line was “themed around the defence of liberty and human rights. It expresses the belief that the Government’s draconian anti-terror laws will not make us more secure.”“At a time when politicians dismiss our rights and freedoms as legal niceties,” Shami Chakrabarti, Director of the organisation, commented, “it is heartening to see one of this country’s great cultural icons coming out to defend the rule of law”.

The same support was given to freeing Native American activist Leonard Peltier convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for shooting two FBI agents in 1975. “The reason Leonard Peltier is still in jail is because he will not admit to a crime he didn’t do. If they keep you in jail you are guilty. ‘America is never wrong’. If they let you out then you are innocent and the FBI is guilty,” the designer said. In 2010, the designer had the first-rowers at her Red Label’s Spring/Summer 2011 show reminded about the innocence of Peltier by putting on the seats of editors brochures for the legal organisation Reprieve, which represents prisoners in Guantanamo and on death row. In fact for the past many years, Westwood never forgot about the name Peltier and their letters are often seen on her blog.

In 2012, Vivienne Westwood appeared on Amnesty International’s Writes for Rights campaign, calling for justice for Azza Hilal Ahmad Suleiman, an Egyptian woman who was severely beaten by soldiers during a demonstration near Tahrir Square. She revealed her decision to become a punk was to “call to arms” to speak out against war, torture and human rights abuses. “I urge everyone to be trendsetters for Azza Suleiman. Let’s make it one fashion which everyone will want to follow.” She said in the film. In the same year, her selfless support to The Ethical Fashion Programme reached Nairobi, Kenya, as she launched a charity bag collection comprised of designs handmade by the local single mothers, widows, HIV/AIDS victims and those living in extreme poverty from recycled roadside advertisement banners and safari tents.

While such recycling work brings substantial impact on the waste reduction movement in Africa, these bags bearing a large ‘LIFE’ print or ethnical patterns, Westwood believes, not only give the hired women an income, but also “the pride they take in their work and the new skills learnt. One day, they hope to have their own companies and train the next generation of skilled workers, building the economy and raising the standard of living in Kenya.”

We don’t have a future if we don’t care about Earth now

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She said: The way we see the world affects our behaviour. If we are lazy and crazy enough to see the world as something to suck up and shit out, the world will destroy us.

Just last September, Westwood stepped down from the runway at London Fashion Week with pride and a ‘Climate Revolution’ slogan on her T-shirt, reminding us again of how she caught attendants of the Paralympics, if not the whole world, with a ‘Climate Revolution’ banner hiding beneath her copper taffeta cloak. Climate change has been a key concern to the dame, especially in the recent decade. She constantly makes a talking point among both the eco-conscious and the glam worshippers.

Despite the age of seventies, Vivienne Westwood keeps herself busy with the aforementioned campaigns, regular collections for various labels she now co- designs with her husband and creative partner Andreas Kronthaler, as well as various retrospective exhibitions at important museums such as Victoria & Albert and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet none of these has ever slowed down her tireless campaign to help tackle climate change; which her fashion nowadays is just “an excuse to talk about”.

It all began with James Lovelock’s Gaia hypotheses that struck her. When she guest- edited Dazed & Confused four years ago, she immediately thought about an interview with the earnest environmentalist, and the interview finally came after a year. “If young people don’t listen to him, they’re either stupid or they just don’t care.” Westwood said of Lovelock.

According to Lovelock, the situation is just not good: “…In the last few years, ice that is in the north polar regions… it’s all going and the whole lot will be gone in between five and twenty years. When it dies, the amount of extra heat absorbed from the sun during the Arctic summer will be equivalent to all of the heat from all of the CO2 we’ve added to the atmosphere. So, suddenly the heating doubles and that’s something we can’t stop at all. We can’t do a thing about it…”

Stimulated, environmental ethics penetrate the fashion house. World’s End uses leftover fabrics. Some labels celebrate DIY. Warnings are outspoken in her various collections. The Autumn/Winter 2009 collection was christened ‘+5?’, the five degrees the earth’s temperature is set to rise as carbon dioxide levels soar. The next year for the Autumn/ Winter Collection of Gold Label called ‘Prince Charming’, she said: “The context of everything I do at the moment is to do with climate change… I wish to do something about it.” SS11 Collection ”The Only One” made a bold statement: “Our Earth, Gaia, is the only one.”The Spring/Summer 2012 collection entitled‘War-Peace’, which is inspired by China, the desert, consisted of corset dresses, Maoist caps and jackets and colourful silks mixed with white muslin robes, rough and holey knits and ill-fitting t-shirts printed with maps of the globe, hinting at what traditional dress would be if climate change makes the world insufferable.

Yet Westwood of course would not just sit back with arms crossed to admire her own shows without substantial work. “What we’re talking about regarding climate change refugees is total chaos, where natural disasters are more intense and more often. The world is giving us this warning of more horror to come.” This provoked her to write the 14- page manifesto ‘Active Resistance to Propaganda’. With characters as diverse as Aristotle, Pinocchio and a pirate, the manifesto discussed ideas of excessive consumption, and donated a reported £1m to the charity Cool Earth dedicated to protecting endangered rainforests. “I try to use my voice to tell people of the danger of climate change, we are an endangered species. Within one generation, Los Angeles will be uninhabitable if people don’t do something about it.” Westwood said in a Fox interview. “The world is going to get smaller and be uninhabitable and impossible to live in. The most important thing is for people to inform themselves, because when you inform yourself your behavior changes. All we’ve got is public opinion to help to do something about this. I just try to wear lots of slogans and open my mouth whenever I can.”

The manifesto published on the website called for participants to ‘assert the connection between the climate crisis and the economic crisis’, help save the Artic and the rainforest because “without which we cannot stop climate change”, and support clean energy and curbing corporations. Values, of which culture is made, are more important elements Westwood promotes. Most notable is ‘Buy less, choose well and make it last’. She once
said it would be “really great if the Queen could wear the same outfit every time she did a public occasion – it would make the point that you don’t always have to change your dress to be important in this world”.

Like what Oscar Wilde said, “I never waste money, I spend it”, Westwood believes that consumers, big wheels to facilitate changes in market and the consumption of natural resources at large, should be discriminative and pursue the best. “Don’t just eat McDonald’s, get something a bit better. Eat a salad. That’s what fashion is. It’s something that is a bit better.”

WE are thankful there is one Vivienne Westwood – to tell us fashion is not just about beauty; it is about life. That simple habit changes such as cooking your own food, cutting out plastic and getting off the consumer treadmill rather than leeching are slight but significant. After all if there is not a world for humanity in which we can survive, hanging fancy clothes upon our shoulders means nothing at all. Like the Dame said: In the pursuit of culture you will start to think If you change your life, you change the world.

Issue 38 Liberty

climate changeclimate revolutionethical fashionKatharine HamnettlibertyMalcolm McLarenSex Pistolsvivienne westwood

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