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Fashion trailblazer Vivienne Westwood dead, at 81

Dame Vivienne Westwood has died at the age of 81.

The pioneering fashion designer made a name for herself on the fashion scene in the 1970s, with her androgynous designs, slogan T-shirts and irreverent attitude towards the establishment.

Dame Vivienne died on Thursday, her representatives have confirmed.

“Vivienne Westwood died today, peacefully and surrounded by her family, in Clapham, South London. The world needs people like Vivienne to make a change for the better,” her fashion house said on Twitter on Thursday (British time).

In a statement, her husband and creative partner Andreas Kronthaler said: “I will continue with Vivienne in my heart.

“We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with. Thank you darling.”

Dame Vivienne, who was born in Cheshire in 1941, is largely accepted as being responsible for bringing punk and new wave fashion into the mainstream with her eccentric creations.

Her designs were regularly worn by high-profile individuals including Dita Von Teese, who wore a purple Westwood wedding gown to marry Marilyn Manson, and Princess Eugenie, who wore three Westwood designs for various elements of the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Dame Vivienne’s designs also featured in the 2008 film adaptation of Sex And The City, starring Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw.

In addition to her work as a designer, Dame Vivienne was vocal in her support of social and political initiatives, including campaigning for the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is fighting to avoid being sent to the US to face charges under the Espionage Act.

In July 2020, Dame Vivienne sounded a warning over an Assange “stitch-up” while dressed in canary yellow in a giant bird cage.

Dame Vivienne led a colourful band of protesters chanting “Free Julian Assange” outside the Old Bailey in central London.

Suspended inside the cage, she said: “Don’t extradite Assange – it’s a stitch-up.”

In 1989, Dame Vivienne dressed up as then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher for a magazine cover, and drove a white tank near the country home of a later British leader, David Cameron, to protest against fracking.

She was inducted into Britain’s establishment in 1992 by Queen Elizabeth, who awarded her the Order of the British Empire medal. Ever keen to shock, Dame Vivienne turned up at Buckingham Palace without underwear – a fact she proved to photographers by a revealing twirl of her skirt.

“The only reason I am in fashion is to destroy the word ‘conformity’,” she wrote said in her 2014 biography.

“Nothing is interesting to me unless it’s got that element.”

Instantly recognisable with her orange or white hair, Dame Vivienne made her name in punk fashion in 1970s London, dressing the punk rock band that defined the genre.

Together with the Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, she defied the hippie trends of the time to sell rock’n’roll-inspired clothing.

They moved on to torn outfits adorned with chains as well as latex and fetish pieces that they sold at their shop in London’s King’s Road variously called “Let It Rock”, “Sex” and “Seditionaries”, among other names.

They used prints of swastikas, naked breasts and, perhaps most well-known, an image of the Queen with a safety pin through her lips. Favourite items included sleeveless black T-shirts, studded, with zips, safety pins or bleached chicken bones.

“There was no punk before me and Malcolm,” Dame Vivienne said in the biography. “And the other thing you should know about punk too: It was a total blast.”

Born Vivienne Isabel Swire on April 8, 1941 in the English Midlands town of Glossop, she grew up at a time of rationing during and after World War II.

A recycling mentality pervaded her work, and she repeatedly told fashionistas to “choose well” and “buy less”. For 20 years from the late 1960s, Dame Vivienne lived in a small flat in south London and cycled to work.

When she was a teenager, her parents, a greengrocer and a cotton weaver, moved the family to north London where she studied jewellery-making and silversmithing before re-training as a teacher.

While she taught at a primary school, she met her first husband, Derek Westwood, marrying him in a homemade dress. Their son Ben was born in 1963, and the couple divorced in 1966.

Dame Vivienne was selling jewellery on London’s Portobello Road when she met art student McLaren, who would go on to be her partner romantically and professionally. They had a son, Joe Corre, co-founder of lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.

After the Sex Pistols split, the two held their first catwalk show in 1981, presenting a “new romantic” look of African-style patterns, buccaneer trousers and sashes.

Dame Vivienne, by then in her 40s, began to slowly forge her own path in fashion, eventually separating from McLaren in the early 1980s.

Often looking to history, her influential designs have included corsets, Harris Tweed suits and taffeta ballgowns.

Her 1985 “Mini-Crini” line introduced her short puffed skirt and a more fitted silhouette. Her sky-high platform shoes garnered worldwide attention in 1993 when model Naomi Campbell stumbled on the catwalk in a pair.

“My clothes have a story. They have an identity. They have character and a purpose,” she said.

“That’s why they become classics. Because they keep on telling a story. They are still telling it.”

The Westwood brand flourished in the 1990s, with fashionistas flocking to her runway shows in Paris, and stores opening around the world selling her lines, accessories and perfumes.

She met her second husband, Andreas Kronthaler, teaching fashion in Vienna. They married in 1993 and he later became her creative partner.

Dame Vivienne also used her public profile to champion issues such as nuclear disarmament and to protest against anti-terrorism laws and government spending policies that hit the poor.

She held a large “climate revolution” banner at the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony in London, and frequently turned her models into catwalk eco-warriors.

“I’ve always had a political agenda,” she told L’Officiel fashion magazine in 2018.

“I’ve used fashion to challenge the status quo.”

-with AAP

Topics: Fashion
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