Vivienne Westwood: Designer, Visionary and Activist

WRITTEN BY Ella Sloane

January 9, 2023

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Vivienne Westwood: Designer, Visionary and Activist

by | Jan 9, 2023 | Fashion & Lifestyle

Ella Sloane

9 Jan, 2023

In the wake of Vivienne Westwood’s passing, it seems the world has taken time to reflect. Not only on her life and legacy as a designer and visionary, but also as a dedicated climate activist whose unwavering commitment to anti-establishment agitation and to the promotion of ethical fashion remained integral to her life’s work, throughout her career.

Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (soon-to-be manager of British punk rock band the Sex Pistols) opened a boutique together on London’s Kings Road, 1971. It was here, under umpteen titles from Let it Rock to Sex and Seditionaries, that Westwood established herself as the pioneer of punk fashion we remember her as.

Through dressing McLaren’s up-and-coming band, Westwood introduced ‘punk’ to the fashion world. Biker clothing, zips, leather and t-shirts displaying inflammatory slogans and hard-core imagery featured heavily in the designer’s repertoire at the time – pieces that now seem commonplace in the most basic high street retailer were informed by Westwood’s influence. In 1981, the pair debuted their designs on their first official catwalk, showing their ‘Pirate’ collection. The creator’s more recognisable, signature styles like tartan prints, corsets and the iconic “drape dress” emerged later in the late 1980s. Informing and modernising British fashion through her unique and innovative take on tradition, almost became a commonality.

Westwood designed the brand’s instantly recognisable logo in the mid 1980’s, blending two key elements — the sovereign’s orb and a satellite ring — to create a symbol which evokes both elements of tradition and futurism. The iconic logo featured in all of her future collections, following a recent resurgence in the brand’s popularity it’s only become more pervasive – most notably amongst logomania-obsessed Gen Z. Westwood’s infamous orb pendant is arguably as recognisable as Gucci’s interlocking G’s and Versace’s Medusa.

The creative’s activism, much like her statement designs, successfully turned heads and raised eyebrows. She was unafraid to be critical of corruption in her industry and far beyond, using her brand as a platform to expose and condemn climate injustice both on and off the runway. During London Fashion Week in 2016, Westwood’s models carried placards declaring ‘austerity’ and ‘fracking’ as crimes, strutting up and down the designer’s Red Label catwalk-turned-protest. The Westwood brand does not simply preach sustainability, but puts their words into practice; from actively lowering their emissions and using fabrics made from “lower impact materials”, to their packaging practices and labour policies. Vivienne Westwood ensured her brand’s ethos echoed her outspoken devotion to creating a more sustainable future for fashion.

Environmental issues were a huge focus for the British designer. She financially supported, verbally supported and often led many political campaigns in an effort to draw awareness to and stop the detrimental effects of climate change. One of the main charities Westwood supported since its founding in 2007 is UK-based NGO Cool Earth, joining forces with them from the onset to prevent rainforest destruction. Together with husband and creative partner Andreas Kronthaler, Westwood personally donated over £1.5 million to fund the organisation’s work in the Peruvian Amazon. Later, she even spent time living with a local tribe in 2013 and lobbying the Peruvian government on their Forestry Programme.

In true Vivienne Westwood fashion (pardon the pun), the designer launched Climate Revolution at the London Paralympics closing ceremony in 2012; a blog Westwood used actively to document her philosophies, campaigns and climate change resistance art up until her passing. The Climate Revolution website features a manifesto written by Westwood called Active Resistance to Propaganda alongside an eye-catching set of playing cards she designed which “depict a culture-led economic strategy to save the world”.

As a Greenpeace ambassador, Westwood designed their official “Save the Arctic” logo and launched their powerful conservation campaign that resulted in halting industrial fishing and drilling in the region. Westwood’s exhibition in 2013, positioned along escalators leading up to oil giant Shell’s London HQ, drew mass public attention. Once again, Westwood used her influence positively to lobby for change, getting many celebrities on board with the campaign to put pressure on the company who had started drilling in the Arctic.

In 2017, Vivienne Westwood teamed up with the British Fashion Council and the Mayor of London to promote the Fashion SWITCH to Green campaign. This hugely successful campaign encouraged fellow members of the fashion community to join Westwood in switching to a renewable energy supplier or to a renewable energy tariff. It spurred on twenty major UK brands including Selfridges, Stella McCartney and Harvey Nichols to make the change.

These campaigns are just a fragment of the activism Westwood engaged in. There is no denying that Vivienne Westwood left her mark on the world; her designs have shaped fashion for decades and will undoubtedly continue to for many more. But, most importantly, Westwood used her influence within the industry to change it, and the planet, for the better.

In a world plagued by overconsumption where fast-fashion retailers dominate and fashion trend cycles are accelerating at a concerning rate, we could all benefit from adopting Westwood’s mantra “Buy Less, Choose Well, Make it Last”.

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