LONDON (Reuters) — As the dresser for the Sex Pistols, Vivienne Westwood, who died Thursday at the age of 81, was synonymous with 1970s punk rock, a rebelliousness that remained the hallmark of an unapologetic political designer who he became one of the biggest names in British fashion.
“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.
Climate change, pollution and his support for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange were all material for the protest T-shirts or banners his models carried on the catwalk.
She dressed as then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for a magazine cover in 1989 and drove a white tank near the country house of future British leader David Cameron to protest fracking.
The rebel was inducted into the British establishment in 1992 by Queen Elizabeth, who awarded her the Order of the British Empire medal. But always eager to surprise, Westwood appeared at Buckingham Palace without any underwear, a fact she demonstrated to photographers with a revealing twist of her skirt.
“The only reason I’m in fashion is to destroy the word ‘conformity,'” Westwood said in her 2014 biography. “Nothing is interesting to me unless it has that element in it.”
Instantly recognizable with his orange or white hair, Westwood first made a name for himself in punk fashion in 1970s London, dressing the genre-defining punk rock band.
Together with the Sex Pistols’ manager, Malcolm McLaren, he defied the hippie trends of the time to sell rock’n’roll-inspired clothing.
They went on to wear torn outfits adorned with chains, as well as latex and fetish pieces which they sold from their shop on London’s King’s Road, called “Let It Rock”, “Sex” and “Seditionaries”, among other names.
They used swastika prints, bare breasts and, perhaps best known, an image of the queen with a safety pin on her lips. Favorite items included black tank tops, studded, zippered, safety pins, or bleached chicken bones.
“There was no punk before Malcolm and me,” Westwood said in the biography. “And another thing you should also know about punk: it was a total blast.”
Born Vivienne Isabel Swire on April 8, 1941 in the English Midlands town of Glossop, Westwood grew up in a time of rationing during and after World War II.
A recycling mindset permeated her work, repeatedly telling fashionistas to “choose well” and “buy less.” From the late 1960s, she lived in a small apartment in South London for around 30 years and cycled to work.
As a teenager, her parents, a greengrocer and cotton weaver, moved the family to north London, where she studied jewelery and goldsmithing before retraining as a teacher.
While teaching elementary school, she met her first husband, Derek Westwood, and married him in a homemade dress. Her son Ben was born in 1963 and the couple divorced in 1966.
Now a single mother, Westwood was selling jewelery on London’s Portobello Road when she met art student McLaren, who would become her romantic and professional partner. They had a son, Joe Corre, co-founder of the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.
After the Sex Pistols split, the two staged their first show in 1981, presenting a “new romantic look” of African-style prints, buccaneer pants, and sashes.
Westwood, by then in his forties, slowly began to carve out his own path in fashion, eventually parting ways with McLaren in the early 1980s.
Often looking back to history, her influential designs have included corsets, Harris Tweed suits, and taffeta gowns.
Her 1985 “Mini-Crini” line featured her short, puffy skirt and a more fitted silhouette. Her towering platform shoes garnered worldwide attention in 1993 when model Naomi Campbell stumbled down the runway in a pair.
“My clothes have a story. They have an identity. They have character and purpose,” Westwood said.
“That’s why they become classics. Because they’re still telling a story. They’re still telling it.”
The Westwood brand flourished in the 1990s, with fashionistas flocking to his shows in Paris and stores opening around the world selling his lines, accessories and perfumes.
She met her second husband, Andreas Kronthaler, while teaching fashion in Vienna. They married in 1993 and he later became her creative partner.
Westwood used her public profile to advocate for issues like nuclear disarmament and to protest anti-terrorism laws and public spending policies that hurt the poor. She held up a large “climate revolution” banner at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympics in London and often turned her models into runway eco warriors.
“I’ve always had a political agenda,” Westwood told fashion magazine L’Officiel in 2018.
“I’ve used fashion to challenge the status quo.”