Vivienne Westwood: How I Created 'World Wide Woman'

We let the designer herself talk us through the inspiration behind her Autumn Winter 2011 collection

Fashion Feature
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Creating World Wide Woman

After having seen Dame Westwood's stellar Autumn Winter 2011 collection, we asked her for this break down of the inspiration behind it:

I was so carried away by my last Gold Label show that I have decided to describe in some detail how a collection is formed.

I don't want to use this website to promote my fashion. It is supposed to be about ideas and how we can save the world and also have a better life - Get a Life! But I think it's a good idea to include my ideas about fashion every now and again. So, to begin...

Sometimes I do know the idea for a collection but this time I started really late with no idea except for a fragment of precious ribbon I had seen pictured in an old sales catalogue I discovered among my books. I wanted to get a copy woven, a ribbon I could cut up into same size pieces and sew on to t-shirts instead of graphics. I thought I'd love to wear a bit of old fabric instead of a slogan for a change. The original was mediaeval and the design had such a feeling of that time, formalized eagles in silk and gold threads circumscribed within an undulating chain motif.

All our production is in Italy (all prototypes, however, are done in our Battersea studio). I asked them to find a ribbon factory. Now I had to choose fabrics which he and others had pre-selected from the fabric fair. The less fabric the better, I think, too many and the possible permutations become endless as the ideas gather. And I like to 'cook' with basic ingredients. I kept to basic fabrics; some I let in the natural colour of the fiber and as it comes from the loom. I love our toiles, our prototypes which we make in the natural calico before we decide the final fabric; it's as if the garment epitomizes the first idea of itself. For other plain fabrics I stuck to black, grey, indigo, brown, flesh, cream, white. Set against the fabrics we took gold, a lame looking like metal - gold sequins.

Then I chose three yarns for knitwear which we had used for 'Man' - ordering more quantity keeps the price down and because the men's collection is in progress I have the advantage of already having worked with these yarns. We always choose fabric and yarn before the concept of the collection materializes - but this choosing helps the decisions.

I introduced colour by printing. Until recently printing was done only on screens or rollers but now we also have digital printing. The cost of full colour is less because it is all done in one go. There is no setting-up cost so you might as well have every print different. That's what I did and found every print in my small booklet of fabrics from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I took a very conservative man's tailoring fabric (I love conservative fabrics - they have so many ideas to play with), a fresco in grey chalk stripe, and made a suit comprising a jacket from two years back and a favourite skirt - the 'alien' skirt - World's End customers will know this skirt. We didn't sell the jacket at the time because it has a lot of volume around the shoulder (Masculine? But cross dressing is as old as the hills.) and over the breast - but I adore it because it makes a woman look important and there is nothing more sexy than that. I shall wear this suit. Next autumn it should go into our archive but it will come home with me instead. One thing I knew about the collection - I wanted the woman to look important.

Plain fabrics show off the cut of clothes. I like to mix garments from different times and places: historical, ethnic, 20th century couture - I copied a coat from Balenciaga and a dress from Chanel. I sometimes copy from myself, re-doing clothes from way back in my archive. I like new things as well as things repeated and developed from last season. Most of all, I like 'do it yourself', as if the wearer has spontaneously put her own creation together in an afternoon.

Andreas was very keen on this finest wool yarn, especially in a butter colour; perfect would be a classic cardigan, undone at the throat, fitting close over the body. This we did except my clothes cannot be straightforwardly classic. My customers want that dynamic power of drape in the cut.

One of the first things I usually do is to try out new cutting principles on a miniature dummy. Our friend Iris, once our full time pattern cutter who now manages to come 2 or 3 times a season, arrives to work on new cuts and ideas that Andreas and I have each thought of separately. Last year, she brought her own idea - a dress made out of a cushion cover. She and Andreas worked on this idea lots. We have fittings which involve toiles begun by our regular pattern cutters (it can take weeks for one dress) and with Iris' help we get to a point, even sometimes as far as working out which fabric we will use and the sewing method. (A design is a result of hundreds of decisions through trial and error.) Even Iris who, until now has always triumphed, tells me that she is never sure she's going to make it. For me, she is so clever she walk on air, she has a unique talent that is properly trained. It is wonderful to be able to trust someone completely.

It's now time to find out why there is still no sign of the brocade eagles ribbon. The original hand-woven sample - using real gold thread - measured 10 inches and there are no ribbon machines wide enough. It is interesting to note that antiques cost more in their day than they would do now. I could happen ha someone could take a lifetime to make a cupboard with moulding, lacquer and inlay - or months to weave a yard of Venetian velvet which then cost the price of two cows.

The answer to my eagle brocade would be to use a full size loom with several repeats across the whole width - then cut them through into ribbons. However, I don't need all these repeats. So I take advantage of this fact by including an image of Dionysus in the weaving programme, keeping the gold thread on the surface of the fabric.

Meanwhile, Andreas, whose heroine as a woman and as a fashion icon is Marlene Deitricht, has produced dresses inspired by her. Brigitte, our head of couture, arranged the embroidery on versions of Marlene's nude effect gowns. Andreas worked with tulle with Marlene in mind.

Hats are important. They bring gravitas to a show. We suggested helmets which always look heroic. Prudence, our milliner, chose the American GI helmet as absolutely generic. When we were deciding how to decorate them she produced a square of gold leaf which she could press into the felt and so cover entirely in gold. I asked her how much this 5” square would cost: £5 - incredible that you can beat gold so thin.

Andreas had also designed gloves and jewellery and when the sample shoes arrived they were not nicely made. Therefore, he got them done in the gold sequin fabric and asked for a gold catwalk. Nobody will see them because of the reflection. When they arrived they were nicely made anyway and coincidentally Andreas' friend Tony, who does the look and lighting of the show, had prepared ideas for a gold catwalk.

The people we work with are crucial, though there are things only I can do or Andreas can do. Bu my assistant, Luca, must not forget a thing and keep things moving.

Our fitting model was Jenny - because she has a perfect body proportion the collection, when it is produced, will miraculously fit everyone else. The last thing I did before leaving for Paris - Andreas was already there working on casting and logistics - was to have Jenny stand quietly while I pinned and cut a spontaneous dress in Dionysus fabric. It took only a couple of hours because essentially, by using a live model instead of working on the mannequin, I could see how the whole thing fitted and worked in motion.

I called the collection World Wide Woman. A collection is more than the sum of its parts and this one entered a realm I had not envisaged. The final alchemy came from Andreas' suggestion to Val (make-up) and Jimmy (hair): Make the girls look like horses.

The effect was Out of this World!

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