‘It was always fucking chaos’ — as the face of Vivienne Westwood in its hellraising heyday, Sara Stockbridge reflects on London’s ever-evolving fashion scene
The image of Sara Stockbridge’s smudged crimson lips that’s emblazoned on t-shirts and shop walls at Vivienne Westwood is one of those things that actually warrants the term iconic. Blood-red and inviting, they came to life for Westwood’s Mini-Crini SS85 Vivienne – Stockbridge’s debut show, at the age of 20 – and became something of a beauty trademark for her. “The smudgy lipstick was some slightly dodgy idea that someone had been kissing you while you were sleeping,” she says.
The lips even made it into the lyrics of a song by Choice, the pop project she fronted for Westwood. “‘I woke up and I knew someone had been kissing me.’ Which through today’s lens is a bit…” She makes a funny face and chuckles. “But Vivienne wouldn’t give a fuck about that. ‘Ooh, whatcha mean? No, don’t be stupid!’” she says, nailing Westwood’s Derbyshire tones with the kind of impression you do when you’re really fond of someone. Oddly enough, she can’t remember the first time they met. “I know that sounds bonkers but I was probably just…” She does a deer in the headlights. “I don’t remember lots of things from that period because (a) I’m quite old now and (b) I used to smoke quite a lot of weed.”
We’ve met in Brixton Market, just round the corner from where Stockbridge lives with her husband, Cobalt Stargazer. Together, they played live for Red Label SS13 with their band, Rooster. “I’d love to walk in (a Westwood show) now but I’m too fat for them!” (Reader, she’s not.) After hanging up her catwalk crown, she pursued a career in acting before turning her hand to writing. Today, she operates Secret Studio London, an immersive retro-themed mystery escape game based in the capital.
It was from 1985 until 1991 that Sara Stockbridge was the face of Vivienne Westwood. To many, she still is. With her pin curls, cheekiness and nipple-grazing corsets, she embodied the irreverence that Westwood’s collections centred on. Together, they were a refreshing antidote to 80s power-tripping, disrupting steely cold suits with romance, decadence and subversion of tradition. Shows were a flurry of theatricals, with the team sewing crowns together backstage as the models went out. “That’s how kind of homemade and innocent it all was.” There was a sweetness to Stockbridge’s naughty knicker-flashing runway hijinks, and if you ask her about the time she ran out naked at a finale she’ll just go, “Well, they said come out in your last outfit and I’d already taken mine off.” It was a properly magical time, and that aura of magic and charm also surrounds Stockbridge, as she drinks her coffee and talks about the ghosts that live in her Victorian house. (Her husband and daughter have seen them, but one has yet to manifest in front of her.) Stockbridge still sees the OG Westwood family: Murray Blewett, (“a pillar of the Westwood brand”), Andreas Kronthaler, Susie Bick (now Cave), Yasmine Eslami, Tizer Bailey. And Queen Vivienne, of course. “I am in awe of her and I do worship her, but she’s a real human being to me. The brilliant thing about her is she just goes, ‘Right, the thing I’ve got to do is stop plastic.’ Or, ‘I’ve got to save the rainforest.’ You know, she just sets out to do it. It’s on her fucking to-do list! Save the rainforest. And that’s incredible.”
How did you feel at that very first show?
Sara Stockbridge: I was very excited about it because I’d been a pseudo-punk. I was 12 in 1977 and I lived in Woking – my mum wouldn’t let me go down to London because I might get blown up by the IRA. So it was a bit like, ‘Oh my God, is she actually a real person? Am I actually going to be in her show?’
Would Vivienne give you any walking pointers before the shows?
Sara Stockbridge: Yeah, she’d go, ‘Now, what this is, you’re in a grove and you’re a nymph and you’ve just woken up.’ Sorry, I must annoy her terribly doing her accent! She’d set a little scene with all these satyrs coming out of the woods – it would have been something she’d read out of Greek mythology. She had a thing for grottos at one point. I remember the shows coming up and it was like, ‘Oh, let’s be outrageous.’ When I think about it, I think, uh… I don’t like to look back, to be honest with you. I like to look forward. When I look back I feel… sad, a lot of the time.
Sara Stockbridge: I’m that sort of person. Bad kind of nostalgia. It’s got a bittersweet thing for me. I just prefer to look forwards. I’m very happy that I did all of that, obviously. But if I see old footage of the shows I just think, ‘Oh, what a twat I look.’ When I see old photos of me I just see this person who didn’t like having her picture taken. I see someone covering up for something. I thought I liked being the centre of attention, (but) now I don’t know that I do. But I’m happy I was part of something so brilliant. I mean, of all the designers to be involved with!
If you haven’t done stuff like that when you were young, you’ve probably done something wrong! Anyway, none of it was captured on Instagram.
Sara Stockbridge: I think that’s a good thing. If you’ve just got a few photos they (become) more special, somehow. Today, everything is documented, and I think everyone’s got a savvy little eye on all that now, which kind of makes things a little less innocent.
I think the word ‘innocence’ is so important. When I look at pictures of you from that time there’s an innocence to it all. Today, most things seem so calculated and staged.
Sara Stockbridge: Now, things are events. They aren’t just things that happened. But then I also think, nah, there was someone really savvy planning a lot of all that punk stuff, wasn’t there? Who knew exactly what they were doing.
“The brilliant thing about (Vivienne) is she just goes, ‘I’ve got to save the rainforest.’ She just sets out to do it. It’s on her fucking to-do list! Save the rainforest” — Sara Stockbridge
Did you realise what a monumental thing you guys were doing at the time? And that you were part of a different way to use the fashion platform?
Sara Stockbridge: Yeah – that it had some kind of subtext to it and meaning behind it, I definitely felt that. There would always be a story about something she’d read, something she’d told us about. Something with a proper background in culture. That felt special. I remember getting laughed at a lot in the clothes I wore and I remember thinking, ‘Who are you, you’re an idiot if you think I look stupid.’ I know we all felt confident in that the clothes were good. I actually used to wear the Vivienne outfits every day, which is quite high-maintenance. Really proper outfits.
What did the clothes mean to you?
Sara Stockbridge: I just thought how great I looked. Because I really did look good in them. I had the best outfits on all the time. I don’t think I thought anything that deep. I just thought I looked great.
How did you feel about the term ‘muse’?
Sara Stockbridge: People did say that but I think to be honest I wasn’t really sure what that meant. And if you say that to Vivienne she seems a bit ‘mm’ about it. It wasn’t that she wanted a muse, she wanted someone to front this pop project (Choice) that she was doing and so she chose me to do that and that was great.
Who wrote the music?
Sara Stockbridge: It was all these funny little songs that Vivienne had written the words to and the tunes were kind of folk tunes, like skipping tunes. She had the idea to have this wall of kettledrum sounds. Quite forward-thinking ideas. It would have been huge now, I think. We went to Tokyo, we did gigs in all these special places and it was a good laugh.
Do you remember any of the lyrics?
Sara Stockbridge: There was one about Venus. You know the painting by Titian? ‘Little dog sleeps at my feet/little finger wears a ring/how I love my perfect form, my vision was formed when 218 219 I was born, star of love, venerate, I am Venus, star of love.’ That was the first verse and chorus. I always remember that, I don’t know how! There was this mesh screen in front of me (on stage) and when you lit it from the front you couldn’t see through it, and they projected the Titian Venus on it. Then when they put the lights down and up at the back you could suddenly see through the mesh. I was behind it in the same shape so the painting became real. It’s a genius idea. I was naked through all of this so then I had to get up, start singing and dress at the same time, so that was a bit tricky. I think the first time we did it was at the Fridge (in Brixton). So they started rolling this screen up and I was supposed to come out. And some girl who was in a mini-crini was going to come out and dance for the next song, but she got her skirt caught in the screen as it went up. The screen went up and then it went down again, and then we tried to get her out and it stopped. It was always fucking chaos.
It sounds a bit Spinal Tap!
Sara Stockbridge: It was! Really Spinal Tap. Hilarious. It wasn’t professionally done. But it was a laugh. Some of those ideas were brilliant, and they were good songs. I’d love to see that properly done. You know, done with money. I did say to her, ‘You should find another person to be Choice.’
How do you feel now when you get in front of the camera?
Sara Stockbridge: I want to like it, because I want to like myself. Gosh, that’s a bit deep. My daughter is brilliant at having her photograph taken. (Whereas) I always feel like I have to do something, you know? And I want to just be OK with being how I am. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be in front of a camera. But I really thought I was when I was little. I wanted to be this big, famous thing. Wanting to be famous is a very human thing. It’s just wanting to be special. But then when you grow out of it it’s like, ‘Hmm, what was that about?’ I do remember times when everyone was looking at me, feeling fucking great. ’Cos it’s sort of validating you in some crazy way. But then you realise later that all the things that really matter aren’t anything to do with that necessarily. But it’s fun for people to think you’re great. Everybody loves a bit of that.
And to be the face of an era is pretty incredible.
Sara Stockbridge: That’s a nice way to put it, but I don’t feel like I am. I felt like I cut my modelling career short. I put other things before that. Sometimes I regretted that I didn’t really ride it out until its conclusion. But then sometimes I think that’s quite a good thing. When I stopped modelling for Vivienne it was because I wanted to become an actor, but I think if I had carried on modelling for Vivienne – she was getting all the supers by then and I would have just gone down the food chain! It would have been like, ‘Daywear for Sara in the next show.’ There would have come a point where (I wasn’t) the girl in the wedding dress at the end of the show any more. But I was really pleased for her when all the big girls started doing her show. There is one show I would have liked to be in, and that was Vive la Cocotte (AW95). I wish I’d been in that. I get a little pang in my heart when I see pictures of that show.
I love the SS88 Pagan 1 image of you straddling the saddle in the rocking-horse boots.
Sara Stockbridge: That was my idea. I was supposed to stand next to it, so I made an invisible horse. It’s good, isn’t it? (smiles) If I say so myself, I’m pleased with that. That’s a great photo. I was really chuffed when I went to the retrospective at the V&A (in 2004). Now (Vivienne and I) see each other pretty regularly and we go for a curry in Clapham, but at the time we hadn’t seen each other in six or seven years. And I was all over this exhibition. It felt like I was really a part of (the Westwood brand). I mean, how amazing to get picked by someone so fucking clever to be part of that thing. Definitely one of the things that really made me, that.
But you also really made the clothes.
Sara Stockbridge: Sometimes I wish I’d calmed it down. You know, no, actually – I don’t wish any different. It is what it is.
Hair Alex Brownsell at Streeters using Kérastase, make-up Lucy Bridge at Streeters using CHANEL Éclat Et Transparence and CHANEL D-Pollution Essentiel, styling assistant Rhiarn Schuck, hair assistant Erik Pascarelli, make-up assistant Kyle Woodmass