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Vivienne Westwood
Dazed summer 2018 "Youth is Revolting" issue

Vivienne Westwood has died

The legendary British designer passed away today, at home, with her family by her side

In news that comes as a sucker punch to the fashion industry and beyond, Dame Vivienne Westwood has died at the age of 81. The announcement was broadcasted across the Vivienne Westwood social media channels this evening with a final quote from the designer. “Tao spiritual system. There was never more need for the Tao today,” it read. “Tao gives you a feeling that you belong to the cosmos and gives purpose to your life; it gives you such a sense of identity and strength to know you’re living the life you can live and therefore out to be living: make full use of your character and full use of your life on earth.” She passed away peacefully in Clapham, surrounded by her family, on December 29. 

Born on April 8, 1941 in Cheshire, Westwood’s first experimentation with design came when she undertook a jewellery and silversmith course at the University of Westminster in 1958. She left after one term, unsure of how “a working class girl like [her] could possibly make it in the art world” and began working in a primary school while selling jewellery on Portobello road. It’s an easy image to conjure – the 20-something Dame jangling through hallways in tartan bustiers and clunking platforms, her backcombed, fiery mane bobbing along to her soapbox politics and impassioned tirades between hymns at Friday assemblies. Her inexplicable, but surely undoubted, beef with the PE department. She continued teaching until 1971, by which time she had married Sex Pistols manager Malcom McLaren and opened the iconic SEX boutique on the Kings Road, outfitting a generation of punk renegades in slashed and safety-pinned hand-scribbled clothing. 

The couple debuted their first collection Pirate to the press in 1981 and continued to show under their joint Worlds End label up until 1985. When her work with McLaren came to an end, however, she continued to forge her own path. Her rebel aesthetic, synonymous with its use of 18th century cutting techniques, BDSM accents, and sexed-up tartan forged a whole new vernacular within the industry. From Harris Tweed, to Erotic Zones, to Anglomania, Westwood’s consistent and searing twists on tradition (think the mini-crini, boucher corsets, and cut-and-paste Marie Antoinette gowns) became touchstones of London’s anti-establishment philosophy. “I’ve constantly tried to provoke people into thinking afresh and for themselves, to escape their inhibitions and programming,” she explained in the show notes to the V&A’s 2004 exhibition, Vivienne Westwood: 30 Years in Fashion. Indeed, Westwood rarely played it by the book: be it flashing photographers at her damehood, swinging from a birdcage outside the Old Bailey, or breakdancing to ABBA at an anti-fracking protest

In 2018, Westwood was part of a landmark Dazed project, covering our summer 2018 “Youth is Revolting” issue alongside a rising generation of young activists and changemakers – among them fashion designer Matty Bovan, musician Greentea Peng, and more. “I think all activists are motivated by the same thing,” she told us in the accompanying interview. “It’s just who you are. The human race, they really do care about other people suffering, don’t they?” This is phrased as a question but feels, as with most of what the designer utters, like an imperative. “We help each other. Different people obviously feel responsible to different degrees. But I have always felt that, if nobody else is doing it, I’ve got to do it.” After tapping longtime collaborator and friend Courtney Love to star in her AW22 campaign earlier this year, Westwood spoke of a studio move to Battersea – not far from the new Royal College of Art campus – and the ways in which she was inspired by the kids that congregate on the streets close by.

Throughout the pandemic and beyond, the designer frequently took to Instagram in full Elizabethan-punk attire to deliver heartfelt sermons on anti-capitalism and climate change. While the designer’s attention shifted even further in the direction of activism, with her partner Andreas Kronthaler at the helm of her eponymous brand, Westwood is, and always will be, fashion royalty. Now with over 50 years in fashion under her belt, Westwood continues to poke and prod at our conditioning, inspiring a new generation of fashion fans with her endlessly subversive approach to crafting not just clothes, but to building a global community of out-of-the-box-thinking avant-gardists intent on change. Her most recent shows have been a theatrical testament to this, with Westwood and Kronthaler gathering up their extended communities to take the stage in a series of all-singing, all-dancing productions between London and Paris.

At her AW19 show in London, the designer invited fellow activist Rose McGowan, Greenpeace director John Sauven, and a motley crew of models and actors to deliver rousing messages against climate change on the catwalk, before herself skipping round the stage clutching a bunch of daisies and singing enthusiastically (if slightly off-key). The designer’s post-COVID comeback show, in September 2021, was an exuberant, exhilarating return to form, while her AW22 outing, which took over an opulent art deco theatre in Pigalle – and unknowingly became the last time she would appear post-show – was an emotional highlight of the season. Most recently, at Kronthaler’s SS23 presentation in Paris, Westwood was absent when it came to the finale. Her husband presented the bouquet of flowers usually reserved for her instead to house muse Bella Hadid, with concerns raised among attendees.

With Kronthaler continuing his wife’s legacy in terms of fashon, a statement released by the house revealed that, even after her passing, Westwood’s commitment to activism will continue, with not-for-profit organisation The Vivienne Foundation – established by the designer, her sons, and her granddaughter, set to officially launch in 2023. The foundation will “raise awareness and create tangible change” across four pillars: the fight against both climate change and capitalism, the defence of human rights, and an end to war. “I will continue with Vivienne in my heart,” said Kronthaler in the statement. “We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with. Thank you darling.” 

Westwood’s passing feels particularly devastating given just how deeply entrenched both her work and her inimitable personality are not just in fashion, but at the very beating heart of British culture. Our thoughts are with her family, her friends, and anyone she may have inspired in her 81 years on earth at this deeply sad time.