Dame Vivienne Westwood: fashion designer and activist dies aged 81

Vivienne Westwood

Dame Vivienne Westwood, the pioneering British fashion designer and activist has died in London at the age of 81.

Vivienne died “peacefully, surrounded by her family” in Clapham, south London, on Thursday 29th December, her representatives said in a statement.

Her husband and creative partner, Andreas Kronthaler, said: “I will continue with Vivienne in my heart. We have been working until the end and she has given me plenty of things to get on with. Thank you darling.”

Westwood came to prominence with her androgynous designs, slogan T-shirts and irreverent attitude towards the establishment.

Westwood always used her collections and catwalk shows as a platform to campaign for positive activism. She spent many years tirelessly speaking out about the effects of climate change and over-consumption, and mobilised international attention around ecological crusading. Westwood compared the dire situation to battle: “It’s a war for the very existence of the human race. And that of the planet. The most important weapon we have is public opinion: go to art galleries, start to understand the world you live in. You’re a freedom fighter as soon as you start doing that.”

Westwood supported many charities and organisations including Amnesty International, Cool Earth, The Environmental Justice Foundation, Liberty and Patron of Reprieve, and Friends Of Earth, amongst others. And as an ambassador for Greenpeace she designed their official ‘Save the Artic’ logo.

Westwood joined forces with the International Trade Centre – a joint body of the United Nations, to produce bags through their Ethical Fashion Initiative. The programme currently supports the work of thousands of women from marginalised African communities and empowers informal manufacturers and craftspeople to enter the international value chain – providing an income for some of the poorest people in the world. The collections are created using recycled materials from slums and land fill and the income helps to stop the need to continue deforestation in the area.

Vivienne Westwood & Malcolm McLaren

Born in Derbyshire, Westwood worked as a primary school teacher, before setting up clothing shop ‘Let It Rock’ on King’s Road in Chelsea with her then partner, musician Malcolm McLaren in the early 1970s.

The business was later renamed ‘Sex’, and McLaren began managing a punk rock band made up of shop regulars – the Sex Pistols. They shot to fame in 1976 wearing Westwood and McLaren’s designs.

Westwood’s provocative and sometimes controversial collections came to define the punk aesthetic, and she would become one of Britain’s most celebrated fashion designers, blending historical references, classic tailoring and romantic flourishes with harder edged and sometimes overtly political messages.

In the mid 2000s, Westwood turned her political focus towards the climate crisis. In 2007, she published a manifesto titled Active Resistance to Propaganda, in which she wrote: “We have a choice: to become more cultivated, and therefore more human – or by not choosing, to be the destructive and self-destroying animal, the victim of our own cleverness (To be or not to be).”

As an anti-consumerist, Westwood gleefully undermined her own business interests. In 2010, she said: “I just tell people, stop buying clothes. Why not protect this gift of life while we have it? I don’t take the attitude that destruction is inevitable. Some of us would like to stop that and help people survive.”

Paying tribute to Westwood, fashion designer and Spice Girl Victoria Beckham said: “I’m so sad to learn of the passing of legendary designer and activist Dame Vivienne Westwood.”

Singer Boy George, who first met Westwood in the early 1980s, called her “great and inspiring” and “without question… the undisputed Queen of British fashion”.

The designer was made a dame for services to fashion in 2006.

You can read more about Vivienne and her work on her official website.