Dark Star

The Miseducation of Vivienne Westwood

Bird-like, watchful, wary, her little head topped by a shock of chickadee- yellow hair, her slender gams tucked into absurdly high heels, British designer Vivienne Westwood perches on a settee in her new Soho store, offers a flinty smile to the reporter sitting beside her, and for some reason starts talking about art.

"Art has become such a dogma! It's become totally academic! We have seen everything 17 times: people doing white canvases, people doing black ones. . . . I always say that I'm restricted by cloth and by the body and therefore I can never abandon technique. And so this is why fashion is still alive, even though it's pretty demoralized— but then, I don't call that fashion! I call that mass market conformity. It's got nothing to do with fashion."

It's the day after Westwood's blowout store-launch party, a smoky drunken glittery affair that was a hot Fashion Week ticket and seemed, like most Fashion Week events, to have plenty to do with both conformity and fashion. Westwood is in town to promote both the store and her fall '99 Red Label collection, scheduled to debut two days hence in Bryant Park and no doubt chock full of the saucy strumpet- milkmaid uniforms— gathered skirts, tight waists, tottering heels— that are the hallmark of her women's lines. Why is she so drawn to this particular silhouette?

Dressing down: Vivienne Westwood explains it all from her new shop in Soho.
Gregory Pace / Sygma
Dressing down: Vivienne Westwood explains it all from her new shop in Soho.

"It's just that it's so flattering! I do think there is nothing that one can do better than to idealize women. I think they're the most beautiful animals on earth! The way I see it, the fulcrum of the woman is the waist. Below the waist, everything is kind of like a pedestal— all right, it's a moving one, she's got two legs— and I see the top part as being a kind of bust for the presentation of her face. I wanted to put women on a pedestal. I wanted her to look like she stepped out of a painting. Poetry in motion.

"You know, all these things help each other: if you make the waist small, the hips look rounder, the bust looks bigger, and yet she looks more slender at the same time and the legs look longer. I do think it's fantastic! Of course, I did put padding on the bum as well, and on the breasts."

Westwood doesn't see all this tucking and pulling and padding as retrograde in the least. "People think of Chanel as being very modern for promoting the utilitarian jacket, but actually, she was more cruel to women than any other designer. She was like a stick herself, and she was always cross-dressing, always wearing her boyfriends' jackets and such. You had to be this sort of coat hanger to look good in it. So I really think that, on the other hand, Dior was kind to women, and that's what I like to be. I prefer to add a bit of padding and not expect women to go through some kind of regime to get thin.

"You can very easily make the waist small without any discomfort— it's one place you really can pull in. . . . People who are fat, who just sort of go around in great baggy sweaters or T-shirts— it doesn't make them look any thinner than they would in a rigid, hard corset."

Well, if that's true, why doesn't everyone lace up a bustier and put on a cancan skirt? "It's to do with what people now call the downside— the negative aspect— of democracy. You are no better than me and everybody should look alike . . . well, you can't style a T-shirt! You look silly when you try to put jewelry on it! This no-makeup makeup look and this no-hairstyle hairstyle look, this just sort of greasy hair pulled together with clips . . . the fact that she looks natural— well, civilization isn't natural! She just looks like some dopey cow."

Can this clucking schoolmarm really be Vivienne Westwood, famous for transgressive fashion in the '70s, co-owner with ex-partner Malcolm McClaren of the seminal London shop Sex that specialized in punk-bondage gear?

The shabby state of fashion isn't the only thing that's bugging Westwood. Asked if she's looking forward with glee or dread to the millennium, she harrumphs, "This century's been a terrible thing! We should be so ashamed of it. If people only knew, we have absolutely nothing to celebrate."

Does she mean imperialism, Third World poverty, the Holocaust, AIDS? Nothing of the sort. "It didn't have any ideas, this century. As far as painting goes it finished with Matisse. He put the portcullis down. You couldn't get more minimal than that! You would have to go much further back to find something that is original."

But surely those detestable jeans and T-shirts are a new idea? "I'm talking about art! We've got something which people now refer to as cultural relativism, which means there's no longer a hierarchy of values . . . everything is entirely subjective. It's all opinion, in inverted commas. The opinion of the person looking at it: 'Oh, I like that, it must be good.' So if you say, 'That's art,' we can't dispute it because their opinion is sacrosanct. This is ridiculous!"

At this point the reporter treads more delicately, gently inquiring as to whether the designer enjoys New York, the glamour of which she appears to be happily basking in at present. "I don'tlike it. When I first came to America, I was really into rock and roll, but I now realize that popular culture bores me. It's not culture, it's not original, it doesn't have any ideas.

"I don't like American pragmatism, that everything is judged by success. So long as everybody is happy it doesn't matter if they did the crime or not— everything is judged by its result rather than its value. Everything is measured in money, of course, and art is part of it. If it's successful it will sell— that is the criteria. The first question of a philistine confronted by an old master is, 'How much is it?' Well, it doesn't have a price."

Maybe not, but the stuff hanging on the walls— including Westwood's own versions of jeans and jean jackets, tiny cotton sweaters, and winky plaid handbags— certainly does. Westwood astonishes the reporter by breaking off her diatribe to indulge in a little selling herself. "It doesdo something for you!" she calls out to a barefoot customer who is trying to make up her mind about a prospective purchase. "I don't know how old you are, but you're such a child in it! So slimming! Look what that does for her! So gorgeous! Doesn't that look comfortable! Doesn't she look super! Such a pretty lady!"

This brief interlude over, Westwood returns to her theme, a welter of ideas as archaic as her court clothes but, alas, minus their airy charm. "There's nothing that has ever happened to lead us to believe that things get better," she declares flatly. "In the world of physical health I expect that we do not have as much discomfort and death at such a young age— this is true— but I think it's a mistake for people to make parallels with anything else, to say that technology improves things. We live in such confusion . . ."

Surrounded by racks of expensive gewgaws, Westwood seems unaware that as recently as 100 years ago, she, a greengrocer's daughter, would likely never have left the family home except to marry or enter into domestic service, would not necessarily even have learned to read or write, and would have stood virtually no chance of spending a lovely afternoon pontificating in a chic Manhattan shop with her name out front. "If she would just put a little jacket on top of that," she muses to no one in particular, turning back to the hapless customer still flouncing uncertainly in front of the full-length mirror. "She's got the waist for it, hasn't she?"

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