Vivienne Westwood, 75, On Putting Yourself Out There
TIM BLANKS: Are you vain?
VIVIANNE WESTWOOD: [pauses] I might be . . . I’ll tell you what, I’m not competitive with other women at all. Maybe you are when you’re younger, but if I go into a room and see Pamela Anderson looking incredible, I’m going to be delighted, and I don’t have to be the center of attraction. I often am because I’m the kind of person that goes for it, but I’m ever so happy if somebody else is, or that they’ve done something marvelous. I’ll tell you one thing— maybe you can call this vain or not—but I look in the mirror in the morning, I put my makeup on, and I think about how old I’m getting, and then I forget about it and that’s that. I’m just quite happy and satisfied with myself. Actually, I think I look my best. And then I don’t even think about putting makeup on for the rest of the day. There’s a girl here who wears lipstick a lot, and if the telephone rings and it’s her boyfriend, she puts her lipstick on as she’s talking. I think that’s brilliant. [laughs]
BLANKS: Do you think it’s true that wisdom comes with age?
WESTWOOD: Yes, it does. It’s what you—I keep using this word—invest. The way you think about and understand your experiences. You can change your mind quite radically, of course but I expect the older you get, the less you change your mind, because your way of seeing things is more solid. Solid in a good sense, meaning that everything keeps connecting, and when you make a point, it’s got the basis of all that experience.
BLANKS: Do you think you get freer as you get older? Women especially. A woman of a certain age once suggested to me that the passage of time liberates women from the worldly concerns that dog them through their youth and middle age.
WESTWOOD: I think you’re probably right. I probably fulfilled the idea of a woman’s role more when I was younger than I do now. People talk about having mid-life crises. Mine was at the age of 30. After that, I didn’t care that I was no longer this nubile sex-object person . . .
BLANKS: Were you before?
WESTWOOD: I was. I used to get a lot of attention. [laughs] Of course I did. I looked brilliant. But I remember seeing Brigitte Bardot in a film and thinking, Oh, I’ll never look as good as that!
BLANKS: I’ve always thought you and Rei Kawakubo shared a special kinship.
WESTWOOD: I think she’s a very, very brilliant designer. That’s the first thing to say. I know Rei’s more convinced by modern art than I am. But that doesn’t mean to say I’m not influenced by it. You are influenced by everything that happens. I think she’s extreme sometimes. She might have a great big padded hipbone or a hunchback or something . . .
BLANKS: Are you melancholic at all?
WESTWOOD: No. I’m so much happier now than I was a few years ago because my job has given me the opportunity to speak about things I think are really important. I feel that everything is coming together and fused so that my fashion helps what I want to say, and what I say actually helps the fashion. If I’ve got a worry, it’s that I’m not communicating well enough with people because I’m so cognizant of the urgent need to try to get them to do something about climate change. But I feel I’m doing my best, and I think that’s always been my worry. There are thousands of NGOs, charities, and individuals doing amazing things, and lately I’ve been talking to people who give me such hope and encouragement. I do believe in the Gaia principle, that the Earth combines with its biosphere, with its life forces, to return it to health. I think we’ve still got such potential to make the world amazing.
BLANKS: Do you think in the end this contrary path you’ve taken has been . . . not really co-opted, but absorbed by the mainstream? I mean, you’ve been honored as a dame by the society that you used to scorn.
WESTWOOD: I know. I’m very popular—I realize that. At the end of punk rock, I realized that it was really just a marketing opportunity for people to do more product, but it was also a marketing opportunity for the idea of the free society. You know, “We’ve got rebels as well, so we’re free.” That kind of thing. And I thought, “No, that’s not enough. We have to go much further, and ideas are what count.” Forget the establishment. I’m not attacking the establishment. Of course, you do, politically—I still do—but I’m not interested in being against anything. I’m interested in discovering things really . . . But have I been co-opted?
BLANKS: But that title has made you into a symbol—I mean, the road from Let it Rock to here . . .
WESTWOOD: I’m so busy, and sometimes I think about somebody like Leonard Peltier [Native American activist sentenced to life in jail in 1977 for the murder of two FBI agents], stuck in jail for more than 30 years, trying to be busy, sending letters to people, keeping his spirits up with all kinds of different things. And I do realize that if I’d just stayed up in the north of England, if my parents hadn’t moved to the south of England, I could have been a schoolteacher. I do sometimes think it’d be really nice to live an ordinary life, to read books and see friends, because I don’t have much time for that. Other people probably have quite a lot of time to do those things, so I’m aware that I do lead this different life that not everybody leads. I also realize how easy it would have been not to lead this life. But I’ve always gravitated to situations where I’m going to learn. I don’t know what it would have meant if I’d stayed a schoolteacher up north. I’m sure I would have been headmistress at least . . . [laughs] Or I would have been working with the students or the teachers’ union or something. Or I would have written a book or done something about education.
BLANKS: Who has been the most important person in your life?
WESTWOOD: It has to be Gary [Ness, editor and artist], my friend. As I told you, I judge myself by what I think, and he was one of the cleverest people on the planet. He really did direct my reading and my love of art. He got me to really start looking at stuff. Brilliant stuff, not just the latest thing. Of course, Malcolm influenced me, but Malcolm was all about the latest thing. At the time, that appealed to me. I did not like the traditional, high, fine art, because I’d been brought up a Protestant in the country. I went into the National Gallery and I ran out terrified because it reminded me of a Catholic church and I didn’t want to go back there. When I did go back, I started to look at it with Gary. My god, then I started to get all kinds of ideas. I needed Malcolm in the beginning because I needed to know more about politics and what was going on in the world, and about art. But then I got tired of him intellectually because Malcolm didn’t push; he just wanted superficial success. He didn’t care about going into any depth about anything. So he stopped being interesting for that reason. You know, people have got so much experience, and so many clever things they know, but if they don’t carry on trying to find things out rather than just pick things up . . . You need to go further, and he never did.
BLANKS: So that would be more significant to you than all your years of changing the way people think about clothing?
WESTWOOD: Yeah, I don’t care about any of that. I have no expectations. I don’t expect anything from anybody. I think that we know so little. The world has forgotten far more than it knows. And so I have no idea what I think about whether there’s any afterlife. Up until now, I’m quite convinced that no such thing happens, and I’m perfectly content to rot. I would prefer not to have any monument whatsoever. Just disappear. Definitely, definitely, definitely.
Interview via Interview Magazine