Scene: a hotel room in New York, one spring morning in 2013. I’m staring at a photograph of a young soldier with the word TRUTH emblazoned underneath her tentative smile in white font and a red box like a Barbara Kruger, pinned to Vivienne Westwood’s “Climate Revolution” DIY top.
“It’s incredible no one knows who this is. You don’t know who she is?” Vivienne asks me in her soft Derbyshire lilt. She audibly gasps as I shake my head. “It’s amazing. Amazing. I’m here to try and do something about her.” The photograph, I quickly learn, is of whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
By Vivienne’s side—now and for more than 30 years of their colorful shared lives—stands her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, the dashing, tender artistic director of their fashion label. We discuss the Amazonian-wild-rubber dress they’ve designed for me to wear to the Met Gala tonight and Chico Mendes, the wild-rubber-tapping activist who lost his life fighting to protect the rainforest. Vivienne listens intently, as always, then shares her observations, gesticulating—palms out—for emphasis.
Later, Andreas calls from the doorway, “I’m going downstairs, Vivienne.” “You have to wait for me a minute,” she bats back, with a cheeky smile. She’s mid spiel, relaying with unstoppable passion Manning’s plight, her sea-colored eyes afire under the red waves she’s drawn over them. Her gaze pierces with a desperate appeal to truth. She’s been calling truths out to us all for decades.
Which is why, this April 2013 day, Vivienne has traveled to New York, accepting Vogue’s invitation to attend the punk-themed Met Gala despite the paradoxes implied. She and Andreas are here to bring messages to the widest possible audience. “We’re out for the cause!” Andreas urges me, playfully enacting how I might talk to the cameras about the rainforest.
Hours later, we’re on the red carpet for the Met Gala. Passing a swarm of lenses, Vivienne pivots every interviewer’s question to her accessory: “I’ve got some brilliant jewelry here,” she says to CNN, pointing to the soldier’s photo now pinned to her long pink silk coat. “I’m here to support Manning. That’s the most important thing I want to say.” It’s the only thing she says.
Fashion was always a vehicle for expression for Vivienne, who died in December 2022, age 81. What began in the 1970s with spiked hair, “rubberwear for the office,” and T-shirt slogans so provocative that she and her partner, Malcolm McLaren, were prosecuted under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act later morphed with further humor, zest, and creativity. She wore silk dresses that parodied the upper classes, cosplaying as Margaret Thatcher for the cover of Tatler in 1989; spread her 70-year-old naked body resplendent on a silk sofa like Manet’s Olympia for Juergen Teller; spun for the cameras when picking up her OBE while “glamorously” wearing no underwear; and in 2020 dressed as a yellow canary hanging in a cage outside Downing Street to protest Julian Assange’s extradition to the US. “Vivienne started off a punk and ended as a dame, without compromising an inch,” said Helena Bonham Carter at her memorial today.
It was through the language of visual activism that Vivienne and I bonded: The Amazonian-wild-rubber dress was one of a series of our collaborations, which included wearing a recycled-plastic dress to the Oscars and handing out protest cards for climate refugees after I performed a pagan dance for her London show. When we went together to an event with Queen Elizabeth II, she offered me a paper crown to wear. Over the years, we discussed many topics, yet I don’t recall ever discussing fashion.
In the interpretation—fetishization even—of punk, many may have missed that the visual imagery was largely a medium for communicating a deeper philosophical and political message, which was manifest in many other guises throughout her lifetime. “Punk was just a phenomenon,” her friend and collaborator for more than 50 years Gene Krell tells me in his thick Brooklyn accent. “The label changed, but the elements, the ingredients, the commitment remained.”
So what was her philosophy?
She was an independent thinker who drank art, literature, and politics through one straw and blew bubbles of ideas, designs, and theories into the world through another. “Life was so exaggerated for her in the most wonderful way,” Gene recalls.
Vivienne began her career as a primary school teacher and remained always curious, studying Taoism in later years. In their final phone conversation, Gene reflects, “the mood changed completely when she started to talk about Taoism—it’s as though the world began to make some kind of sense to her. She saw nature as revealing the truth.”
At her memorial, Andreas reiterated her commitment to Taoism and said that “towards the end she thought a lot about love. That a life without love isn’t worth it.” Vivienne’s granddaughter, Cora, called on everyone to turn inspiration into action—to continue the “to-do lists” that Vivienne left us all. “Into the cosmos I call your name” said Cora, closing the service. “You always said I was your angel. But you were mine.”
Many call Vivienne the queen of punk, but Gene tells me multiple times, “for me, she wore a halo, not a crown.” Reflecting on their long friendship, he shares, “The thing I remember most about her is that she really understood with remarkable clarity that everyone had a story and she was always prepared to listen. She was remarkably kind. But at the same time, her loyalty was always to the truth. She was blatantly honest with people. She thought it was terribly important for people to have an understanding that the truth mattered.”