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Vivienne Westwood in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti

Posted by Ashleigh Toll Oxfam Fashion blogger

16th Apr 2014

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Dame Vivienne Westwood in conversation with Shami Chakrabarti.

Image courtesy of Southbank Centre 

"Women of the World Festival celebrates everything that girls and women are doing to change the world for the better, not just for themselves but for boys and men too" observes director, Jude Kelly in a film about the festival, which took place in March.

Fitting then, that the final morning of WOW Festival belonged to a remarkable woman who embodies everything that the event stands for, a woman who describes herself as fighting for 'people's liberation' and who has been creating, educating and campaigning against injustice across the world her whole life.

A huge crowd gathers to hear Dame Vivienne Westwood.

An huge crowd quickly filled the Front Room of Queen Elizabeth Hall to hear Dame Vivienne Westwood, one of the most recognised and influential fashion designers of the late 20th century, talk about her work as an activist and campaigner on social and environmental issues, and about being a trustee of human rights organisation Liberty. Despite the many achievements in her life to date, Westwood once said being made a trustee was one of her proudest moments.

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Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at WOW Festival

Liberty's director, Shami Chakrabarti, began by asking Westwood, who looked striking with her newly cropped hair, about her journey from primary school teacher to revered designer. "I'd been making my own clothes as a teenager and loved going dancing and making lovely dresses" said Westwood.

But, she said, it really began when Malcolm McLaren (her boyfriend at the time) "had the idea that rock and roll would be something that people would be interested in, again." They began scouring east end markets for EPs and LPs that they could resell to trendy people and eventually took over a shop at 430 Kings Road, where they "kept changing the shop and the décor and the name, and put different things in there."

McLaren and Westwood in 1977

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The shop had many guises, including briefs stints as Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die and SEX before eventually becoming Worlds End, where Westwood continues to sell her Gold Label collection today.

Westwood was rather self-effacing in describing how she and McLaren "did punk rock" which Chakrabarti interrupted to politely remind her that "punk rock is now regarded as a moment of cultural revolution, excitement and genius in the cultural landscape of this country" and that punk rock happened because of her and McLaren.

Westwood described how their motive was always a political one, because the "world is so mismanaged and we hated the older generation as they weren't doing anything about it." But, she added: "I don't hate them now as I've been trying to do something about it all of my life."

Speaking about what influenced her as a designer in those early days, Westwood said that "we knew dreadful things were happening and we wanted to engage a younger generation. [It's] silly to think of fashion as a crusade but it is something, it is culture and is part of getting a great life. I wanted the world to be a better place."

As someone who has used fashion and designing to raise awareness about issues including climate change and human rights, Chakrabarti asked Westwood what she would say to critics who say that fashion is superficial and not a crusade?

"I'd say get a life" she remarked. "Dress up and stand tall and try to express who you are and attract people."

"I use my fashion as a platform to talk politics. I managed to do that for quite a few years but at one time I didn't…[so] I decided to put slogans back in to my collections. It's difficult to give a fashion message, or a political one, if you don't use slogans."

Vivienne Westwood launches the 'I am not a terrorist' t-shirt in 2005.

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Westwood's anarchic, bold vision as a designer, an artist and activist has defined all her collections in some way - you only have to walk through East London, or even your nearest high street on any given day to see how she has influenced generations of designers and young people too. 

Speaking on issues of excessive consumerism in the west, Westwood said that "all this consumption is superficial and it's not a real choice. A real choice is to take your time"

Her "maxim at the moment is to buy less, choose well and make it last" and she believes that "the world would have much more of a chance of being sustainable" if we all lived this way (a sentiment also echoed in the How to be a Sustainable Fashionista discussion and by the Fabulous Fashionistas the previous afternoon.)

Westwood added that: "Culture is an evolution of human beings becoming more and more wonderful then they already are. We don't have much at the moment as people have been trained to be consumers, and that's nothing to do with being engaged with the world at all, it's to do with sucking up."

It's unsurprising that Westwood has received an abundance of letters throughout her career from people eagerly seeking her wisdom on how to 'make it' as a fashion designer.  

So, what is her advice?

Quite simply, "you cannot be a good fashion designer unless you have deep interests…try to understand the world you live in and make the best of your own life."

"Fashion teaching is superficial. It's all about looking at magazines and the idea that everything comes from you and that the past is rubbish. Culture makes a fashion designer" added Westwood.

It also came as little surprise that at the end of the discussion, the crowd was desperate to ask her questions about her views on everything from sustainable fashion to feminism and climate change. No doubt she could have continued talking and taking on the world for hours, and you would still have heard a pin drop. Someone enthusiastically asked Westwood at the end if she would ever run for Prime Minister?

After this illuminating and inspiring discussion, I don't think she would have a problem getting voters…

Watch the full conversation here.

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Blog post written by Ashleigh Toll

Oxfam Fashion blogger

More by Ashleigh Toll