Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Getty
Some people might see the inclusion of Dame Vivienne Westwood on the bill at this year’s Latitude festival as an acknowledgement of the cultural significance of fashion. But she certainly wouldn’t want you to think that, having accepted the invitation not as a designer, but as an activist. Following what she calls her “anti-fracking tour” around Britain – a series of rallies opposing shale gas extraction – she is going to East Anglia for a public conversation with Frank Hewetson, one of the “Arctic 30” Greenpeace protesters, imprisoned last year for trying to board a Russian oil rig.
The subject of their event is advertised as “Fashion and Activism”, but if this interview is any guide, Hewetson may find himself having to do most of the talking about clothes. When I start by asking if, in the same way comedians are expected to be funny offstage, she feels a pressure always to be strikingly dressed, she replies: “No, no, not at all. I feel a pressure about what to do about fracking.”
“But you can’t pop out for a pint of milk in your trackies or pyjamas?”
“Oh, I don’t mind doing that. At the moment, I’m quite into clothes that don’t match each other. I’ve even been out to a local shop in my nightshirt with a coat on top. It doesn’t bother me.”
The Westwood HQ is in a south London street where old and new forms of exercise meet. Several buildings advertise Pilates classes while, from an old-fashioned boxing gym, its frontage opened to the sun this summer morning, come the glove-thumps and guttural grunts of two fighters sparring.
Outside the Westwood offices, visitors must negotiate their way through a spiky labyrinth of chained bikes belonging to the numerous employees following the example of their boss, who has just cycled in from home. In the top-floor design space, an assistant is placing plump, burgundy-coloured cherries in a white bowl. He recommends the snack to Westwood, who immediately checks the fruit’s provenance. Told that they are Italian and bought at a local organic market that morning, she frets, “I won’t have anything that’s been packed in plastic,” but is reassured that the cherries were transported in a wooden box.
In a further sign of her shift of identity from dressmaker to campaigner, Dame Vivienne is wearing this morning knee-high socks of yellow and purple, with the word CLIMATE in capital letters on the right leg and REVOLUTION (appropriately) on the left, thus creating, when she sits on a stool at a table in the open-plan office an advertisement for her environmental lobby group, which is run by staff including Cynthia, an American who sits in on our interview. This precaution, it becomes clear, may be due to Westwood’s paradoxical combination of a passion for discussing current affairs with a blanket refusal to read any newspapers.
But if the socks reflect her present concerns, Westwood’s loose black dress seems to connect with the earlier part of her career, its artfully torn shoulder and ragged edges suggestive of the fashions of the punk era, in which she was a significant player with her then romantic and business partner, Malcolm McLaren. Their ventures included the London fashion shop Sex, which, in 1977, gave its name to the Sex Pistols, the premier punk rock band in Britain.
Why had she chosen that punkish shift to wear to work on this Thursday? “Oh, it’s one of my favourite dresses. I wear it as often as possible. I love ragged edges and I have to have long sleeves in the summer because the sun makes my skin itch when I’m on the bicycle. The fabric is some sort of viscose; we’ve used it a lot but the factory has stopped making it. But it’s mainly down to a fantastic pattern-cutter in Germany – all the best are in Germany.”
Although the dress gets regular outings, it isn’t because of lack of choice: “I’ve got several rails of clothes that I haven’t worn for a long time and so I have to do something about that soon. I tend not to buy clothes now; I just borrow something from the collection and then put it back in the archive.”
“Do you ever throw clothes away?”
“Do I what? I’ve just remembered I’ve got some hearing aids I’m supposed to put in.”
She slides off the high seat and disappears behind a tall screen, returning with two small chrome ovals that she fits, like misplaced earrings.
“That’s better. What was it?”
“Do you ever throw clothes away?”
“No, I don’t. And it’s becoming a problem. I need to do something: either sell some or put them in the World’s End shop. I would hate to think that, when I’ve died, someone will have to sort all that out. What was the question? Do I throw clothes away? No, I tend to mend everything, darn it.”
Given the prices of her designs, those who buy them would be wise to be thrifty with them. Does she worry about how much her clothes cost? “No, I don’t. I used to. I always tried to make sure that the clothes were value for money. But now I’m not going to bother about producing clothes that aren’t the most expensive. I don’t want to produce anything that isn’t the best thing.”
It is at this point that the fashion designer is transformed into the activist. “The main thing is that I realised that everything in this world is subsidised. The economy is run on debt and the interest on that debt goes to the central bankers, who run most of the world through this system. There’s a film called Food, Inc, and in it there’s an [American] Indian chicken farmer lady. You see her in total distress, throwing dead chickens on a pile because she had to keep investing in new technology to make the chickens cheaper and cheaper, and she ended up owing $2m to the bank, more or less, which she could never hope to pay off. It does apply to the fashion industry, but it takes a bit longer to explain how I think that works.”
On rails around the office are samples of fabric that may be used in the next Westwood collection. She says she is increasingly interested in “folk costume” of the past, for the intriguing reason that “everyone is getting fatter. And so tight clothes don’t really look very good. But folk clothes – the dirndl and so on – are flattering.”
But while Westwood is undeniably right that most people are getting fatter, one area where they notoriously are not fat is the fashion industry. That morning, newspapers had reported another controversy over so-called “thinspiration” pictures of gloatingly skeletal models and other celebrities.
“Well,” says Dame Vivienne, “thin models look better in clothes. We’ve all discovered that. I’ve just read a book about Coco Chanel and the writer makes the point that, with the rise of photography, it was realised that skinny people looked better in pictures. Chanel kept skinny. You’re asking: ‘Are models getting skinnier?’ I think models tend to be young and, when you are young, you are skinny, usually.”
At 73 she remains slender, which she attributes to her diet. “I eat fruit and vegetables. A cucumber is really good for you.” She became a vegetarian several years ago, encouraged by the example of her husband, the fashion designer Andreas Kronthaler. “The point about this is that you eat things in the order that they can digest efficiently, rather than in a queue, stuck behind a lump of meat or a white bread sandwich. Then your body uses them really well. And so a cucumber, in my opinion, is better than a steak. People say, ‘Aren’t you hungry?’ but, actually, you’re not.”
The night before we meet, Westwood has launched a range of new staff uniforms for Virgin Atlantic. Perhaps tactfully, she did not wear her Climate Revolution socks on that occasion, yet she sees no contradiction in designing garments for an industry with gigantic carbon footprints. “The hardest thing to cut down is flying. Suppose I want sustainable cotton. I’m not going to get it from England. I get it from Peru. I try not to travel so much, but shipping stuff is madness. So, if I were Richard Branson, I wouldn’t be stopping my airline. At the moment, he’s trying to develop oil fuel algae and I don’t know what else.”
As she points out, the new Virgin Atlantic crew outfits are deliberately sustainable, partly made from polyester yarn recycled from used plastic bottles. Which is fine, but can there ever be such a thing as a sustainable airline?
“No, there can’t. You can’t have a sustainable fashion business, either. I’m not trying to be a holy person.”
When I ask if she would ever turn down a client on ideological grounds, Dame Vivienne says that she refused an offer to become a brand ambassador for Samsung. “I think we should have a moratorium on the latest technology unless it’s going to be beneficial for the environment. We don’t need to keep upgrading.” There is a pause, in which the fashion designer and the activist merge. “I hadn’t thought of this until now, but I’d really like not to be producing new designs all the time. Why don’t we reuse some old ones? They’re just as good as the ones we do now.”
Would she turn down a celebrity who wanted to wear Vivienne Westwood at, say, the Oscars? “I don’t think so. But you’d have to ask someone called Bridget who works here, who does all that. I don’t follow popular culture. I don’t go to the cinema. When I go to social events, it can be quite embarrassing. If I see a really good-looking person, I think: ‘Oh, that person must be famous!’ But maybe they’re not. I don’t know the people. I do know Angelina Jolie because she’s an activist. So I met her.” She swivels towards her colleague. “Who do I know, Cynthia?”
“Well, you know Bianca [Jagger]. I think the people Vivienne knows, Mark, tend to be the activists.”
Indeed, there have been reports that she was designing outfits for Julian Assange. The WikiLeaks founder is currently confined to the Ecuadorean embassy in London, attempting to avoid extradition to Sweden to answer sexual assault allegations that he believes may be a pretext for handing him over to the Americans. The prospect of Assange becoming a Westwood model had led to concerns about how his limited exercise facilities at the embassy might affect the tight lines of her designs.
Dame Vivienne clarifies that it is her fashion designer son, Ben, who is dressing Assange, but she acknowledges that she is his supporter and friend. Much has been said about Assange but perhaps never before from such a specifically sartorial perspective. “Julian quite likes a combat-type look,” she explains. “I’ve seen him wear that. If there’s a party at the embassy, he’s got this outfit he wears that’s a bit camouflage. Ben’s line is sort of inspired by Clint Eastwood in spaghetti westerns and someone said to him: ‘Can we approach Julian Assange?’ I think it was a marketing thing. It’s really good of Julian to do this because it’s probably going to bring out this women’s lib thing of him somehow being a rapist when he has never ever been charged with rape.”
Although Assange must be presumed innocent of the Swedish allegations, his innocence cannot be proved because he has refused to return to Sweden to co-operate with the investigation there, although Westwood says she understands why he has sought sanctuary with Ecuadorean diplomats: “We have an arrangement with America where they just have to request someone and we’ll send them over.”
“But it would have to go to court. They can’t just take him,” I point out.
“Can’t they? I thought they could.” Cynthia rules in my favour. “Yes, you’re right,” Westwood continues. “What I mean is that it sometimes seems to be as simple as that. I should probably just leave this alone.”
“Do you go to see him in the embassy?”
“Yes, I do. Well, I haven’t been for a bit because I’m so busy. And you can’t turn up and just knock on the door. I’m going soon with Pamela Anderson, actually. She’s coming over to see me and one of the things she asked me to do was to arrange to see Julian.”
If Anderson and Westwood seem unlikely friends, the explanation, as with Angelina and Bianca, is activism: the former Baywatch star now fronts a number of campaign groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
I was interested in whether Dame Vivienne’s boycott of popular culture would stop short of the numerous films and documentaries about the punk era. “No. I told you, I never see anything. I haven’t even seen the original film [Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle].”
“And you haven’t seen Sid and Nancy?”
“No. I didn’t even see that one where I was played by somebody.” In fact, nobody has watched it, as the Vivienne Westwood biopic, starring Kate Winslet, was announced in 2008 but never made.
“It’s all gone. I’m not interested. What I say about punk is that I considered it a marketing opportunity, more or less, and that’s why I got out of it. It was kids having a great time, jumping and spitting, but for what? Sell more razor blades, sell more safety pins? I don’t know.”
There is a common view – most recently expressed by the broadcaster Jeremy Paxman – that it is inevitable and even logical to become more conservative and less idealistic with age. But Westwood, like the late Tony Benn, disproves this opinion. “I am just trying to understand the world I live in. For which you also have to understand the past. I think evolution teaches us the possible perfectibility of human nature.”
It has been said that the definition of celebrity power is whether a prime minister or president will take your phone calls; it is thought that Bob Geldof is automatically put through the Downing Street switchboard and that Bono has a similar effect on White House telephonists. Has Westwood tried to ring David Cameron about fracking?
“No, I haven’t.”
“You’re always talking,” Cynthia interjects, “about phoning up the Pope or the president of China. So, why not?”
“I do remember,” Westwood says, “that Steve Hilton [Cameron’s former director of strategy] invited us to No 10 to talk about our rainforest charity and possible government support for it. But less than a month later he’d left, so it never happened.”
She is thrilled, she says, when young models tell her that they no longer trust any government; the only party she can bear to vote for is the Greens. An obvious objection to Westwood’s environmentally sound vision is that it is easier for the rich to live cleanly. She can arrange to have an office set up within cycling distance of her home; the organic, wood-packed Italian cherries sitting on the table between us are nicer and more sustainably produced than those from a supermarket, but they would probably cost a great deal more.
“They probably do. But there are other ways. Making your own food is a way of being engaged with the planet. If you’ve got a bit of ground, grow a cherry tree. No, I’m going too far there. But I think if you make your own food, you can budget properly.”
“With your diet, you should probably live to be 150. But do you think about posterity and what comes after?” I ask.
“No, I don’t think so – I expect because I haven’t thought properly about dying. I am very healthy. I don’t think about posterity at all. One thing I regret is that I took the [married] name Westwood. If people do remember me, I would like it to have been my own family name: Swire.”
“You could start a line called Swire now.”
“I could, but I can’t be bothered. Actually, I would love it if people thought: ‘This is the woman who stopped fracking in this country.’ That would be absolutely amazing.”
The NS is a media partner to Latitude, where Vivienne Westwood appeared on Saturday 19 July (latitudefestival.com)