The Guardian - The Saturday interview: Vivienne Westwood
When Vivienne Westwood was four or five, she had an epiphany. “When I first saw a picture of the crucifixion, I lost respect for my parents. I suddenly realised that this is what the adult world is like – full of cruelty and hypocrisy.” At the time she was living in the Pennine village of Tintwistle, where her father worked in the Wall’s sausage factory and her mother was an assistant at the local greengrocer’s. “I thought they’d been lying to me by telling me only about the baby Jesus, rather than what happened to him.”
We’re sitting at a table teeming with glue, scissors and drawings in her fourth-floor office at the Westwood empire HQ in Battersea. She’s wearing a beautifully cut pin-striped suit, as well as dangly earrings and more makeup than usual for the benefit, she says, of the photographer. “I’ll tell you what I was like as a child,” says Westwood. “I was a good person. I was high-spirited but I was a big reader. What I remember as a child is that other kids didn’t care about suffering. I always did.”
We’re meeting because 70-year-old Westwood has just announced she’s going to give £1m to rainforest charity Cool Earth, which aims to stop such an intolerable future being realised. It’s the culmination of three years’ involvement with a charity established in 2007 by Labour MP Frank Field. Last year, she produced 20 tablecloth designs for the charity, selling at £1,000 each. Could posh tablecloths help save the planet?
Of all the world’s good causes, why Cool Earth? I ask. “I’m going to start by talking about how I see the world,” she says. “The capitalist system is about taking from the Earth and from the other great commodity, labour. What’s happening with this system is that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and the only way out of it is supposed to be growth. But growth is debt. It’s going to make the situation worse. We have got to change our ethics and our financial system and our whole way of understanding the world. It has to be a world in which people live rather than die; a sustainable world. It could be great.” It could be: the vision little Vivienne beheld of human hypocrisy, cruelty and delusion 60-odd years ago need not be our destiny.
But isn’t today’s imperative to nail the bankers; maybe later we can save the rainforest? “It’s presented as though the financial crisis and climate change are two different things, but they’re connected,” Westwood replies. “We’re letting businessmen do what they want. People get paralysed by the enormity of wrong things in the world. There’s only so much that one person can do. What I decided to do was to focus on the rainforest.” In September she launched her spring/summer 2012 Red Label collection with a call to support her £7m fundraising campaign. “We must begin today – tomorrow is too late,” she said then. “Governments have been talking about saving the rainforest for 40 years. Now only half of it is left.”
Her support for Cool Earth is only one example of Westwood’s rise as a political activist. She’s long supported Liberty and CND, but in recent years she seems determined to support every good cause going. Hermost recent blog posts detail her multifarious radical interests: she backs a fundraising campaign for the Refugee Council, pledges her support for Greener upon Thames, an organisation campaigning to make next year’s London Olympics plastic-bag free, and reprints a thank-you letter from the headmaster of Uaso Nyiro primary school in Kenya for the books she sent, adding: “The school was started in 1992 but they’ve never had a library. Now they have and they’ve named it the Vivienne Westwood Library – amazing!”
"I don’t feel comfortable defending my clothes. For 15 years I hated fashion." Why? "It’s not very intellectual, and I wanted to read, not make fashion. It was something I was good at; it wasn’t all of me." She’s never recaptured the thrill of the first fashion show she did with Malcolm McLaren at London’s Olympia in 1979. It was then they launched the Pirates collection that became the template for the New Romantic look. “I watched it and I was so captivated. I had done something.” But she has fallen in love with fashion design again: “I’m happy doing my work at the moment because everything is coming together.” Even in her eighth decade, she cannot contemplate retiring. “I really want to carry on.” She hints her husband may not, though: “Andreas is considering his position – he’s a perfectionist, and that can be very stressful.”
Last month she lent her support to the Occupy demonstrators outside St Paul’s. When she was there she told anyone who would listen that they should go to London’s art galleries to become freedom fighters against capitalism, consumerism and philistinism. Why? “It’s to do with consumption – if you go to an art gallery you’re putting in, not just sucking up. Propaganda can be resisted by loving art.”
Just before Westwood introduces me to a new experience (a parting kiss on the lips from a dame), she offers some advice for Guardian readers: “Try to use your time not worrying. Try to get involved. Try to get involved in seeing art then you’ll be a freedom fighter, you’ll be working for a better world.” Is that how you see yourself? “What do I know about anything?” she smiles. “I’m only a fashion designer.”