Vivienne Westwood, maverick fashion designer with roots in 1970s punk movement, dies at 81

The Westwood fashion house of the same name announced her death on social media platforms, saying she passed away peacefully. The cause of her death was not disclosed in the statement.

Westwood’s career in fashion began in the 1970s with the explosion of punk, when his radical approach to urban street style took the world by storm. But he went on to enjoy a long career highlighted by a string of triumphant runway shows in London, Paris, Milan and New York.

The Westwood name has become synonymous with style and attitude even as it has shifted focus from year to year. His range was vast and his work was never predictable.

As her stature grew, she seemed to transcend fashion, with her designs displayed in museum collections around the world. The young woman who had scorned the British establishment eventually became one of her leading lights, and she used her elite position to lobby for environmental reforms even as she continued to dye her hair the brilliant shade of orange that became her trademark.

Andrew Bolton, curator of the Costume Institute at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, said Westwood would be celebrated for pioneering the punk look, pairing a radical approach to fashion with the anarchic punk sounds developed by the Sex Pistols, managed by his then partner, Malcolm McLaren.

“They gave the punk movement a look, a style, and it was so radical that it broke with anything in the past,” he said. “The torn shirts, the safety pins, the provocative slogans. He introduced postmodernism. He was so influential since the mid 70’s. The punk movement has never dissipated: it has become part of our fashion vocabulary. Now it’s mainstream.

Westwood’s long career was full of contradictions: She was a lifelong rebel who was honored multiple times by Queen Elizabeth II. She dressed like a teenager even in her 60s and has become an outspoken advocate for fighting global warming, warning of planetary doom if climate change goes unchecked.

In his punk days, Westwood’s clothing was often intentionally shocking: T-shirts emblazoned with drawings of naked boys and sadomasochistic-tinged “bondage pants” were standard fare in his popular London shops. But Westwood has been able to transition from punk to haute couture without skipping a beat, advancing her career without indulging in self-caricature.

“He was always trying to reinvent fashion. Her work is provocative, transgressive. He is deeply rooted in the English tradition of pastiche, irony and satire. She’s very proud of her being British, yet she sends it up,” Bolton said.

One of those transgressive and controversial designs featured a swastika, an upside-down image of Jesus Christ on the cross, and the word “Destroy.” In an autobiography written with Ian Kelly, she said she was destined as part of a statement against politicians who torture people, quoting the Chilean Augusto Pinochet. When she was asked if she regretted the swastika design in a 2009 interview with Time magazine, Westwood said no.

“I don’t, because we were just saying to the older generation, ‘We don’t accept your values ​​or your taboos, and you’re all fascists,’” he replied.

She approached her work with gusto in its early years, but over time she seemed to tire of the hype and buzz. After decades of designing, she at times spoke wistfully of moving beyond fashion so that she could focus on environmental issues and educational projects.

“Fashion can be so boring,” she told the Associated Press after unveiling one of her new collections at a 2010 show. “I’m trying to find something else to do.” At the time, she was talking about plans to start an art and science television series.


Katz, a longtime correspondent for The Associated Press who died in 2020, was the lead author of this obituary.