Political Integrity Versus Consumer Capitalism in Vivienne Westwood's Modern Renaissance.
Writing by Elliana Craig. Illustration by Sara Pocher
Nowadays, one barely has to open up social media for a pre-cursory swipe through Instagram, Pinterest or Tiktok without witnessing evidence of Vivienne Westwood’s renaissance in popularity. From supermodels to pop stars to influencers, the corsets and pearl necklaces synonymous with the brand’s image are everywhere to be found. This resurgence in demand is no surprise, considering both the brand’s long-standing relationship with a younger clientele, trend cycles reverting to 90s nostalgia, and a demand from the consumer for more seemingly ethical and sustainable luxury options. Vivienne Westwood herself is known as one of the most politically driven designers in fashion history. Her career in fashion spurred from her architecture of the Punk movement in 1970s South London - it is obvious that her outspoken activism on climate change, anti-capitalism, and human rights, is intrinsically linked to the ethos of her fashion house. Yet, in a late-stage capitalist society that has fostered a contemporary fashion industry that prizes profit over any form of progress, the differences between the ideology of Westwood herself and her brand begin to create a fissure. It has become increasingly difficult to reconcile Vivienne Westwood the woman from Vivienne Westwood the fashion house.
When Westwood began her career in fashion, she wasn’t even a designer. Creating clothes for her then-husband Malcolm McLaren’s vision, she was mostly occupied with styling the Sex Pistols, gradually beginning to exercise creative control over their South London punk store ‘SEX’ in 1971. From the conception of Westwood’s designs, her anti-establishment attitude and position as a pioneer of the punk movement intrinsically tied her political views into her designs. Her first official collection 'Pirates' came a decade later making Vivienne Westwood the brand a commercial and critical success. Politics were placed front and centre from the start of the runway shows, with bold and provocative statements seen in dresswear.
Westwood is famous for her historical referencing, taking styles from certain periods (think corsets, crinolines, bustiers), and placing them into contemporary contexts, with a do-it-yourself attitude that encapsulated an environmentally sustainable approach from the outset of her brand. Immediately, juxtapositions between politics and performance began to arise within the brand’s very ethos. This was seen through the use of clothing traditionally worn by upper-class women that were presented in a working-class aesthetic, seemingly now ‘accessible’ to the working-class woman, yet being sold at a price point that was unattainable for many. By creating the ‘Westwood girl’ with working-class connotations, then solely selling her aesthetic with luxury price-points, it is clear there was, and still is, a discrepancy between theory and execution. This can still be seen today, with staples like the iconic Westwood corset being listed on the website for a starting price point of £770.
To understand the modern-day renaissance of Vivienne Westwood, one must first be familiar with its golden era - the 90s. The era of the supermodel went hand-in-hand with the brand’s disregard for tradition and love of the alternative. The camp, over-the-top runway shows celebrated the glamour of the decade and were embraced by the general public and fashion media. Iconic moments, such as Naomi Campbell’s infamous fall on the Anglomania catwalk, and Kate Moss’ unforgettable opening of Café Society, ensured that the brand’s name was solidified as fashion royalty.
Placing this theory into the context of the fashion industry in 2021, it is, therefore, not surprise that Vivienne Westwood has experienced the renaissance that it has. Whilst never dipping far from the public eye, the resurgence of the 90s in trend cycles has led to Westwood’s styles and influence becoming ubiquitous on and off the runway. The beginning of this renaissance was sparked by tentative model-off-duty looks styled with vintage Westwood corsets by the likes of Bella Hadid and FKA Twigs in 2017. The full-blown Westwood-mania that is seen nowadays, has spiralled into iconic examples such as Dua Lipa’s Brit awards red carpet look, and Miley Cyrus’ wedding dress. As the Westwood aesthetic re-enters the fashion stratosphere, it is crucial to view its renaissance through a critical lens.
Hundreds of thousands of cheap knockoffs of Westwood products have cropped up on fast fashion sites, as is now common with major trends. Instead of pulling back to ensure reduced consumerism, Westwood has instead expanded their reach, increasing production to meet demand. Their attitude towards their resurgence in popularity has epitomised a pro-capitalist, profit-driven ethos, with a complete disregard for environmental or social consciousness. Westwood is rated poorly on platforms like Good On You (which provide sustainability ratings for clothing companies) and only achieves a 2/5.
On the surface, it appears as though Vivienne Westwood as a fashion house, is miles ahead of the rest of the fashion industry. Westwood herself has been a constant and vocal advocate for climate justice, beginning to speak out in the early 2010s. The fashion industry contributes to 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions and produces 92 million tonnes of clothes waste every year. Vivienne Westwood’s conscious decision to use vegan leather, faux fur and other sustainable materials before there was political pressure to do so proves the brand’s dedication to cruelty free materials and environmentalism. A few capsule collections of sustainable slogan t-shirts calling attention to political issues such as habeas corpus, veganism, and the arctic have also been released. By creating a campaign using celebrities as the face of her message, Westwood succeeded in making activism glamourous.
However, it seems that for every virtuous accolade connected to the Westwood name, there are multiple contradictions to positive political action. Both personal and business accounts of tax evasion are clear, with Westwood still using legal forms of tax havens that are opposed by Green Party policies, despite her outward support of the party and frequent appearances at Green Party events. Despite her 2013 pledge to halt the expansion of the brand, in 2016 12 new retail outlets opened in the UK. Vivienne Westwood currently produces nine collections a year when the norm for a fashion house is only two. Most crucially, human rights issues have been raised after unpaid interns complained of their treatment at work in 2013. Overworked, verbally abused, and pressured to work overtime with little professional benefit are shocking coming from a brand that prides itself on human rights. There is limited information provided on the Westwood website on the labour and treatment of production line workers, in terms of their working hours, wages and rights, a stark red flag. The use of PVC, viscose, rayon, and polyester – materials made from plastic and well-known to have devastating environmental effects – were all reported to have been used in Westwood collections by the same exposé. Whilst environmental initiatives have been put in place to reach certain targets within a predetermined number of years, Vivienne Westwood are only currently using less of the materials known to be detrimental towards the environment, rather than operating entirely without them – a feat that we know is possible from looking to labels such as Stella McCartney. It’s obvious that high fashion can operate on a 100% sustainable level, and the fault lies with designers rather than logistics.
There is a huge gap between what Vivienne Westwood seems to advocate for as an individual, and the business conduct of her company. Westwood herself no longer takes an active role in designing collections – instead, leaving the clothes to her husband, Andreas Kronthaler. She presumably still holds influence on the business end; however, it appears from public appearances in recent years that Westwood’s main concern is speaking out on environmental justice, as an activist first, and designer second. Perhaps, if the designer had started to become less vocal about her political beliefs, and instead more focused on her designs, this discrepancy in her company’s conduct would be easier to stomach. However as both sides of Vivienne Westwood have ventured further and further away from one another, their irreconcilable contradictions, in the light of their renaissance, have become impossible to ignore.
Are we willing to accept that Westwood’s most significant contribution to the field of activism might just be a sustainable cotton t-shirt with a political slogan?