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A look back at the life of punk style icon Vivienne Westwood


If you've ever worn an artfully ripped T-shirt to feel a little edgy or cool, you owe a debt of gratitude to Vivienne Westwood. The British fashion designer known for translating the sound of punk into a look died yesterday. She was 81 and widely respected as one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. Actor and author Ian Kelly co-wrote her memoir, and he's here to remember her with us. Welcome.

IAN KELLY: Hello there. Hi.

SHAPIRO: Well, Vivienne Westwood first became famous for her work with the Sex Pistols. And if you had to describe a quintessential look of hers from that era, what would it be? Paint a picture for us.

KELLY: Well, the interesting thing of Vivienne is she's reflecting in fashion terms what's going on in the art world as well as what's going on in the punchy culture of 1970s Britain and New York, for that matter. But the look - well, yeah, I suppose you'd characterize it, as you mentioned, with an idea of the semi-destroyed, the punk look that addressed a lot of sort of ideas from contemporary art then of sticking things onto things, safety pins and the like that have become mainstream, the deconstruction of clothes so that you notice, to an extent, how they are made, rather in the ways they were experimenting with modern architecture at the same time.

SHAPIRO: It's really a testament to her influence that those things you describe, from the rips to the safety pins, now feel like they have always existed. But someone had to come up with that. Someone had to invent them, and that someone was Vivienne Westwood.

KELLY: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. The core of her legacy is going to do with punk. But actually, what she did afterwards was what first drew my attention to her in terms of all sorts of things that have become mainstream - I mean, elements of fun slogans on printed T-shirts. You could date to her the platform shoe, the modern corset, the idea of, you know, underwear as outerwear. You know, you can't have Alexander McQueen or Jean Paul Gaultier or Madonna, for that matter, and the look without Vivienne Westwood in the first place.

SHAPIRO: How did she talk about where her inspiration and her motivation came from?

KELLY: Vivienne was passionately involved in a kind of intellectual curiosity. She read all the time. She once said that the most important fashion accessory was a book, that you should, you know, really pay attention to the world around you and be thinking. And she was fascinating to be around in that regard 'cause she was, you know, the most curious person I've ever met, in both senses of the word - so interested in everything but also, you know, kind of eccentric.

SHAPIRO: Having gotten to know her so well over the years, is there any aspect of her personality that you think the public might be surprised to learn?

KELLY: Oh, yeah. She was deeply surprising - I mean, kind of eccentric and wonderful. I mean, you know, she was cycling to work in London, you know, every day on platform heels all the way through her 70s and working, you know, right to the end. I miss that kind of just, you know, brave eccentricity.

SHAPIRO: You say she was surprising and eccentric, and one moment that I think she will forever be remembered for that speaks to that is after Queen Elizabeth bestowed the Order of the British Empire upon her. Can you tell us what happened?

KELLY: (Laughter) Vivienne was wearing a very chic outfit. It was sort of grey but had a full skirt. Anyway, the photographers are there, and she twirls in this skirt. The skirt rose up in that Marilyn Monroe sort of fashion, and she wasn't wearing any underwear, which...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

KELLY: ...Is an entirely valid position for somebody who cares about the cut of clothes. And - but it was typical of Vivienne because, you know, she was very proud of her - I guess that was the OBE and then her damehood from the queen. And yet she liked to also remind everybody she was a rebel. I mean, it's the same with Vivienne and wedding dresses, as in "Sex And The City," famously, and the wedding dress that Sarah Jessica Parker wore. It's now become that thing of a, do you know what? If I'm playing that safe game of being glamorous on a red carpet or walking down an aisle, I want also to remind the world that, you know, I am my own woman. And that is some of the power of her clothes irrespective of whether you're wearing underwear underneath or not, which is a personal choice.

SHAPIRO: That's Ian Kelly remembering Vivienne Westwood. They collaborated on her biography. Thank you so much for remembering her with us.

KELLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.