"She's gotten a little more adventurous," designer and "grand dame" of British fashion Vivienne Westwood told Rolling Stone yesterday, minutes before the unveiling of her Red Label's Spring 2012 collection at London's Smithfield Market. She was speaking of her customer, now a woman theoretically 30 years loyal to her brand, whose premiere "Pirate Collection" Westwood first showed on a London runway in 1981. "You break ground. People are more prepared than they used to be to wear something unconventional. This is really quite good, in a way, because it's a global movement."
Westwood herself has done more than most designers to diversify her runways, with yesterday's catwalk denizens, and their chosen stylings, as vibrant and pancultural as ever. Even beyond the positive racial interplay, the models were presented as strong and separate visual forces, unified under Westwood's freak flag. It's little surprise that model Charlotte Free, famous for her strident pink hair, was the star of the show.
But Westwood reserves harsh judgment for what happens when "strange" becomes normalized. "It means everyone everywhere is dressing the same. And it can be quite a mess. Most of the time it's horrific!"
A model's resplendent makeup, masterminded by artist Alex Box, backstage at Westwood
That goal, Westwood clarified, has less to with breaking new style ground at this point than empowering the wearer.
"Fashion is here to help make people look very important. If they have good taste and choose what suits them, I give them options on how they can do that. It's always sexy, and it's always with the same result: making women look fantastic."
The show's intergallactic palette came though via playful accessories and batty makeup and hair style direction
Acerbic honesty, and a way around the status quo, is why we come to Westwood, who nearly singlehandedly created, and accidentally codified, punk fashion in the late 1970s and early 1980s, alongside Malcolm McLaren, with their King's Road SEX boutique, which served as an aesthetic mecca to the Step Forward set. Spring 2012's mood is one of reminiscence and restructuring. On the cusp of her more upscale collection showing in Paris in a few weeks, she used her London runway show as more or less an excuse to throw a nostalgia party: a timely opportunity to revisit some of her most iconic looks – a wraparound Union Jack skirt, for example – in her hometown setting.
"They haven't changed much," Westwood commented on her designs' evolution over the past few decades. "I have certain signatures, certain cutting principles. It could be a raw-edged seam; it could be leaving the lining of sheepskin exposed so it's not perfectly finished. I invent new ways to do it, but the end goal is always the same."
Westwood looks on at her collection's preshow walkthrough, alongside friend and muse, actress/model Sara Stockbridge, who provided a song for the evening's soundtrack.
Of course, though Spring 2012 showcased a more docile Westwood woman, there was no denying the visual traces of the designer's Royal punk lineage. After all, some of these looks – drop-crotch bondage pants, ruinous Dickensian hair-dos, bum flaps, and other deconstructed dandyisms – are literally her inventions. They are emblems of distressed Britannia: she has every right to ensure that these staples never retire from her runways.
A polyethnic hybrid look, previewed backstage at Westwood
The battles Westwood wants to engage in have changed, but she's still resolutely political. She's expanded the dialogue; yesterday's polemic is today's accessory. Westwood's more into using clothes as a means of for personal empowerment, which actually always lied at the core of her fierce, individualist manifesto. The real revolution remains up to the wearer.
"I just use my fashion shows as an excuse to talk about things on the cultural/political agenda." says Westwood. "This is what I like about my fashion; it gave me a voice. And I use it as a platform to make a statement."
A model wears a classic distressed Union Jack wraparound skirt she made herself in a runway walkthrough. The look represents one of Westwood's signature styles and motifs — distressed Britannia.
In recent years, that statement has shifted away from a musical dialogue and towards a devout concern for ecologically sustainable living. The plight of threatened rainforests remains a central topic in her conversations. "I do think we're an endangered species," Westwood explains. "But that we do have a plan to save the rainforest. I am now working with people on the ground in the rainforest; we've started an initiative, which will launch in November with Cool Earth. You should educate yourselves on what they do."
She emphasizes that individuals should consider how they can reduce their own impact. "You might, for example, decide you want to have less children." she added pointedly.
The finale at Vivienne Westwood Red Label, Spring 2012
Asked whether or not she feels connected to the contemporay music climate, she evaded a clear alignment to any new cultural trend. "There should be a separation; not everyone needs to buy into what pop music is selling." That said, she was excited to include into the show's heavy-hitting soundtrack a metal-industrial song by none other than her pal and long-standing muse, model/actress Sara Stockbridge. She knows what's going on in music today; she chooses to keep it at arm's length. There are other designers who can rush to wardrobe their red carpet acolytes. For Westwood, more apt to listen to classical than anything NME writes about these days, music is only as good as its mission.
All photos by Alistair Guy.