Vivienne Westwood, fashion designer and punk style legend, dead at 81

Vivienne Westwood, an influential fashion maverick who played a key role in the punk movement with her radical approach to urban street style, died on Thursday at 81.

Her name became synonymous with the 1970s punk explosion

Close up of elderly white-haired woman
Designer Vivienne Westwood poses for a portrait before her catwalk show at London Fashion Week on June 12, 2017. She died on Thursday at the age of 81. (Neil Hall/Reuters)

Vivienne Westwood, an influential fashion maverick who played a key role in the punk movement, died on Thursday at 81.

Westwood's eponymous fashion house announced her death on social media platforms, saying she died peacefully. A cause of death was not disclosed.

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

The name Westwood became synonymous with style and attitude even as she shifted focus from year to year. Her range was vast and her work was never predictable.

As her stature grew, she seemed to transcend fashion, with her designs shown in museum collections throughout the world.

The young woman who had scorned the British establishment eventually became one of its leading lights, and she used her elite position to lobby for environmental reforms even as she kept her hair dyed the bright shade of orange that became her trademark.

Woman with bright orange hair.
Westwood, shown in 2007, was known for years for her bright orange shock of hair. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Career of contradictions

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

"They gave the punk movement a look, a style, and it was so radical it broke from anything in the past," Bolton said.

"The ripped shirts, the safety pins, the provocative slogans. She introduced postmodernism. It was so influential from the mid-'70s. The punk movement has never dissipated — it's become part of our fashion vocabulary. It's mainstream now."

A model wearing a camoglage style jacket
Model Grace Bol wears an outfit designed by Westwood at London Fashion Week on Feb. 22, 2015. (Alastair Grant/The Associated Press)

Westwood's long career was full of contradictions: She was a lifelong rebel who was honoured several times by the Queen. She dressed like a teenager even in her 60s and became an outspoken advocate of fighting global warming, warning of planetary doom if climate change was not controlled.

She was also a vocal supporter of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

A woman wearing a yellow and black striped shirt stands in the centre of a group of protesters holding banners and signs, with her arms up.
Westwood, centre, poses for photos during a protest to support WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange outside the Old Bailey, the central criminal court in London, on Sept. 7, 2020. (Frank Augstein/The Associated Press)

In her punk days, Westwood's clothes were often intentionally shocking: T-shirts decorated with drawings of naked boys, and "bondage pants" with sadomasochistic overtones were standard fare in her popular London shops.

But Westwood was able to make the transition from punk to haute couture without missing a beat, keeping her career going without stooping to self-caricature.

Work called 'provocative,' 'transgressive'

"She was always trying to reinvent fashion. Her work is provocative, it's transgressive. It's very much rooted in the English tradition of pastiche and irony and satire. She is very proud of her Englishness, and still she sends it up," Bolton said.

One of those transgressive and contentious designs featured a swastika, an inverted image of Jesus Christ on the cross and the word "Destroy."

In an autobiography written with Ian Kelly, she said it was meant as part of a statement against politicians torturing people, citing Chile's Augusto Pinochet. When asked in a 2009 interview with Time magazine if she regretted the swastika design, 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,'" she responded.

Model on a fashion runway wearing a colourful t-shirt
A model wears a design by Westwood at London Fashion Week on Feb. 21, 2016. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press)

She approached her work with gusto in her early years, but over time she seemed to tire of the clamor and buzz.

After decades of designing, she sometimes spoke wistfully of moving beyond fashion so she could concentrate on environmental matters 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 up plans to start a television series about art and science.

Her runway shows were always the most chic events, drawing stars from the glittery world of film, music and television who wanted to bask in Westwood's reflected glory. But still she spoke out against consumerism and conspicuous consumption, even urging people not to buy her expensive, beautifully made clothes.

"I just tell people, stop buying clothes," she said. "Why not protect this gift of life while we have it? I don't take the attitude that destruction is inevitable. Some of us would like to stop that and help people survive."

Westwood's activism extended to supporting WikiLeaks founder Assange, posing in a giant birdcage in 2020 to try to halt his extradition to the United States over the organization's release of confidential U.S. military records. She even designed the dress Stella Moris wore when she married Assange this past March at a London prison.

Woman in a wedding dress standing in front of two red arm chairs.
Stella Moris, Assange's partner, is photographed wearing her wedding dress designed by Westwood on March 23, 2022. The couple married at a London prison. (Dylan Martinez/Pool/Reuters)

World 'a less interesting place' without her

Westwood was self-taught, with no formal fashion training. She told Marie Claire magazine that she learned how to make her own clothes as a teenager by following patterns. When she wanted to sell 1950s-style clothes at her first shop, she found old clothes in markets and took them apart to understand the cut and construction.

She met Malcolm McLaren in the 1960s while working as a primary schoolteacher after separating from her first husband, Derek Westwood. She and McLaren opened a small shop in Chelsea in 1971, the tail end of the "Swinging London" era ushered in by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The shop changed its name and focus several times, operating as "SEX" — Westwood and McLaren were fined in 1975 for an "indecent exhibition" there — and "World's End" and "Seditionaries."

Close-up of a runway model wearing glasses with beads hanging off them.
A model wears a creation designed by Westwood at her ready-to-wear fashion show in Paris on Oct. 2, 2021. (Vianney Le Caer/Invision/The Associated Press)

Among the workers at their shop was Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock, who called Westwood "a one-off, driven, single-minded, talented lady" in a statement to The Associated Press.

He said it was a privilege "to have rubbed shoulders with her in the mid '70s at what was the birth of punk and the worldwide waves it created that still continue to echo and resound today for the disaffected, hipper and wised up around the globe."

"Vivienne is gone and the world is already a less interesting place," Chrissie Hynde, the frontwoman of rock band the Pretenders and another former employee, posted on Twitter.

A model wearing pink bubble wrap around her head.
A model wears a creation designed by Westwood at her ready-to-wear fashion collection in Paris on Sept. 30, 2017. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)