Since her punk days at Seditionaries, Vivienne Westwood’s career has been charged with political purpose. Among numerous fights, be they concerning environmental issues or global trade and responsibility, her championing of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning’s innocence has been a key pursuit. As such, Westwood has made regular visits to Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador (where he has claimed diplomatic asylum for the last five years) and dedicated numerous shows and public platform opportunities to his cause. In turn, the WikiLeaks founder has gleaned and cherished great strength and energy from the formidable designer. A 30-page portfolio in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2017 examines the impact of the designers Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler, and would be incomplete without the voices of their key collaborators. This talk with Julian Assange is one of a series of discussions assessing the brave and bold world of Westwood.
AnOther Magazine: I just wanted to talk to you about your relationship with Vivienne Westwood and wondered if you could tell me about how it began?
Julian Assange: Vivienne was a strong supporter of Chelsea Manning when Chelsea was originally arrested and so we came in contact through that.
AM: And can you tell me a little bit about the exchange? I believe she comes to visit often, and you’ve worked together a lot. What are those visits like?
JA: Well I see her every few weeks, she’s very bright and tough, one of the toughest women that I have met in the United Kingdom.
“She has a view that the fashion she produces should make the people who wear it feel bold” – Julian Assange
AM: Was that your first impression of her? Has that changed at all?
JA: Over time, as I’ve seen consistency of character, my admiration has increased. Also, her breadth intellectually comes out just like anyone who has breadth or depth that comes out as a result of increased contact.
AM: Has it been impactful for you? That exchange?
JA: It’s good to have tough people around me. I need someone to push back and call out my bullshit, that’s a really important thing to have. In terms of her support, for me in my situation, that’s also been quite important. Her connections and people who appreciate her are different, broadly speaking, a different group to the people who are interested in what WikiLeaks publishes. It’s quite important to be able to bridge from your usual support base into another support base.
AM: I was wondering, about that contrast, what you made of that? Obviously she combines her championing of you and your cause with her fashion shows. Her Spring/Summer 2017 collection was dedicated to you...
JA: She is very modest. She doesn’t try and talk up her fashion as having a political or moral dimension. But I think that’s not true. If you look closely at some of her writing and perhaps if you listen closely to her, going back to her punk days, now she has a view that the fashion she produces should make the people who wear it feel bold. For another fashion designer that statement could be just an empty marketing phrase, for Vivienne Westwood it’s not because of how she’s lived her life and how she chooses to live her life now. I encouraged her also to see the value in her work, that it is something that can bridge a gap and, I think, educate people, or make them feel bold within the society that we have to deal with and that’s quite an important function.
AM: Do you think you’ve succeeded in encouraging this? Do you think you have helped her do that at all?
JA: I don’t know, you would have to ask her, I hope so.
AM: It’s interesting that you find that message very important. Do you feel that she is unique in her use of the medium?
JA: It’s completely unique, I’ve met a lot of people, we have a lot of different types of supporters but yeah, it is completely unique in that she has been so successful in what she does. She also owns what she does, she doesn’t work for someone else: she really can do anything with her life. She’s not supporting me for the likes or the increased exposure, she’s choosing to do it because she has a vision for what she believes is right.
AM: What is your perception of why she is so tuned into you, and Chelsea Manning as well? How would you describe that interest of hers? Perhaps interest is not the right word...
JA: Where it emerges from?
JA: Well I mean you can see from her upbringing and from her punk days and not just wanting to display courage, she obviously has the capacity to design things, and run a company and so on. I guess that puts you in a reasonably good position intellectually, to see what might be unfolding in the world and then emotionally to sympathise with it.
AM: And do you feel like you have learnt anything from your exchange with her?
JA: As well as obviously the little things that we exchange information on and so on, her strength of character is something that manages to push through the various assaults, the petty assaults against her that she occasionally has because she’s rubbing some powerful group up the wrong way and that really works for her. That is really interesting because while I think that as well, it’s quite important to have it reinforced. And of course she’s older than me so it’s good to see that someone has been able to maintain that – I mean, I’m not sure how old she is, late 60s, early 70s? – it’s good to see that someone has maintained that strength even in age.
“She doesn’t work for someone else: she really can do anything with her life. She’s not supporting me for the likes or the increased exposure, she’s choosing to do it because she has a vision for what she believes is right” – Julian Assange
AM: Do you find that encouraging?
JA: Yeah, you know the world tries to beat you down and you have to assert yourself and it goes to show that you can, with a continuous fortitude.
AM: And what did you make of her collection that she dedicated to you, did you know that was going to happen? Or did you talk to her about it before?
JA: I don’t think I knew that it was going to happen. I was surprised and excited but I’m not in the fashion business [laughs] so I can’t comment on that collection itself other than it seems to do well. She’s done that type of thing a number of times with me, with Chelsea Manning, with some other causes. Actually my favourite one is when she did a runway and she had rented the space out inside the Foreign & Commonwealth office. In the big interior courtyard where occasionally performances are done – of course formally, my dispute with the British government is really with the Foreign & Commonwealth office because they are responsible for public affairs, embassies, MI6, and GCHQ – and so she had her models wearing Julian Assange T-shirts. I think she might have even had one on herself, inside the Foreign & Commonwealth office – that’s a kind of epic trolling of the state and richly deserved in that case.
AM: It’s a very direct, sort of literal way of using fashion to make that protest. Do you think that’s important?
JA: I mean, I like indirect approaches as well, but I think you have got to set the tonic with the direct approach, set the key, otherwise people don’t understand what the indirect approach is actually getting at. You might have a dual register where some people like the indirect elements but just for aesthetic reasons, but they are unlikely to have any idea of what it’s about unless you, also somewhere in your life, act indirectly.
This interview was conducted for the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of AnOther Magazine, on sale now.