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Suzy Menkes on Westwood’s Sex, Spice and Social Revolution

Fashion historian Suzy Menkes looks back at the seminal punk moments that have marked Vivienne Westwood’s career

InterviewSophie Bew

Working as a fashion journalist since 1966, the eminent critic and Vogue International Editor Suzy Menkes is one of the fashion industry's most esteemed experts. With roles at publications spanning London Evening Standard, The International Herald Tribune, The Times and The Independent, Menkes’ enduring career has seen her interview fashion's great and good over the last 50 years, and she's analysed the industry's ebb and flow for just as long. A 30-page portfolio in AnOther Magazine Autumn/Winter 2017 examines the impact of pioneers Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler, and would be incomplete without the voices of their key collaborators. This talk with Suzy Menkes is one of a series of discussions investigating the enduring world of Westwood.

AnOther Magazine: What was your first impression of Vivienne Westwood as a designer?

SM: The first time I remember seeing Vivienne Westwood, she was sitting on the doorstep of her shop in King's Road, Chelsea surrounded by other punk-ish figures. She had blonde curls, a mini skirt and hefty boots. But all I really remember was the punk sexiness that surrounded her. You could almost smell it. Nobody seemed even faintly interested in selling anything. In fact, it was quite intimidating to enter. And inside I cannot remember much about the clothes except one white cotton shirt, very skinny (post-War youth was tiny) with puff sleeves, a bit Elizabethan.

It is difficult for anyone today to understand the importance of the King’s Road and what it stood for: the breakdown of the aristocracy, which used to own the territory, literally and figuratively. The crumbling of the class system. The social revolution. The way that the young and well-born joined the youth cult. Mary Quant with her geometric cut and miniskirts came first; then the sensual romance of Ossie Clark. They were both part of the King’s Road world. Vivienne came a bit later at the beginning of the 70s with her fashion pirate collection – swash-buckling and sexy.

Compared to today, everything was on such a small scale. Local. Chelsea, not even London. International? Not at all!

“She had blonde curls, a miniskirt and hefty boots. But all I really remember was the Punk sexiness that surrounded her. You could almost smell it” – Suzy Menkes

AM: And what do you remember about Vivienne and Malcolm McClaren?

SM: Looking back, I wonder if Vivienne could ever imagine working on her own? Right from the start Vivienne would talk on and on. But a lot of the talking was done by Malcolm McClaren, who would always have something to say with a great deal twirling around the subject. They really were a power couple then in the way the shows were handled and he always seemed to be the smart one who could produce some quasi-intellectual story around Vivienne's work. The essence of the Westwood story in the beginning was the New Romantic look. But whatever she did – supporting political issues, producing collections and wearable clothes – sex was never far away. After all, I think she is the only person, so far, who has shown her lack of knickers when picking up a royal honour! (And that is double hilarious since her son set up a sex-pot lingerie store!)

AM: Do you think that Vivienne Westwood stands outside of catwalk trends?

SM: Well, she invented a lot of those trends, which are still whirling around today. Think of Rei Kawakubo's revision of punk and plaid. And the huge platform shoes that only came back into fashion life when Naomi Campbell fell off hers! I remember Vivienne, with her school-marm face on, giving me a lecture about Venice and how the prostitutes wore platform shoes to be seen above the crowd.  She was always good at getting sex and spice into her stories.

To me, Vivienne Westwood is supremely British in her playing with layers of history, her cheeky, sexy side and her own pretence – or maybe it is her passionate reality – of not taking her work too seriously. As a designer, she built the collections on energy and fun, colourful clothes and funky make-up. That was great in the 80s but not so on-message during the somber 90s, when we were all supposed to be cudddled in cashmere for George Bush's ‘kinder gentler America’; or messy and drab in the ‘heroin chic’ Kurt Cobain period.

I can't remember exactly when Andreas Kronthaler joined Vivienne. The early 90s I would think. He made the collections seem more organised and comprehensive and I felt that he brought in another strand: what was 20 years ago called ‘unisex’ or ‘gender-bending’ but now is considered to be ‘androgyny’ or ‘gender neutral’.

The loyalty and energy of Andreas must have done a great deal to guide Vivienne through the years – especially at the end of the 80s/beginning of the 90s when the Italians came to to forefront with Armani/Versace/Gucci with Tom Ford and Prada. I think what saved Vivienne was her endless love affair with Japanese girls. Her sly sexuality was made for them.       

At that stage, I am not sure what role Andreas played. I am sure he both supported Vivienne and worked with her. But it was inevitable – as with relationships like Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé and Valentino with Giancarlo Giammetti, that Andreas was put in a supporting, not a starring role. But I don't think he intended to be a manager. Andreas is a creative.

“She invented a lot of those trends, which are still whirling around today. Think of Rei Kawakubo’s revision of punk and plaid” – Suzy Menkes 

AM: Does perching on her own fashion branch have a good or bad effect of the brand?

SM: Well, she’s still here after 45 years. Isn’t that the answer? 

AM: Are there any key moments in the history of the brand that stand out to you?

SM: I have mentioned a few already. But I shall never forget that Tatler magazine cover when they turned Vivienne into Margaret Thatcher. It was so hilarious, so daring and so true. Because Vivienne has got this hectoring, school mistress side that somehow did fit with Mrs T. They were both earnest, pulled up by their own bootstraps. But Vivienne was the one who understood the vast changes that had happened in the 60s world: the break up of the old hierarchical society system.

AM: How would you describe Vivienne Westwood as a designer?

SM: Courageous and never minimalist. Wily and smart. Full of ideas. British to the core. And so much more.

“To me, Vivienne Westwood is supremely British in her playing with layers of history, her cheeky, sexy side and her own pretence – or maybe it is her passionate reality – of not taking her work too seriously” – Suzy Menkes

AM: What about her blend of fashion design and activism?

SM: Vivienne Westwood has been a genuine activist for as long as I can remember. Right from the start, Vivienne was didactic. She became very involved later in global warming and has supported causes like saving rain forests and world situation – putting the paper work about it on our show chairs, along with the fashion programmes.

But she really is engaged in the various issues, especially about the affect of our mistreatment of our planet. I admire her for being so resolute. I am absolutely convinced that she cares deeply about these issues – of course, we all sigh when she bangs on about it. But this concern is a genuine part of her character. Let's face it, most of fashion is air head. And we know that the feminist T-shirts will be out by next season. Vivienne does not change course. She is a true believer.

AM: Vivienne Westwood constantly pools references from history. As a fashion critic what is your perception of the effect of this?  

SM: I would prefer to answer this as a historian – because before I was a fashion journalist, I went up to Cambridge to read History. I am always intrigued by references to the past. This is something you see a lot with British designers, especially those who were encouraged by Saint Martins, or whichever teachers, to expand the vocabulary of clothes. Vivienne is rare in using these references quite heavily from the 90s onwards but always giving them her particular kind of irreverence among the historicism.

AM: Why do we need designers like Vivienne Westwood?

SM: Because she is a designer. She has vision. She had a story to tell. And she may go on telling it – but better that than designers who blow with the wind.

This interview was conducted for the Autumn/Winter 2017 issue of AnOther Magazine, on sale now.