Some time ago, London designer Vivienne Westwood noticed that people had stopped saying rude things to her on the streets there. She wasn't sure this was a good sign.
"I wondered if I was losing my edge," she says, smiling. Back in the days when she was known as the godmother of punk, the designer's edge was inspired mutilation: shredding T-shirts, stitching up "bondage trousers" with bewildering configurations of straps that made stepping off a curb risky business indeed.
Her own look had a few jagged edges. She has since given up her platinum crew cut, the cat-woman eye makeup. She has forsaken rubber for schoolgirl plaids.
Today Westwood is wearing a demure red pullover sweater. She is still a bit breathless from cycling here, to her tiny King's Road shop, World's End. She bums a cigarette from her 19-year-old son, Joe Corre, who minds the store for Mum. Besides the red sweater, Westwood is wearing rolled-up polka-dot jeans, rolled-down knee-high sheer stockings and battered combat boots. Her hair is a natural reddish blond; her voice is soft. She often speaks in gentle non sequiturs, this sphinx of '80s style: "I believe a man with a pearl necklace is far more interesting than one with a skirt."
Who'd argue? Even if you're not given to wearing bondage togs, keeping a weather eye on Westwood has long been a great spectator sport. Feisty and persistent as a gadfly, she has razzed Establishment couture with her rogue shapes and shrill, slightly wacky manifestos of style. It's a bit like watching Groucho have sport with poor Margaret Dumont. Eventually, the plump rich lady -- Fashion -- falls in thrall to her tormentor.
This has finally happened for the provocateur Westwood. Women's Wear adores her; W featured her as one of its "Designers Who Matter." Suddenly, after 15 years in the business, she's being called a visionary instead of unprintable names. Much of the hoo-ha has to do with Westwood's reinvention of that '50s dinosaur the crinoline, which has caught on BIG and WIDE to change the shape of '80s fashion.
In 1985, Westwood first showed her hooped mini-crini in Paris and drew applause, but no sales. That initial crini line was never produced, but the idea caught on in the tonier fashion houses. The shape was refined and repackaged -- by Christian Lacroix of the House of Patou, for starters -- in much the way Mary Quant's '64 miniskirt was Pygmalioned for Paris runways by Courre`ges and Saint Laurent.
"I consider it an amazing feather in my cap to have revived the crinoline in a real way that's not theatrical," she says.
People have long admired Westwood's moxie, even if they wouldn't wear her clothes to put the cat out. In the punkcouture days, Westwood's style was anti-fashion. She fine-tailored with razor blades, sewed for skinheads, punks and tough working-class "Teddy Boys." Her tiny shop on King's Road kept changing its name to match her passing fashion fancies: Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die (tough biker togs); Seditionaries (punk); and SEX (kinky T-shirts, rubber).
Westwood made headlines, but not necessarily in the fashion pages. She and her then-partner and lover Malcolm McLaren were arrested for producing "pornographic" T-shirts. They advocated "rubberwear for the office" and underwear as outerwear. McLaren also created and managed those snarling punk darlings the Sex Pistols, and the band members became Westwood's favorite mannequins. Front man Johnny Rotten doted on his "God Save the Queen" T-shirt, which featured a safety pin through Her Majesty's silk-screened stiff lower lip.
Westwood allows that designing on the edge never paid a lot. But things were never dull, either. Wearing her own creations on the street elicited hoots and catcalls, even in England, a country that reveres the eccentric.
"This little shop is my laboratory," she says. "I go along modestly. I think I'm going to have a big name and a big organization in a couple of years. I've been bashed upon, had things fall through. But people will come to me. They will." By Westwood's reckoning, she has been bashed for nearly four years. After a bitter personal and business breakup with McLaren in 1982, the shop was shut down. In 1985, a licensing agreement with Armani collapsed.
Since it reopened in 1986, the shop has been chockablock with rich Japanese tourists. The hands on the big clock outside the store are running crazily backward. The corduroy that has been used for the cute suits on the racks is printed with trompe l'oeil wood grain. Nothing is quite as it should be, which, for Westwood, is business as usual.
What's odd is that her business may just catch up with her growing reputation. Her latest collection is wearer-friendly -- tailored, almost demure shapes wrought mainly in "traditional" fabrics -- business suiting, tweeds, cashmere and tattersall.
"Establishment and what people call street fashion aren't so far apart anymore," she says. "The same kids who dressed as punks want elegance now." But, then, Westwood says she doesn't really know what's going on in the street. "I'm practically a hermit. I never go out. I take my inspiration from history."
Sometimes, she says, revolutionary ideas can fly out of a re-examination of tradition. She studied anthropology and history texts for her flamboyant "Pirates" collection in '82, when she dressed rocker Adam Ant in 19th-century frock coats and war paint.
"I find myself wearing brassieres again," she volunteers. "I mean, under my clothing."
This shakes the punkcouture image to its very foundations. So does the very real possibility of Westwood's making serious adult money at her art.
"That piece, for instance, was impossible to produce at a profit when I first created it." Westwood is pointing to a sweet black velveteen mini-crini, a short full skirt hooped at intervals to make it swing like a bell. "They're selling well now that it's a sanctioned shape," she says.
"People have written that I don't mind being constantly ripped off," says Westwood. "I don't call it being ripped off if people use my ideas. It makes my prestige higher and higher. I don't mind because I am so sure I'm going to be able to pick up all these pieces and do something big."
Westwood-watchers can point out other instances of this "trickle-up" phenomenon. Her outsize curvy shapes resurfaced in Claude Montana's big rounded leathers. Westwood's "Hobos" and "Savages" collections showed rough fabric, exposed seams and oversize pieces; such Japanese visionaries as Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake took those notions to more refined -- and expensive -- conclusions. Westwood was rolling skirt tops and layering leggings and junk jewelry when Madonna still had a last name.
When she first unleashed the stiff little crinis, she calculated they would be a boot in the complacent gabardine rump of the Italian men's-wear-for-women trend. "I was trying to find a way to kill this big shoulder -- to give clothes a sexual dynamic, a feminine one."
Ultimately, Westwood thinks her crini will have a place "as a basic shape, like a 'pencil' skirt." One indication is the reaction she gets when she wears a little black hoop crini around town. People still feel compelled to comment.
"But it's quite amazing," she says. "People think I look nice." ::