- since 2011 -

'I have no idea what other people do'

Monday, 26 September 2011

Through the looking glass with Vivienne Westwood

'The Alice in Wonderland of the fashion world'

'The Alice in Wonderland of the fashion world'

Seeing as we're here, have you got time for a quick lesson in Scouse?
"Yes, of course."
Do you like the accent?
"I think it's an attractive accent. People try to copy it. [There follows a valiant but frankly poor attempt at the word 'alright'] I can't do it."
Do you know what kecks are?
"Kecks? No."
They're trousers. How about a bevvy?
"A bevvy. That's a drink, no? Beverage, bevvy."
And if someone said to you, 'Have you seen the kip of that?'
"Seen the what? The kip? No."
It means the way they look.
"Like 'Have you checked it out?' Yeah. 'Seen the kip of that?' That's a nice little expression. I'll remember that…"

As surreal experiences in my journalistic career go, attempting to teach the rudimentaries of Scouse to Vivienne Westwood is up there with shadowboxing with Earnie Shavers in a Moreton semi, getting driven around Oxford by Ron Atkinson in the back of his Jag, having a broken collarbone diagnosed by Sir Bobby Robson in a Parisian suburb, and being handed a government briefcase outside an ITV studio by the late Tony Banks, then Minister of Sport, with the instruction "Mind this while I go for a pee."

Four of these incidents have a common denominator: sport. Safe ground for me, like most men, as opposed to fashion where the terra isn't quite so firma. In the most recent issue of Intelligent Life someone called Luke Leitch writes, 'Fashion is to many women what sport is to many men: a pastime, a passion, a shared language, a form of self-definition, and a temporary escape from the opposite sex, all rolled into one deeply satisfying whole'. Which is just asking for it really. '[Leitch] uses the same patronising point of view [that] shrinks and thinkers such as Freud and Nietzsche used whenever they analysed the minds of women', posts one pissed-off punter in reply. Yeah, that'll learn him. The div.

Where the aftershave can remove tattoos: Milan's cathedral (left) and answer to Cavern Walks

Where the aftershave can remove tattoos: Milan's cathedral (left) and answer to Cavern Walks

I'll make two observations about fashion and that's it. First: my definition of chic. A good 15 years ago I went to Milan not to shop but to watch a derby match between the city's two football teams, AC and Internazionale, in the San Siro stadium they share to this day. (Briefly: how I'd love to take the soup pan of tradition and clang it over the skulls of those local bureaucrats who flag up the Liverpool-Everton groundshare issue; what part of 'how-dare-you-unravel-the-mythical-sporting-fabric-of-this-city-for-some-ersatz-folly-to-urban-regeneration' don't these people understand?)

It was cold and foggy that night in Milan and, despite the spectacle of one end of the stadium billowing with silky red flags and the other ablaze with blue flares, while seen-it-all-before Italian bobbies with panting Alsatians dangled bifters from their lower lips, the game (1-1 draw) was pretty forgettable. Instead what I recall - and I bore everyone with this anecdote - was the scent.

Earlier in the day it'd wafted all along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele (main shopping drag) in the crisp December air, seductively sweet and slightly overwhelming. By the time we'd walked to the cathedral it dawned on me that it was coming not from one particular place but all the fur-lined Milanese citizens passing by - a giddying cocktail of expensive perfume and cologne.

I swear, even the plumes of people's icy breath seemed to dissipate with an insouciant Italian elegance (he writes, while half-watching a wildlife documentary about pandas in China competing to see who can urinate highest up the bamboo tree). Milan, where boutiques in cobbled arcades next to medieval churches sell hand-stitched men's ties in wax-sealed boxes and women's shoes with heels finished in amber thread.

When you travel to different cities do you pick up on particular fashions?

"No, I don't. I think that if you were blindfolded and put on a plane and dumped in any city in the western world, you would have great difficulty knowing where you were. Even the architecture. But of course there are famous things like - what's it called, the Lever, the Liver Building or whatever? But regarding the way people are dressed, they look alike everywhere. And the world has been 'trained up' - that's a good expression, that. They've all been 'trained up' to be consumers."

You sound like you're fighting against that process…

"I don't know if I'm actually fighting against it. The thing is, I offer a choice. And my clothes are not about being a consumer, they're about being an individual and choosing something that you think suits you. Not just buying something because that's what everybody else seems to be wearing."

Didn't you once describe your clothes as a 'criticism of orthodoxy'?

"No, I never said my clothes were that. I might have quoted Bertrand Russell who said: 'Orthodoxy is the grave of intelligence'. But I wasn't particularly referring to my clothes. He's talking about how people don't think."

My second observation: for men it's all about the suit. Experience has taught me that there's a fine line between Cock of the Walk and Dick of the Dock Road, which is why I went bespoke. I bought my first three-piece from an eminent Liverpool tailor who measured the Beatles for their first suits, he'll have you know (and also have you know that they swore like nobody's business and had sweaty, winkle-pickered feet that hummed).

So long, off-the-peg disasters. Hello, handcrafted Donegal tweed with three-button jacket and burgundy satin lining. The whole process took a good six weeks from choosing the fabric (from around 500 varieties), pattern, colour and cut, to being fitted, to making the final adjustments. Well worth the wait, and for a fraction of what the exact same thing would cost from Savile Row. Vivienne Westwood again:

"My trick is that I've found a way to make clothes by a mass-manufacturing process that look like couture clothes. So you can buy, at an affordable price, a ready-to-wear garment that is doing for you all the things that a couture garment would. But I tell you what, Savile Row is still men's couture and it is a model of excellence - because whatever else happens you've always got that model to compare with what else is happening to suits. If I were not a fashion designer and if I were a man I'd certainly have one Savile Row suit. I would afford those things and I would wear them."

I interviewed her just before the arrival of Liverpool One and for that matter the Met Quarter. Back then the city-centre shopping experience consisted largely of Church Street, Clayton Square, the St John's Centre and Bold Street with its lonesome trumpeter playing From Russia With Love. Plus a bit of Albert Dock if you wanted sofas or ships in bottles.

Then came the European Capital of Culture nomination and that big Tatler photoshoot. Suddenly Justine at Cricket was a darling of the fashion press and broadsheets were publishing special supplements with titles like Livercool. Taxi drivers were reciting extracts from Tosca while soigné Echo sellers in frock coats yelled 'Edicione Finale!' Alehouses became gastropubs and the dropping of pistachio shells on café floors was actively encouraged. There were proposals for Church Street to be renamed Via Chiesa; Lime Street, Paseo de los Limons; Williamson Square, Place de Georges Henri Lees. Possibly.

At the time I'd eschewed the world of football magazines to edit a 'lifestyle' title back home, and Westwood was in town for the launch of her new boutique in Cavern Walks - the first international designer to open a flagship, stand-alone store in Liverpool. Her people offered my people (me) an interview. Little did they know that I thought Helmut Newton was the last stop on the Wirral Line.

Karen Millen at Liverpool's Racquet Club

Karen Millen at Liverpool's Racquet Club

A couple of weeks earlier I'd spoken to Karen Millen, in Liverpool herself to celebrate 20 years in the fashion business and a model interviewee at the Racquet Club on Chapel Street. This time, though, I canvassed female friends and colleagues for more probing questions to ask VW. I needn't have worried. She was great. Maybe she could see I hadn't quite got how big a deal it was to interview her - a woman who'd designed clothes that had defined eras, starting with the King's Road boutique she ran with Malcolm McLaren in the 1970s.

How would you describe yourself?

"My things are original, they're different. You've never seen them before. That's actually the impression I get when I see my clothes. I'm shocked by them. They weren't on the planet before, you know. Where did they come from? I think like that sometimes… What I would say is that I offer a choice. There isn't much choice in this world, and it is a real choice that I offer people. I don't necessarily conform to the scales of boom and bust and up and down. Put it this way: I've never really been able to satisfy the demand for my clothes, not properly. But we shouldn't say such a thing. Let's not tempt fate because everything's luck in the end.

"My advice is just to buy one thing and wear it all season. Then next season you might find something else. And I've always said that my maxim is 'Dress up more than down' because then you'll have a great time. I don't think it matters if you're wearing the same thing every day. So long as you look better than anybody else, why does it matter?

"Can I just say, though, that I'm not fighting like you said. I just think it's really good to have this choice. I remember showing my husband Andreas a photograph of me when I was about 14. And he said, "Didn't people look really lovely in those days? They dressed up so nice." A pair of flat velvet shoes and a pencil skirt and a clutch bag and a little button-up cardigan and headscarf. Today it wouldn't look right, but for the time it looked nice. But the clothes I wear are ten times better than they were then. The great thing about this job is having these brilliant clothes to wear."

We sat in two gracefully upholstered chairs on the shop floor amid mirrors and chandeliers, giant fragrance bottles and kitsch portraits of the lady herself on the walls. Straightaway I was struck by the contrast between the incarnadine ensemble of her appearance and a quiet, almost reserved demeanour made more charming by an old-fashioned Derbyshire accent that she "never made a point of trying to lose. It's the same thing as when somebody asked me: would you ever have a facelift? I just wouldn't. I've never seen the point."

She was honest enough to admit she'd had no idea that the new salon was in prime Beatles territory; that Liverpool had been chosen on the advice of two colleagues who ran her franchise in Manchester and had noticed how many Liverpudlians came by to shop. The next day she got slated in some quarters for saying at the launch party that she 'didn't think much about Liverpool' - a sentiment interpreted completely and deliberately the wrong way. She didn't think much about Liverpool in the same way that she didn't think much about quantum physics or spaghetti hoops. Other things sustained her passion.

Light fantastic: VW under one of her boutique's chandeliers

Light fantastic: VW under one of her boutique's chandeliers

You're incredibly single-minded about what you do…

"I have no idea what other people do, honestly. I don't look at magazines. I don't watch television. I read. And when I travel I usually go to an art gallery. For example, I've been teaching in Berlin for the last ten years so that particular art gallery in Berlin is the one I know better than any other. Because in England you think, the National Gallery's open every Wednesday evening so the next time I go to the dentist I'm going to make the appointment for Wednesday afternoon and then on my way back I can call in and stay there till nine o'clock. And I never manage it.

"But when I travel, I try to set aside a little bit of time so that I've got the chance to go somewhere and treat myself. When I went to Taiwan that was absolutely brilliant because I'm mad about Chinese painting. And they've got the best Chinese painting in the world there because, of course, it was Formosa and that's where Chiang Kai-shek [the pre-Communist leader of China] escaped when Mao came to power. And they took everything portable with them. If I did buy anything it would be something like that, or a 17th century painting, a little landscape.

"But no, I'm very un-acquisitive. Very tiny paintings would be nice. Christie's send me their catalogues and - I really should've thought about it - Vivien Leigh had two little Francesco Guardi paintings that she used to travel with, and they were at auction. Something like that, I'd like. Something that doesn't cost that much. So if somebody steals it then you've not lost too much."

Does any of that sound crackers to you? Eccentric maybe, but I came away thinking here was someone probably less pampered than your average footballer and a lot smarter. Like Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure, 'her intellect scintillated like a star'. Her assistant said I'd have no more twenty minutes, but the interview lasted an hour, after which she happily posed for photos while I fumbled with my camera. Thanks, I told her at the end, I really enjoyed that. "Yes," she smiled, "I rather think you did."

"As surreal experiences in my journalistic career go, attempting to teach the rudimentaries of Scouse to Vivienne Westwood is up there with shadowboxing with Earnie Shavers in a Moreton semi"


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Walk on Water

Blue jays over Botetourt

Golden Virginia

Georgia on my mind

Strange Magic

Nurse Gosling's book of verse

Titanic 2.0

Love for sail

Bex maniacs

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

Wings of desire

World cities works of art: some offcuts

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Raiders of the well looked-after Ark

Railroad blues

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A time to dance

Ghosts of Mount Urgull

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Guggenheim Bilbao: as good as it gets?

Still small voice

On the waterfront

Raise the botanic

Old man of the sea

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Gates to the city

Brand of hope and glory

Two of a kind

Kingdoms of Heaven

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Ride a Black Swan

The pub on the beach

On Savannah and Charleston

Still chasing the birds

The Liverpolitan
Published at Brighter Design
Unit 26A, Britannia Pavilion,
Albert Dock, Liverpool, L3 4AD

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