What might it be like to spend a year getting to know Vivienne Westwood? Collaborating with the fashion icon herself to create Vivienne Westwood, Ian Kelly has done just that, and he’s let us have a glimpse of what it was like…

 by Ian Kelly

I first met Vivienne at a reception at the V&A during London Fashion Week: I had written a book about Beau Brummell and the origins of tailoring: I assume that was why I was invited. It was a brief meeting but fortuitous in its way, as it was Brummell that brought us together again about two years ago when it was first mooted that Vivienne write her autobiography or collaborate on an official 'life'. Others in her company had read my book on Casanova, and Andreas, her husband, had read Brummell at her suggestion: so that's how it all began: an introduction to Vivienne and punk and activism via the 18th century...

The book is the result of a year of conversations and is itself a dialogue of sorts: my historian's eye – and I hope a storyteller's instinct – looking at Vivienne's journey from Derbyshire girlhood, through the McLaren years and on to couture and to activism, and Vivienne's personal narrative of sons and lovers, of sewing machines and self-education. On a practical level, this meant many happy hours sitting at Vivienne's cutting desk with a tape recorder and a constant flow of tea.

It's always best to have too much cloth to be able to cut well when writing and lots of the 'context' of the conversations didn't make it into the final book. This passage from an early draft is one of those.

About two thirds of the way through my year-long conversation with Vivienne, back and forth to her studio, and to her house in Clapham, I got a bit frustrated. Maybe it’s inevitable. She is busy. And she is slippery – though she may not mean to be. I am used to archives, I suppose, and compliant subjects whose lives I can survey from the vantage point of history. So I invited her and Andreas (her husband of twenty-five years and co-designer) for Sunday lunch at my home in Stoke Newington. Food in families tends to solve things, in my experience. Not always, but often – and Cora, Vivienne’s granddaughter, had been telling me all about Vivienne’s legendary Christmas dinners and her cooking. I didn’t quite expect Vivienne to accept. My seven-year-old daughter spent all of the day before dressing up her Barbies in Vivienne Westwood ‘looks’ made from Barbie’s originals, slightly distressed, and my old hankies. My son baked a cake.

“If you ask her a direct question, she will give you a direct answer”

Tizer (Vivienne's PA) gave me strict instructions on diet and food allergies (vegan, gluten free, sugar free, that type of thing) and asked for directions for bicycling from Clapham Old Town to Hackney, which is no mean feat. It can be done, but not easily in a London heat wave. And not often by seventy-three-year-olds in platform heels. Vivienne’s personal dedication to ecological low-impact is honest: however in the end she and Andreas came by bus, which is no mean feat either it should be said. They arrived at the door, glowing slightly, straight off the Number 73, and opined reasonably that it was a long way, and, dressed head to toe in Vivienne Westwood couture and platform heels, that ‘people do stare on public transport.’ Anyway, I tell this story for three reasons. 

– I treasure the experience of, and friendship with, them both, and they are, it’s true, both brilliant with children. The Barbie collection has never looked back. And as for Oscar’s sugar, egg and gluten laden cake (lemon meringue pie), Vivienne fell on it like an escapee from planet fashion.

– There is nothing phoney or disingenuous about Vivienne or Andreas: what you see is what you get. She arrived that day wearing a Free Bradley Manning T-shirt, and spoke eloquently and accurately about the whistle-blower’s thirty-three year sentence, that week, on espionage charges, explaining it to my wide-eyed children. 

– Her position on climate change and ecological and ethical responsibility is lived out daily and simply as best she can: it is heartfelt and clear. Though it should be said that when Vivienne is in full flow on politics, Andreas tends to leave the room. The secret of a happy marriage may be having some divergent interests.

The children have a particular perspective on Vivienne and it is true: she is clear and easy and honest. If you ask her a direct question, she will give you a direct answer (I rather wish the children had been with me for some of the interviews). She is neither gluten nor sugar intolerant, and lemon meringue pie seems to be a special favourite – but then again, she may simply have been responding to a child's creativity. I started bringing cakes to the interview. Vivienne never touched them, but Tizer and Andreas did; that's the thing about fashion; there's not nearly enough cake.

Main photograph from left to right: Ben Westwood, Joe Corré, Andreas Kronthaler and Vivienne Westwood. Image © Faye Marie.

Vivienne Westwood by Vivienne Westwood and Ian Kelly is out now.