Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity, and the Sixties Laid Bare

Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity, and the Sixties Laid Bare

by Fred Vermorel, Vivienne Westwood


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780879516918
Publisher: The Overlook Press
Publication date: 09/28/1996
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.18(h) x 0.99(d)

Read an Excerpt

Vivienne’s secret, as she admits, is Malcolm McLaren. Malcolm’s secret is told here for the first time in Part Two.

Part One: Vivienne Westwood, an Imaginary Interview is me taking liberties with everything I can recall Vivienne saying to me over thirty years, plus what she’s said in her many published interviews. Quite a lot, as you will see. Some of this is put into her mouth from other sources as well – for example, her family and Malcolm.

I also put two of my students on the case, and they extensively interviewed people from Vivienne’s past. It’s got that rather flat ‘interview’ tone, but I also think it’s got a lot of her. If you think ‘We’ve got a right one here!’, then I’ve done the job OK. This section is in a sense ‘factual’, as it has some ‘dramatised’ sections but is based on what I know and on what has been documented by others. In other words, I didn’t make any of it up, though you might be tempted to think so. I also resisted the temptation to put my own spin on events in the guise of her voice – my version comes in Part Two. Needless to say, however, this ‘Imaginary Interview’ doesn’t claim to represent what Vivienne might say on her own account or what she might say about all this in retrospect.

Like me, Vivienne and Malcolm are sixties people. That was our formative decade. But a lot of shit has been written about the sixties. I’ve tried to go beyond the clichés and examine our origins more ruthlessly by interrogating my own experience along with theirs. So this section is an eyewitness account of how we grew up together in an inconspicuous corner of the sixties, roughly from 1963 to the early to mid-seventies, when the sixties finally began to peter out – or are they still with us? There’s a lot about me in this, because biographies, after all, overlap, and shared circumstances and attitudes can say it all. Hence Part Two: Growing up as a Genius in the Sixties.

In this section I also reveal the strange secret of Malcolm McLaren’s talent – his talent for genius. I sketch the Romantic context of this talent – where it can thrive – and show how Vivienne has absorbed and made it her own.

To bring it all up to date I wrote Part Three: Pictures from the Revolution, which traces a line of vignettes up to October 1995, when I observed the scenes behind Vivienne’s Paris show at the Grand Hôtel. I’ve also tried here to give a sense of that curious organization, Vivienne Westwood Ltd.

The funny thing was, everyone assumed that because we were at the centre of punk Malcolm and I were incredibly debauched and perverted.

There were stories, for instance, that I used to lock Malcolm up in a cupboard all day, and that our Clapham flat was the scene of wild orgies, some of them lesbian, featuring me and young punk girls. In fact we were probably the straightest couple on that scene. Though the rumours were good for business.

Of course, there’s always been a dominant side to me, and Malcolm sometimes liked to enact his childhood traumas. But all that is very private to us, and I would never tell anyone anything that might hurt Malcolm. Whatever he has said about me since our break-up, I still feel very loyal to him. In any case we were usually too busy with our projects and our business to do anything very exotic. In fact, I don’t recall either of us having very much sex around that period – straight or kinky.

When did Malcolm and I split up? Perhaps it really started around the time of my Pirate collection, 1979-80. Adam Ant – around then.

I had known Adam for some time as someone who used to hang around SEX, our boutique in the King’s Road. I thought him a nice boy, very polite. Adam had been pestering Malcolm for ages to manage him. Eventually Malcolm gave him advice about stage presentation, like painting a big white stripe on his nose. He charged Adam £1000 for this advice. That was probably the best advice Adam ever got.

But Malcolm needed a band himself at the time, since he was thinking of starting Bow Wow Wow. So he got talking to Adam’s backing band. He explained that Adam was basically a no-hoper. Malcolm suggested they should leave Adam and form another band with another lead singer, and he would then manage them as Bow Wow Wow. He was thinking they might front the pirate look I’d been designing.

That band were all such craven boys really. They had no loyalty to Adam, and caved in pretty quickly. So Malcolm put them to work, sending them to recording studios to record demos.

He’d tell them to go into a studio, work there for several days, and once the engineer’s back was turned, steal the tape and do a runner. Then they would take the same tape to another studio and start all over again. That way all the demos were made for free – another kind of piracy, plus he sent a buzz of notoriety around the industry in advance of any sales pitch.

Then Malcolm came up with Annabella. She was fourteen then, with a high, shrill voice and a manic presentation. I thought she was crap to start with and the first time I heard a tape of her I smashed the cassette machine! But then Malcolm got a deal with EMI, of all companies, which was a surprise to everyone.

At the time Malcolm was also writing a film script. He wanted to fuse this with the band he was creating. The script was about the ‘Mile High Club’, a group of kids who meet in the ruined fuselage of a plane and use it for meetings which turn into sex orgies which get more and more elaborate and outrageous. I thought this was quite a promising idea.

You see, Malcolm thought the rock industry was really about kids having sex and wanted to rub its nose in the fact. So the idea was to get the industry involved in some aspect of supposedly underage sex, and then say innocently: ‘Oh, but what’s the problem with that then? It’s what you do all the time! It’s what makes the wheels go round!’

While this was going on, a BBC film crew headed by Alan Yentob was making a documentary about Malcolm creating this band. They were filming meetings inside EMI, with EMI people solemnly checking out pictures of kids in sexy poses, and listening to Annabella having an orgasm on ‘Sexy Eiffel Towers’. They were all making judicious comments about the whole thing and acting as if it was business as usual. They didn’t realize that Malcolm was setting up a crafty trap. But then everything started to go wrong.

Adam had sworn revenge on Malcolm. He’d got together with Marco Pirroni to form a rival band to Bow Wow Wow. Adam then pinched Bow Wow Wow’s ‘Burundi beat’ (which Malcolm had pinched from Bernard Rhodes, who got it from an old sixties single). Adam even stole my eighteenth-century feel in costumes and the pirate look!

Then Adam was very successful and had big hits with all this, while Bow Wow Wow was left standing.

I remember when Malcolm told the Bow Wow Wow boys that Adam had just released ‘Dog Eat Dog’. Malcolm said they looked so fed up. We thought that was funny!

But Malcolm had overstretched the kiddy sex angle – especially through a series of photo shoots in different locations across London. These were about Annabella and the band with lots of other kids, and they took place in different houses all over town during one day.

As ever, Malcolm wanted to push things as far as he could – to make it really crazy – and had these kids posing with the band erotically. This started to worry the photographer. Then, at the last place we went, Malcolm started a situation in which the photographer and a twelve-year-old girl were locked into a confrontation. The girl was supposed to take off all her clothes, but instead she held a cushion in front of herself. Malcolm was shouting: ‘Take that away!’ and the girl burst into tears.

Her mother, who had been watching television in the next room, was furious, and the photographer couldn’t believe what he’d been involved in. That was just Malcolm getting carried away as usual.

I think it was one thing to implicate the industry in its own salacious tastes, but another to upset children like that. I didn’t agree with it.

After that, things went from bad to worse. The BBC abandoned their documentary and locked the film they’d made in the vaults, like it was a deadly virus. Alan Yentob is one of those people who likes to be thrilled, but not that much.

Then Annabella’s mother heard about some of what was going on and started making all sorts of mischief. She had some funny idea that Malcolm was depraving and corrupting her daughter and made a huge fuss, contacting Scotland Yard and all the papers, and ringing the record company non-stop.

Eventually Bow Wow Wow failed, and I think it was for several reasons. To start with, those boys in the band. Basically, they just wouldn’t try hard enough or persist, so really they didn’t deserve any success. They had an attitude problem. Then Annabella was a real problem. She just wouldn’t do her bit properly and became very childish. I remember me and Malcolm endlessly trying to talk her into taking her clothes off. We wanted her in the nude and therefore in the news. But the poor silly girl couldn’t see that. She was so hung up about sex. I said to her: ‘You’ve got a beautiful body, so what’s wrong with showing it?’ But she was still a mummy’s girl.

After that, sadly, she got raped by one of the band, or so I heard, and then hooked on drugs, and the whole thing became a complete mess. A pity really.

But I also have to say the music wasn’t very good. And the fact that Malcolm wrote the lyrics perhaps didn’t help. That was his megalomania. By then he had got to thinking he was an all-time, all-round genius. That everything he did had to work and everyone who disagreed was a traitor. I think he is a genius, but sometimes he won’t listen to sense.

And I wonder in a way if he didn’t really hijack what I was doing at that time. Because Bow Wow Wow was never as strong as my fashion.

The pirate thing took off phenomenally and in some ways was the most successful thing I’ve ever done. I exhibited it as a collection in the Pillar Hall at Olympia in March 1981. My slogan was ‘a new age of glamorous heroes standing tall and slim and proud’. Some of those designs also featured in Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s and Henri Bendel. And my ideas went all round the world and popped up in other people’s collections on catwalks from Milan to Tokyo. I couldn’t believe how much I was copied. It was very flattering in a way as I’d not got much self-confidence at that stage. I suppose it’s ironic that the one thing that really did get pirated was my pirate collection!

But it was around about then that things between me and Malcolm started to go seriously wrong.

I’d usually tolerated his affairs with other women because he’d told me he needed to do that. I tried to understand his needs as an artist to explore himself and experiment with his freedom. So when he slept with Helen Waddington-Smith (the dwarf in the film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle) for example, I just thought, well, if that’s what turns you on! I hardly thought of her as a rival.

Then, in 1980, Malcolm got himself a flat in Paddington and took up with this horrid German girl, Andrea. I thought she was a bloodsucker and a groupie. She had a hard little face and a putty-like expression. We had quite a few rows over Andrea. Once I even hit Malcolm at a show where Bow Wow Wow were modelling my clothes. That caused a commotion backstage! Malcolm told me he was in love with this Andrea girl, but I just knew it wasn’t true. I was convinced he said it simply to hurt me.

He even had the nerve to say Andrea was only his mistress and that I was his real partner – as if I wouldn’t mind or would tolerate that kind of situation. When he told me that I saw red. I thought it was an insult to even compare me with someone like Andrea. I threw Malcolm out of the flat and said don’t you ever come back in here. After all we’d done together! As if I was some kind of housewife! I was so angry that night. I really punched him hard. That night I really wanted to hurt him.

A few days later I went round to his flat. Like a coward, he wouldn’t let me in, so I made quite a commotion in the street. Then I threw a brick through his window and went back to Clapham. I was in my pirate clothes so I don’t know what the neighbours thought.

Even so, we didn’t really split up then. We had too much invested in each other. We had the shop and the collection and we had all the culture we shared and all the culture we had made together. I still needed him to feed me with ideas and he still needed me to turn his ideas into clothes. So eventually he came back yet again and sheepishly admitted he’d made a mistake. And perhaps stupidly, I took him back.

It wasn’t until 1983 that the final break came. Though, to tell the truth, there had been so many breaks and reconciliations already that in the end I couldn’t really put an exact time or place to it. All I know is, it just started to hurt more and more as it became inevitable that we would have to part in a radical or complete way. Both emotionally and professionally.

But one good thing did come out of the split – I got closer to my mother. Malcolm had always come between us as a source of suspicion, poisoning my feelings towards my parents and my past. My mother has always disliked him. She calls him ‘the interloper’.

My family had come from Tintwistle, in the Derbyshire Peak District, a grim, working-class village straggling both sides of the Manchester Road. They had lived in the village since about the year dot.

Life was settled there, and it still is. Many of the people I grew up with are still around, in Tintwistle itself, or in Glossop, the nearest town. The place was founded on the cotton trade in the industrial revolution. The Victorians built its factories, schools and chapels and people like my dad joined the village brass band, and the Odd Fellows, with their secret handshakes and ancient rituals. All of them were self-made, self-reliant and self-educated – like me.

In the 1940s my father’s mother ran a grocery store. In that area this meant they were lower middle class. They were also the only family with a car, which my father drove to Manchester and back early in the morning for shop supplies.

My mother, born Dora Ball, worked in a modern cotton mill which also produced silk. She was able to buy material cheaply and she loved making dresses, especially to go out dancing in. She was a committed ballroom dancer, and started ‘serious’ dancing at the age of sixteen. She never lost her love of ballroom dancing, so I suppose I was brought up with bits of fabric, exotic colours, sexy slippery silks. Quite a contrast to the sensible tweeds and wellington boots of everyday life in Tintwistle.

In those days the cottages were two-up two-downs with outside lavatories. The water was heated by a log fire in a zinc tank and there was a tin bath. Immediately behind was a common area called ‘the quarry’. There were no fences because the quarry was like one big back garden with a disused wash-house where everyone had a washing line and all the children from the terrace played. No one would lock their doors in those days and we would wander in and out of neighbours’ cottages. People stood and gossiped at the back doors, not the front.

But in our house there was something extra: cupboards crammed with nets and silky froth. Frocks on the back of bedroom doors. Sequins that peeked out at you and suggested there was another side to life – though I never made the connection at the time.

In trying to fit in with Malcolm and his ideas I had suppressed Tintwistle and my childhood. But then it all started to flood back. In a way my Harris Tweed collection was a way of dealing with that. I showed it in March 1987 at Olympia. It was a trip to Italy which had given me a perspective on the British way of dressing. I thought about all those uniforms we developed for sports and casual wear, from the gentleman’s blazer to the riding-to-hounds clothes.

I was also exploring the kind of clothes I wore as a working-class girl in Tintwistle – how they were like the kind of clothes the Queen might wear. The sort of tradition and style that surrounded me back then, and that we looked up to. I took that essential frumpiness and reworked it to subvert it with a touch of glamour: Harris tweed suits and coats with Peter Pan collars decorated with crowns, sashes and medals.

In that collection I also emphasized an hourglass shape to the body and began to develop my trademark platform soles.

People criticised me at the time for harping on royalty and being a so-called conservative. Well, if they couldn’t see the humour in what I was doing, how could I help that? I’ve always taken pleasure in amusing myself and knowing that what amuses me will also amuse others.

I even did a photograph for Tatler disguised as Margaret Thatcher. When my mother saw that she was amazed at the resemblance. I’ve heard that some people seem to think this showed me up as a secret Tory. But really I am someone who always votes Labour and always will. I would never support the Tories in anything.

The only time I met Margaret Thatcher was at an event at Number Ten to promote British Fashion Week. I got this terrifically negative charge from Thatcher. I remember wondering if she was really human! We may both be the children of shopkeepers, but I think that’s where the resemblance ends!

It was through my mother’s passion for dancing that she met my father. That was one fateful evening, two weeks before Christmas. Dora had been in Glossop to buy herself a new ballroom dress and missed the last bus. She was forced to walk to another bus stop on the outskirts of town.

As she passed St Mary’s dance hall carrying her new dress, she saw the handsome and notorious Gordon Swire, my dad. She’d known him for ages. Around there everyone knew everybody. And she knew that Gordon was the Jack-the-Lad of the district. She’d been warned about him; he had a wicked reputation with the girls as a flirt and a gadabout.

So she assumed he was waiting to see whom he could pick up. Then she heard him call across the street.

‘Where are you going?’


Gordon asked if he could walk with her. She immediately replied: ‘No, thank you!’, fearful for her reputation.

But then she let him anyway. And suddenly, as they were walking together, they knew that was it.

They married in 1939, two weeks before the outbreak of World War Two, in Christ Church, the Tintwistle village church. For their honeymoon they went to Scarborough, travelling there and back in the car. Then they set up home in a terrace of twelve labourers’ cottages called Millbrook. They were in number six.

On 8 April 1941 they had me, Vivienne Isabel, their first-born. When I was still quite small, my mother would often lift me over the fence at the back so I could go into the countryside and play.

All around was woodland, fields and streams. In those days you could walk for miles without seeing anyone or any traffic. Wandering freely in the countryside, daydreaming by streams, climbing trees, is where I learned the pleasures of solitude. I still love to be alone, just with myself. It often irritates me to have to go out and deal with all these people as I’m constantly doing these days. Sometimes I think I’d just like to disappear inside myself again, tucking my skirt in my knickers to hop boulder to boulder across a stream.

Only this time, perhaps, in a library. Wandering along the shelves from ‘Aldous Huxley’ to ‘Flagellation’, ‘Coco Chanel’ to ‘Tourette’s syndrome’. There’s so much to find out!

Tintwistle has all changed so much now. There are fences at the back and cars parked along the road. It’s turned into what my mother calls ‘an eyesore’.

The war was on when I was born and my dad, being a peaceable kind, didn’t fancy his chances fighting Hitler. He found himself a job in an aircraft factory as a storekeeper.

Our village was hardly affected by the war, though there was a blackout and a food shortage. But with my dad’s mum being a grocer my parents didn’t even need their ration book. And there was plenty of milk for a newborn baby like me. A man came round with a big container on a horse and cart and we took as much as we wanted.

Sometimes, at night, when Manchester was being bombed, the sky was all red. But apart from that I hardly remember the war. After all, I was only four when it ended.

I do remember when my sister, Olga, was born. I was three then. I hadn’t realized someone else was coming into the cottage. When Olga was brought home I was peeved and jealous. She seemed like another person I didn’t want in the home, cluttering it up with her crying and messes. I felt that now she was the baby I had to grow up as quickly as possible and become the capable one with clever hands who made sure everything was just right.

Olga was always very different from me. Malcolm would laugh at her for being solid and stolid, calling her ‘Olga from the Volga’. Olga is methodical and rarely takes risks.

She was also unlike me in her passion for animals. As a child Olga had dogs instead of dolls. (To this day she still breeds chinchillas and iguanas in a shed at the bottom of her garden.) My parents also loved animals and bred lots of rabbits and dogs. Our house was always a lively place with plenty of creatures scampering about.

Two years after the war, Gordon, my brother, was born. Dad didn’t really want to call their son Gordon, but Mum insisted. I think she loved my father so much she wanted two of him! This time I wasn’t at all put out. I had been looking forward to him coming and hoping he would be like a doll I could cuddle and look after. However, I was a little cross that he didn’t seem as small as he should have been. I thought him rather big for a baby.

Then our family was complete. The same pram did for all three of us.

When I was about four I had an experience which marked me for life. I saw a crucifix and asked what it was. When they told me I was completely shocked. Not being a Catholic, I had never seen anything like it – they didn’t have that kind of savage picture in our church or Sunday school. A man twisted in agony with nails driven through his hands and feet! I couldn’t believe people could do that to someone. It seemed so cruel and unnecessary.

But what really got to me was that my teachers had more or less lied. They had covered up this gruesome fact of crucifixion. They told us all about sweet baby Jesus, and ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, but they hadn’t let on about how he was killed in that dreadful way. It was all fairy tales and I realized there was a much grimmer world out there and this had been covered up. That shook my confidence in grown-ups. What else were they hiding?

But that image also made me determined to stick up for the underdog. At school, from then on, I was determined to protect weak people from bullies. I was always the one who stood up for people. I suppose I took the Christian message very much to heart. In fact I was a complete believer up to the age of about eleven. After that, of course, I realized it was all silly nonsense.

But that feeling of wanting to help the underdog has never left me. I’ve been a sort of freedom fighter all my life. An instinctive rebel.

So was Sid Vicious. We got Sid into the Sex Pistols when the band was going through its final phase. That was really to break it up.

Malcolm had started a row between Glen Matlock and the other members of the band, who didn’t like Glen anyway because they thought he was middle-class and stuck-up. Glen had also started asking awkward questions like: ‘Where is all the money going?’

At the time, Malcolm was pouring most of the Pistols’ earnings into various film projects. The boys were on really quite small wages and had no idea of the business dealings going on in their name. But they would have only thrown it away on luxuries, so it was right that Malcolm was spending it to keep the ideas going. Anyway, he thought it was a good idea to get rid of Glen. In any case, Glen didn’t really like the rebellious aspect of it all. With his soft face he just wanted to be a Beatle really.

We realized around that time that we had created a monster that might grow up and get out of our control. Perhaps even become established like the Rolling Stones! So really we had to destroy the band. That was the only way to snatch the initiative back from the record industry. We had to end the whole adventure in the spirit it began.

Unfortunately, in the end we couldn’t trust the band to be radical. Perhaps because they didn’t have our background, and were basically naïve and susceptible to congratulations and flattery from the likes of John Peel. In the end all of them just wanted to be rock and roll stars – even Sid. So I suppose we had to put a stop to that. The last thing we wanted was for the band to become everything it had set out to destroy – famous and stupid music.

So we got Sid in to replace Glen. That was enough to destroy any band!

By then Sid was on a suicide trip. He had shacked up with that awful Nancy Spungen and had his famous heroin habit. Nancy had come over with the first wave of New York punks who came to London when they heard of all the record deals being struck. And these American punks brought heroin with them, which began to replace the drink and speed of the English punks. I thought Nancy was appalling. She was a groupie and a leech. Everyone hated her. She had a shrill, whining voice and homed in like a vulture on poor Sid’s weaknesses.

Sid became a fabulous disaster, the face of the Pistols’ self-destruction. I suppose he was heading for disaster all his life. That was his great attraction. Sid was always out of control. Into every kind of mayhem, he was a genuine punk. One day he got hold of the cab account number for the band’s management company, Glitterbest. He went round London telling every punk he met what the number was. For a month the whole of London was full of punks on the dole riding around in cabs, even cabbing down to their benefit offices. That cost over £4000 before anyone found out.

Before killing off the band we thought we should make a celluloid version which preserved its original ethos. Malcolm wanted to implicate lots of British character actors in some outrageous porno/punk movie. He’d heard of a porn producer who had actually achieved something like this by hiring well-known actors to play scenes without realizing they were acting in a porn film. The film was then released with their names blazoned all over it. That was a very subversive idea, really clever.

The film we originally wanted to make was called Who Killed Bambi? The idea was to show a clash between the Sex Pistols and a hippie entrepreneur called Proby who was trying to cash in on the punk thing. Proby was supposed to be helping a thinly disguised Mick Jagger rejuvenate himself as a punk hero.

In the end a young punk girl would shoot the Jagger character dead and there would be a riot at Proby’s mansion. It was a bit like the Gordon riots in the eighteenth century, when rich people were dragged off their horses and beaten to death in the streets of London, and quite a few luxurious houses were burned down. We thought that sounded like a very punk thing – something which might be going on in the King’s Road in 1976.

Sid’s mum was to be depicted in the film as a raddled old drug addict, who would be played by Marianne Faithfull. In one scene Sid comes home unexpectedly to his council flat to find his mother shooting up. Sid was supposedly having an incestuous relationship with his mother, and in this scene they go into the bedroom and start having sex. Then her boyfriend comes home and sees what’s going on. Shouting ‘That’s illegal!’, he attacks Sid with his belt. But like a hero – and I do think that boy was a hero in real life in so many ways – Sid fights back with a chain and then knocks the boyfriend out with a karate chop.

All this was a much better idea than the Swindle and it’s such a pity everything went wrong and the film never got made. There were so many hassles about money and in the end Russ Meyer, the American soft-porn director who was supposed to make it, went back to America in a huff. Meyer was a bit of a bully, and even managed to frighten Malcolm. We were all relieved when he left.

Jamie Reid had meanwhile found a fifties magazine article about Lonnie Donegan saying: ‘Rock and Roll, it’s a Swindle.’ So then Malcolm had the idea of announcing that the Pistols were actually a gigantic con trick. Because by then even bores like John Peel were saying: ‘What a great band. They can really play. This is genuine rock and roll.’ Our new idea was to say: ‘No, they’re just crap. It was a hoax. And you fell for it!’

But by now there had been so much trouble with scripts and finance that we were left with only Julian Temple to make the Swindle. Julian was willing, but dizzy. He was never really into the punk thing and all he wanted was a start for himself in films, which is what I blame mostly for that film being rather woolly. I personally thought that Gordon, my brother, who worked as a film editor, would have made a much better job. But by that time it had all got too complicated to change directors.

To manage the destruction of the Sex Pistols Malcolm then planned a tour of America. He realized America would not be ready for the Sex Pistols. So he booked them into venues in redneck areas or where there would be cowboys walking around with guns who wouldn’t like such spiky-haired young ruffians. Malcolm also booked them into venues which were too small, so that there would be fights as a result of people trying to squeeze in.

All this worked out very well and the band did eventually break up in America. All the members fell out with one another and Sid made a suitable disgrace of himself, slashing his chest with glass on stage, getting into fights and causing all sorts of trouble.

But I’m sure that Sid didn’t mean to kill Nancy. He just wanted to hurt her. Warn her, perhaps. She was a very dishonest girl. Sometimes Sid would try to get through to her, to have an honest relationship. But he never could. I think that’s why in the end he stabbed her.

After Sid was jailed I tried to stir things up in my own way. I put out a T-shirt saying: ‘She’s dead, I’m alive, I’m yours.’ This upset quite a lot of people, but hopefully it also made them think.

It does make me smile nowadays when John Lydon says that ideas like situationism had little to do with the Sex Pistols, and that he was what counted. In fact, maybe it was John himself who had little to do with the Sex Pistols. ‘Johnny Rotten’ was really just a face and a mouthpiece for ideas John was often too uneducated to understand, and attitudes he was too cowardly to follow through.

Although John was a real poet, he really wanted to be a star. Then he became frightened of his own fame and became a parody of himself – which is what he is now.

The record industry ignored the punk thing at first. It was doing very nicely with all those millionaire types like Pete Townshend and Rod Stewart. Sniffing things in their mansions and going through divorce settlements. But then came a time when the panic we wanted to create really did set in. Record companies were suddenly desperate not to be left out. All you needed to get signed was green, spiky hair or a ‘Destroy’ T-shirt.

WEA even signed up John’s little brother. I suppose they thought something ‘Rotten’ might rub off.

Although Virgin had wanted to sign the Pistols right from the start, we were suspicious of them. Malcolm, especially, wanted to sign to EMI. He knew we had to go to the most conservative and established record company to make the maximum impact. To cause trouble on what was then a small label would have meant nothing. But to cause trouble in Manchester Square, home of the Beatles, would be scandalous.

At one time Malcolm wanted me to go to Madame Tussaud’s and set fire to the wax effigies of the Beatles. I thought that was inspired. Only I was worried it might start a fire and someone would get hurt.

Eventually EMI signed the Sex Pistols. But then, of course, they couldn’t handle all our stage-managed ‘bad’ publicity and sacked the band, having to pay them money in the process. All that was good for business. Then Derek Green of A&M Records signed them up. And within one week he had to ring his bosses in America and ask if they would let him drop the band. He said he couldn’t handle it – it was out of control; he had miscalculated.

One week must be a record in the record business!

Derek Green thought he’d be dealing with a bunch of working-class hooligans, a bit like himself. He was a Saturday footballer, a beer-swilling sort of man who thought he recognized himself in the band. But instead of the Sex Pistols he got Glitterbest Ltd.

The way rock and roll works is that the band is supposed to behave badly and then, when things start to get difficult, the record company contacts the management and things get sorted out. Damage is paid for and the band is sent on a tour of Sweden while the fuss dies down.

But in this case the management was even worse than the band. So when the record companies complained to the management company, Glitterbest, we just rubbed our hands together. Well, we thought, if vomiting at Heathrow airport gets people interested, surely we should have more of it.

You see, we all had this art college background and knew it was just a game. That you can never go too far. We knew about avantgarde heroes like Marinetti, the crazy tactics of those Dadaist people, about situationism and the power of negative thinking, about black humour and Surrealism. We had role models like Van Gogh, Trotsky and André Breton. We knew that Lenin said: ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ We realized that when authority figures warn that you are ‘going too far’ you just have to be courageous and just keep on going and going. And all that ever happens is that you get rich (if you’re lucky) and famous (nearly always) and end up in the history books.

It’s only fools – and most of them, unfortunately, happen to be the uneducated and working-class people of this world – who get frightened and intimidated into retreating or apologizing.

And after that, they disappear.

Whatever else my parents gave me they gave me confidence in myself, something to build on. Perhaps, too, something vital to my creativity. After I was born their social life suffered. But luckily for them a neighbour from the terrace used to babysit so they could keep up their ballroom dancing. They would go dancing at the Sunday school halls at Tintwistle and Hollingworth, or at the Victoria Hall in Glossop, or in Ashton-under-Lyne, a six-mile bus ride away.

My father also loved to sing in clubs or pubs. Plus he was a great bowler and bowled in the village and all around the district. But mostly it was the dancing – foxtrot, waltz, tango – under the lights in each other’s arms around the floor. They were happy to be together and to be married in an uncomplicated and devoted way, in love all their lives. They never wanted anyone but each other and they adored their children.

We didn’t often see my parents dancing, but I always had in my mind their bodies moving. I sometimes went to sleep with the vision of them moving in perfect harmony. Fabric swaying and rustling. I was always fascinated by the perfection of that image.

Nowadays I am even more fascinated by the relationship of the body to clothing. This underlies all my design, and I can’t stress enough how important it is in general. Self-awareness about the body separates good from mediocre design.

I once had a student from Chicago who helped me for two months doing chores and helping with pattern cutting, and towards the end I set her a project. I gave her a book on Chanel and said imagine that Vivienne Westwood has to produce a collection inspired by Chanel, and then produce some drawings. So off she went.

She showed me her drawings some time later. Not one of them was anywhere near as good as the original. She hadn’t used her brain. She hadn’t dealt with the most basic requirement – making the garment fit the body. She couldn’t see the wood for the trees; she wasn’t dealing with the most primary thing – the body.

This is what seems to happen with students – all they can see is the trees. They should stop pissing about!

At Millbrook Cottages us kids were squashed into one bedroom. I’ve always liked my own space and I didn’t like having Olga and Gordon in there all the time. But in 1954 my mother was offered the chance to become a postmistress, so we moved to a bigger house in the village. Mr and Mrs Senior, who ran the Tintwistle post office, had become ill and had to retire. It was my father’s idea. He thought there wasn’t much of a future in what he and Mum were doing and wanted to move on. So we all moved about a mile up the same street, the main road to Manchester.

The village post office was, I suppose, very fifties – dark and dingy. In those days nearly everything seemed to be chocolate brown or some shade of grey. Our shop sold sweets, papers and stamps. We were there for four years.

At the age of four I’d been sent to the Hollingworth school, but then my parents decided to change me to Tintwistle – the same school my mother went to – as they thought this gave a better education.

My first memory of school is getting a good slap on my first day for going into the boys’ toilets. I suppose that was typical of me. We’d been queuing up nicely in the morning but at lunchtime I thought, why should we do this? Why can’t I just go into that toilet for a change? I was slapped really hard.

It was a strict school, secure in the knowledge of what was right and wrong. That did me a lot of good. It’s a pity that schools aren’t more like that now.

I used to take Olga and Gordon to school, which was behind the village church, and we would walk through the graveyard. We looked out of our classrooms to the hills of the Peak District, which loomed up darkly. Downwards, you could see a huge reservoir and holding tanks and weirs.

I was taught to read at this school, and how to write in a clear, round hand. My writing still goes round and round, in fact, rather like the wheels of a bicycle.

Perhaps I also learned a sort of role, of being in charge and instructing. Of being teacherly, which is what people tell me I sometimes still am. In any case I got on well with my teachers.

Since having my own sons I’ve realized how a child’s personality is there right from the start. What they are even as babies carries right into adulthood. Whatever parents do, children are born with certain characteristics – it’s their bag of tools. Yet I think that nurture also has a lot to do with it. The way I’ve brought up both my boys must have had an impact.

Ben is nowadays a soft-porn photographer and my other son, Joe, runs a sex boutique in Soho, Undercover, which sells high-class sex aids and underwear. I think they both got a lot out of my being their mother. But I do also wish I could have given them more of an education. In fact I would have liked to have sent them to a private tutor. Perhaps I could have isolated them in that way, and stopped their access to this non-stop distraction – protect them from bad influences. If nothing else, children should grow up with a sense of pride – even contempt. But then it didn’t work out like that.

One reason why Malcolm doesn’t see Joe any more is that Malcolm wanted Joe to go to college and Joe refused. I suppose Malcolm thinks Joseph ought to do something better than ‘selling knickers’; that he ought to better himself. After all, education is where ideas come from, and that’s how things move forward – through discipline and education.

There were only three classes in my first school – infants, juniors and seniors. In each class, whatever you did you were taught by one teacher for two years. Then you moved up one, and another teacher taught you for the next two years. That happened three times, and then you left school. All the teachers taught all subjects – reading, writing and arithmetic, plus history and geography and, of course, poetry. Poetry was quite a big thing. We’d all learn it by heart and have to stand up in class to read it out aloud.

As infants we had Miss Story. She was quite a favourite with everyone. Then, for juniors, it was Miss Leeny, a bit sterner. When you got up to seniors you had Miss Wood, who was also the headmistress, and you knew she meant business.

Miss Wood was tall and straight with grey hair, a grey skirt and a short-sleeved grey jumper. She was very strict, but stricter with boys than girls. If you forgot something or talked in class you got lines. For more serious things you got the cane. It was usually the boys who got caned.

When Miss Wood caned someone it made me feel funny. I could almost imagine myself as a teacher, standing there holding the stick with my lips pursed. I felt my legs tingle and my stomach shrink.

There was no proper uniform. In summer, girls would wear plain printed summer dresses and a cardigan, and in winter, kilts. Our classes were mixed, but boys and girls played separately. So at playtime my friends and I might play rounders on the sloping tarmac, or skipping with a long rope. We’d line up and go: ‘Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday …’ And if you were ‘Sunday’ you went: ‘Pitch, patch, pepper’ and the rope swung faster – you had to see how many jumps you could do. What else? Monday morning was swimming lessons at Stowbridge baths, and back in time for dinner. The cook was Mrs Sharp, who used to make quite an effort with her home-made meat pies. And at Christmas the partitions dividing the school into three classes were slid back to make one big room for Father Christmas to visit.

I remember it as a happy place to be, so different from the inner-city schools I would later teach in.

We three Swire children were popular at school. I think we were all well-adjusted, intelligent and unproblematic. While our parents never pressured us – in fact, scarcely even encouraged us – we did enjoy learning.

My parents were not ‘bookish’; not interested in anything ‘intellectual’. I hardly like to say that, because they were both very bright people. But what we never had at home was any literature, and they never used to read to us. I remember my mother once bought a set of encyclopedias, but they weren’t the right sort, where you could look things up easily. So our house was the last place you might expect to find culture. Our parents were very loving and kind to us, but theirs was very much a country attitude – rather than culture, they were more interested in dogs and rabbits and things like that.

So I had never realized the vast store of knowledge that exists. I never thought of going to the library. I didn’t know what a library was even when I was at grammar school. How could I have been so stupid?

Even so, I practised the piano from about the age of eight to thirteen – ‘Chopsticks’, bits of Chopin and that sort of thing. My mother encouraged me. But then I stopped, finding the practice so tedious.

From my earliest youth, though, I was afraid of being stupid. I sometimes wondered whether I was. At the same time I thought that no one around me had enough information to give me, information that would help me. I would have to find it out all on my own.

Perhaps because of this I grew up very independent. For example, although I adored my mother, as I still do, I was never attached to her in the way that other girls are to their mothers. But perhaps my independence also came from the fact that I had very sane parents who both adored me. That gives you a lot of confidence.

As I was the eldest child, I was supposed to take Gordon and Olga everywhere. I took them to Saturday morning cinema in Glossop and to Sunday school. Tintwistle Sunday school was the same one my mother went to. I’m not sure if my parents really believed in religion very much but they sent us anyway. Sunday was taken very seriously in our village and respectable children like us weren’t allowed to play with bikes or roller-skates. All you could do on Sunday was go for walks or visit relatives.

There were lots of interesting processions in Tintwistle. It was a ceremonial sort of place. The village brass band used to march around the village and we used to march behind it. Me in my frock and sandals, marching behind the band. Originally there were two bands, the Foresters and Tinsel Crash – what great names! – but because of rivalry they merged.

Every June, there was ‘The Sermon’, which was the anniversary of the Sunday school. This also involved a procession led by the vicar, the church warden and the church band. We would march all around the village and stop at certain points to sing hymns. Afterwards everyone would go back to church for a service. This was a special event. We all had to wear new clothes – either a new dress, a new coat or new shoes – and look our very best. Everyone dressed to kill! All the villagers took part in these occasions. What with my parents dancing and me parading, maybe it brought out the exhibitionist in me.

There was still more dressing up at the July carnival. People in fancy dress would parade all round the village. That was brilliant. And then they’d have races. The band would march us around the village and then they would go for tea to the Sunday school, where a special tea was put on for them. Then the band would take chairs on to the green and sit there and play during all the flat races, the egg-and-spoon race, the ‘slow bicycle’ and the three-legged race. A vanished world!

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