Vivienne Westwood, 81, Dies; Brought Provocative Punk Style to High Fashion

Vivienne Westwood, the designer who defined the look of punk, using rock iconography, royalty, art and religion as recurring motifs in collections that brought a rebellious edge to British style, before going on to a long and influential career as a fashion designer with an activist streak, died on Thursday in the Clapham neighborhood of South London. She was 81.

Her death was announced by her company, Vivienne Westwood, which did not specify the cause.

Ms. Westwood was just 30 when she and her boyfriend, Malcolm McLaren — who as a music impresario would go on to manage the Sex Pistols — opened a shop called Let It Rock at 430 King’s Road in London. The business, which had a pink vinyl sign out front, was an unconventional one, selling fetish wear and fashions inspired by the Teddy boy look of the 1950s.

In shaping the look of the era, Ms. Westwood came to be known as the godmother of punk. After her partnership with Mr. McLaren ended, she began designing collections under her own name, and she soon established an international reputation.

She went on to open more stores in London and across the globe; her provocative creations appeared on supermodels and celebrities and influenced mainstream fashion. The corsets, platform shoes and mini-crinis (a combination Victorian crinoline and miniskirt) became her hallmarks.

“People really associate her with punk and that whole aesthetic, which is accurate and how she made her name, but she’s so much more than that,” Véronique Hyland, the author of “Dress Code: Unlocking Fashion From the New Look to Millennial Pink” (2022), said in an interview for this obituary. “She was influenced by art history, old master paintings. She’s very focused on the English tradition of tailoring.”

In a memoir published in 2014 and simply called “Vivienne Westwood,” Ms. Westwood wrote that people “seem surprised still that you can have been in punk and then also be in couture, but it’s all connected.”

“It’s not about fashion, you see,” she wrote. “For me, it’s about the story. It’s about ideas.”

The King’s Road shop always offered a peek inside its proprietors’ obsessions involving class, fashion and propriety. As the years went on, its name frequently changed — it was variously known as Let It Rock; Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die; Sex; Seditionaries; and World’s End. Its wares frequently changed as well.

Ms. Westwood made the clothes, which might include shirts with cutout photos of pinup girls or studded underwear made from T-shirts with slogans like “destroy” or “Be reasonable, demand the impossible.”

“I did not see myself as a fashion designer but as someone who wished to confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed and dressed others,” Ms. Westwood said in her memoir, which she wrote with Ian Kelly.

Sometimes the choices made by Ms. Westwood and Mr. McLaren, an art school dropout who was inspired by the theater of the absurd as championed by the French Situationists, could be controversial; they once included swastikas in their designs. (“We were just saying to the older generation, ‘We don’t accept you values or your taboos, and you’re all fascists,’” she later explained.)

They saw the store as a laboratory and a salon. When Mr. McLaren managed the Sex Pistols and recruited Johnny Rotten as their lead singer, Ms. Westwood dressed them in T-shirts from the shop and bondage pants accessorized with chains and razor blades. Their aggressively delivered songs, with names like “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen,” were a soundtrack to the nihilism of Britain in the 1970s.

Vivienne Isabel Swire was born on April 8, 1941, in Glossop, a village in Derbyshire, to Gordon and Dora (Ball) Swire. Hers was a blue-collar family; her father worked in a munitions and aircraft factory during World War II, and her mother worked in a local cotton factory.

In 1957, her parents decided to move to Harrow, in northwest London, to give their children more opportunities. Vivienne, who had taken her first sewing class at age 8, briefly attended the Harrow School of Art. She later worked at a Kodak factory before studying at a teacher training college, where she taught young children but was always unconventional: In her memoir she recalled that she once took a class of 8 years olds to see “Battleship Potemkin,” Sergei Eisenstein’s epic 1925 film about proletariat revolution.

She met Derek Westwood, an apprentice toolmaker, at a dance; they married in July 1962. Just a few months after she gave birth to their son, Ben, she left Mr. Westwood. The couple divorced in 1965.

Mr. McLaren was a friend of her brother Gordon when they met in 1965. “I could develop by talking to him,” she wrote of Mr. McLaren in her memoir. Their son, Joseph Corré (the surname was his paternal grandmother’s), was born in 1967.

The couple ended their romantic relationship in 1981 but remained business partners until 1984, by which time their store had become Ms. Westwood’s own.

Ms. Westwood met her second husband, the designer Andreas Kronthaler, in 1989, while she was teaching fashion design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and he was a student; they married in 1993. Mr. Kronthaler, who went on to become the creative director of her company, survives her, as do her sons, Mr. Corré, a founder of the lingerie company Agent Provocateur, and Ben Westwood, a photographer; and two grandchildren.

Ms. Westwood was named designer of the year in 1990 and 1991 by the British Fashion Council and was honored for outstanding achievement in fashion at the British Fashion Awards in 2007. When she received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II in 1992, she characteristically defied convention by wearing no underwear to the ceremony, famously giving a twirl for the paparazzi. In 2006 she was made a dame on the queen’s New Year’s Honors list.

Ms. Westwood’s clothes featured prominently in popular culture, including in the 2008 film adaptation of the television series “Sex and the City.” When the British actress Kate Winslet was nominated for an Academy Award for “Sense and Sensibility,” she wore a Vivienne Westwood gown to the Oscar ceremony.

Throughout her life, Ms. Westwood remained, as The New York Times noted in 2017, “a vocal environmental and political activist whose collections are always manifestoes and calls to rally.” At a show that year, she urged her audience to convert to green energy and focus their attention on the environment.

In 2020, Ms. Westwood dressed herself in a bright yellow outfit and locked herself inside a giant bird cage outside a London court to protest the jailing of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. “I am Julian Assange,” she declared. “I am the canary in the cage. If I die down the coal mine from poisonous gas, that’s the signal.”

“What I am doing now, it still is punk,” Ms. Westwood wrote in her memoir. “It’s still about shouting about injustice and making people think, even if it’s uncomfortable.

“I’ll always be punk in that sense.”

Danielle Cruz contributed reporting.

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