interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by JUERGEN TELLER
OLIVIER ZAHM — It seems that young people today are less politically engaged than they used to be. Take, for example, the nuclear disaster in Japan. What has been the lesson from that?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — I’m not sure that I agree with you with regard to that example, because I don’t think it’s so dangerous taken in the context of all other sources of energy. I listen to the scientist Jim Lovelock, who says there’s so much radiation anyway that he thinks the statistics in Japan are anecdotal and incalculable. They don’t add up. Anyway, according to him, nuclear is safer than even hydropower, where a dam can kill ever so many people. And with fossil fuels, the smoke from coal kills more people than are killed by radiation.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re an example for young people. You’re an icon from the punk era, and you have a beautiful brand with a vision of style that is not disconnected from politics. The way you dress expresses something about your position in society.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — What I’m trying to do with my company is insist on more quality and less quantity. Quality of design and materials. You could make a very big statement and say: if people only bought beautiful things, that would be climate revolution. It’s worth thinking about! Anyway, my maxim at the moment is buy less, choose well, and make it last. And my company is trying to supply a quality that will enable people to choose well. The truth is, I don’t like a lot of my things right now. I admit that and I’ve got to have more control over the periphery of my business. So that’s what I’m trying to do on that level.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you start with yourself and your own attitude. Congratulations, because that’s not easy! You know, I’m doing a magazine for the same reason you are doing fashion. It’s a way to express a message that to me has always been about freedom. But I’m really interested in what you said on your blog: Freedom is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to shape the kind of civilization we are living in.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — I went to see this play, The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, and that stimulated me to write that essay.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a play?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — He gave an interview after his arrest, and somebody wrote a book that was turned into a play. It’s all about 20th-century dogma. At the end he addresses the audience directly and tells them off for not thinking. And he breaks a Chinese vase — not a real one, because he has to do that every night — but in reality, he did break a vase and he photographed himself doing it. He tells the audience that the most important thing is freedom of speech, freedom of expression. I end my essay by saying that I agree with him. But how much better is freedom of speech if you actually have something important to say?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — People’s opinions are usually worthless.
OLIVIER ZAHM — There’s an urgency for real discussion. We’re facing a real catastrophe. What shook me is that we haven’t learned from the accident in Japan. Everyone knows what’s going on, even young people — they know what’s going on and don’t react. Why are people so passive today?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — In the case of nuclear power, I think that there is real confusion with the scientific evidence. It’s not that I’m a denier because I don’t want to believe it. It’s just I’ve had different information. And so people are confused. It’s propaganda.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s very difficult to have reliable information.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — It really is. That’s one thing. But I want to tell you, the other day I went to a meeting about a strategy for helping Bradley Manning, and there was a video link to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, whom I also support. One of the things being said was that the young generation now is more political than any previous generation because of the Internet. They are able to see the difference between what they read in the newspaper, what they see on television, and what is being said by people who know some other truth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Interpersonal knowledge and Internet.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — Yes, and also what is said in some of these alternate sources on the Internet, places that are putting out different information. This is a cause for hope. And I know the Internet is good and bad. It’s too much pressing of buttons, and it’s not about culture.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m so impressed by your optimism. How old are you now?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — Seventy-two. But we’re born with optimism, aren’t we? Most people are optimistic, and this is probably one of the problems. But you have to behave as if there is still a chance to do something. And what you can do today is so much better than what you can do tomorrow. It’s very urgent!
OLIVIER ZAHM — You just visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — I love the Met — it’s really, really good. What I particularly think is great is their collection of Impressionists. They’ve got a fantastic collection. I go there for the Chinese painting, too. They have the best collection on display in the whole world, as far as I know. I’ve never been to Beijing, though. I probably will never go, either, because it’s so polluted you’d get ill. But America is full of all these collectors, and they have brilliant museums in every big city.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you find so appealing about Chinese art?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — I think that Chinese painting is the high point of human achievement. They painted by memory. You can’t imagine — looking at something so well that you can get it down in one go. It’s just amazing — the transfer of the spirit through the hand, from the object to the paper. They remember it all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You love art so much, perhaps even more than fashion.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — Oh yeah. But I do like fashion. I mean it’s part of the same thing. I like it more now because of my husband, Andreas. He has so much respect for the genius of Yves Saint Laurent. I look at Saint Laurent again, and I agree. Sometimes people have asked me: “Is fashion an art?” I used to always say it’s an applied art — it has to be worn. I never said it was an art. But certainly, looking at Saint Laurent, I would say fashion is an art. He just reached perfection every time. It’s like the clothes were made by angels.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have said that art is a form of politics for you. Why is that?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — Put another way, I say that we are dangerously short of culture. And there’s a wonderful definition of culture by Matthew Arnold, who wrote a book called Culture and Anarchy in the middle of the 19th century. He’s saying culture is knowing the best that has ever been shown or written or said, and with that, you can then criticize all your prejudices, all your received opinions — in other words, the world that you live in. You do need to know the past. If you don’t know the past, you don’t know who you are, and you don’t understand human genius. You don’t understand your best self. The whole world is about our ordinary selves. And the whole ethos is ordinary. In an age of culture, the ethos is about your best self. An example of that would’ve been after the French Revolution.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So art protects you from propaganda and organized lying with information?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — Yes, that’s it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — An artist can’t lie?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — A true artist is always original and true. But yes, there’s an awful lot of self-delusion in the art world at the moment, and that’s why the art lover is so important. Without judges, you can’t have great art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When you say judges, do you mean art critics?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — No, I mean amateurs, art lovers. There are art lovers out there, but the general ethos of the age in which we live does not give credit or status to the art lover. It doesn’t give status to art. It’s part of commerce.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Art is a form of resistance for you.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — It’s a form of understanding the world you live in. We don’t understand the world we live in, and we’re making an absolute disaster at the moment. Climate change is connected to the lack of culture. The rotten financial system and the whole political system that backs it up, and the wars that we have are all part of the same problem. And culture is part of that, too. It’s all together. So, for example, when I’m in New York and I protest against the status of Bradley Manning, that is connected.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So your generation in the ’70s wanted to change the world on the political and social levels. Would you say the way to change it now is with the climate?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — The most urgent problem is to try to stop climate change. Otherwise we have no chance whatsoever. If we do manage to stop climate change, then we would have to have different values. Hopefully in trying to protect the environment, we will start to change our values.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But the punk generation was the first to say there’s no possible change, no future.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — No, I don’t think they said there’s no change possible. I mean take Johnny Rotten. There are brilliant lines in some of those lyrics: “Your future dream is a shopping scheme.” That’s a criticism, not that that’s what we want. But I don’t think that the punks were terribly political and that’s why I lost interest. They liked to look great and run around, but it wasn’t enough. It’s not enough to destroy. You have to have ideas, and I don’t think they had any ideas. If you’re a punk, it’s just really cool to be against the government. That’s really embedded in the punk attitude.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re an anarchist in a way, though, because you still don’t believe in government.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — I was an anarchist. I’m not now. I just don’t believe in the governments we’ve got. They’re so bad. That’s why we were interested in anarchy. We don’t need these terrible leaders. We need to break society down into smaller groups.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Still, you’re an anarchist in your way.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — Yes, yes I am, but there’s never been any anarchist system except for, like, I don’t know, the Amish. I expect they’re anarchist. They rule themselves.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Exactly. The world of fashion is also a little independent state in a way though, isn’t it? It doesn’t enitrely belong to the system.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — I don’t know about that. I don’t know many fashion designers. I certainly don’t know any of the new ones.
OLIVIER ZAHM — No, but I’m speaking about community. A way to resist propaganda is to construct a strong community around you and filter information, like a bohemian. You travel with your circus and then no one can stop you, because if they push you out of one place, you go to another and plant the circus a bit farther. It’s nomadic. The fashion community and the art world are like this, aren’t they?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — To me, fashion people are usually very apolitical, superficial people.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s possible.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — I get support from them, I guess, because I have credibility as a fashion designer.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do the people working for you understand your values and your fight for freedom?
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — A little bit. I talk to the people that work with me, but not very often. And they would like me to talk more. But, for example, I’m going to this big demonstration for Bradley Manning in front of the American embassy; Bradley Manning and I want as many people to go to it as possible. It’s on the weekend, so I will say to them that they can have an extra day off if they go to this demonstration. We’ll see how many of them go.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re able to change the people around you.
VIVIENNE WESTWOOD — I try to create awareness and get people engaged in the world. And I do believe that my opinions are quite heretical!
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