The grand dame of British fashion doesn't do small talk.
But I don't know that when I see her gawking at a 10-ft. high urn of flowers, delivered to a private dinner party to celebrate her runway show at London Fashion Week. "Are you into flowers?" I ask, naively expecting a smile from a woman known to be an avid gardener. "What do you mean, 'Am I into flowers?' What a stupid question," she says, her tone as fiery as her red-orange locks. She shoots a look at her p.r. rep and then back at me. "I've never heard a more stupid question. Now I've insulted you, and reported the insults to everybody."
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Westwood may turn 70 this year, but she hasn't lost her knack for provocation. She speaks what she feels, and that freedom of expression carries over to the runway where she routinely re-casts punk as mainstream. Two hours earlier, she debuted her Red Label Autumn/Winter 2011/2012 collection, drawing inspiration from the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass and the "veg men with their aprons" at London's Portobello Road market. Models stomped down the runway with glorious hats shaped like crowns, crazy-lady pinstripe knickerbockers and faces splattered with paint. Amid the flurry of pink and orange and red, I wondered if that veg man had assaulted the models with tomatoes.
After the show I travel to the swanky Il Bottaccio in Belgravia along with Vivienne and her motley crew of friends—including Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, and Tracey Emin, the edgy British artist known for an installation featuring her own unmade bed and used condoms. I'm here to ask Vivienne about designing a three-piece "coat" for Chivas Regal 18—a limited edition range of 18-year old whiskey—and to stare at famous people.
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Avoiding all talk of flowers, we get down to business. Is it hard designing for a bottle rather than the human body? "No. It's easier. It's got less things to care about—no arms and legs. Just a neck." She swallows a quail's egg. "It must be a very difficult job for you to find the questions to ask about the jacket for a whiskey bottle." Perhaps. But it isn't difficult to get her to open up about her love of whiskey in general, or Chivas in particular. "It's incredible how much whiskey I've drunk in my life. It's my favorite thing. I used to go out to dances when I was [younger] and I thought, 'Yes, this is it. Now I know why they call it fire water.' It's absolutely brilliant."
She's known primarily as a fashion designer, but says ideas drive her more than clothing: "I'm trying to make the world a better place with what I do." To that end, her staff maintain her blog where, in a personal manifesto entitled "Active Resistance to Propaganda," she "penetrates to the root of the human predicament and offers the underlying solution," which involves the pursuit of art. While the thoughts are her own, she never updates the blog herself. "The only thing I know technically is the sewing machine. I don't watch TV. I go to the cinema maybe once a year because I find it terribly boring. I have nothing to do with technology. I wouldn't even have anything to do with the web site except that I use it as a vehicle for my intellectual ideals."
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Discussing those ideals is a more sober affair, so she hikes up her Carolina blue corset. "We are an endangered species. Have you ever read the statistic that by the end of this century there will only be one billion people left because the world is going to get very hot very quickly and it's going to be uninhabitable? We are just blowing it. Society is just the most amazing thing. We came from little bacterium. But just like any species we could die. The earth would never have the chance to produce another thing like us again. Never have the chance to produce Mozart again, or these beautiful flowers." Or, for that matter, fashion models. "The creatures that were on that catwalk are the most beautiful creatures that ever existed. They're just gorgeous those girls. They've got one minute on that catwalk and they just go for it, and it's like 'This is me, this is who I am.' I love it.'"
Miraculously, that sense of emancipation and empowerment leads us back to Chivas and its Westwood-designed bottle jacket. "I'm very pleased with it. The idea of the whiskey as this warming thing that is social, that's about human beings getting together...it's like Indians with mescaline or whatever it is." Long pause. "Talking about evolution, the human race, I'm glad we've got whiskey. It's great to do something to say this is an essential thing. It is something that exists that's not like anything else in the world." By the end of the night, I'm pretty sure the same can be said of Vivienne Westwood, too.