Vivienne Westwood


Vivienne Westwood is telling me about her favourite model, Sarah Stockbridge, and her role as the singer in Westwood’s new pop band/project, Choice.

Why are you interested in pop, Vivienne ?
“Well, I’m not.”

What then ?
“Well, there are loads of myths about the 20th century that I want to demolish.”

Which myths ?
“Well, all of them. Everything about this century is based on myth. Like the idea that love is something that should be continued. This idea of love we’ve got is simply too orthodox; you know, this idea that love is the most important thing in the world, and it’s not, you know… That’s why I’m interested in the pagans. They didn’t have any of these myths…”

You’ve started a band.
“You see, the idea of Choice is very good for me,” Vivienne continues, unimpeded by my question. “Because it’s a platform for all these ideas and, of course, the chance to control a visual image with a singer like Sarah is very good for me. She’s the sacrificial victim. I’m going to pile all the culture I know onto her, just as you would do if you were going to kill somebody; you put everything that the tribe knew on the victim, all the motifs and totems. And then you torch it.”

Vivienne Westwood is extraordinary and lovely, utterly unique – part Art Missionary, part pagan, part scholar of Subversion, with all the immediately approachable charm and consideration of an English housewife/busybody. 

Having professed over the phone to “not really liking interviews”, when we finally met she talked 900 to the dozen with the unnerving knack of not caring for, or (directly) answering, any of my questions, but in the course of talking somehow stumbling across a thousand ideas, effortlessly answering everything. 

Above all, Westwood has the curiously ordinary, very charming mannerisms and appearance of a hugely stylish Hilda Ogden, or the Queens’ long-lost cousin. She smokes incessantly, gabbles gloriously, talking almost without breath, so that when she says: “Robin-Scott-helped-me-do-the-demo-you-know-he-did-Pop-Music-a-friend-of-mine-is-Robin-and-very-nice-too-but-he-wasn’t-into-the-idea-of-that-side-of-things-and-I-can-understand-why”, it’s almost one word, like a wonderful adaptation of Julie Walters doing Mrs Overall. Choice, says guitarist Mark Rutherford, is only the latest episode of ‘Carry on Westwood’.

Despite her incongruously normal appearance, Vivienne is extraordinary, having one pre-requisite of the extraordinary in abundance: style without trying. She relates the origins of Choice, with typical character and relentless logic, as if it were the most ordinary occurrence on earth.

“I’ll tell you how it started. It all started because I wrote these songs for Madonna. Carlo, my manager, said, ‘Why don’t you have some collaboration with Madonna for this Fashion Show ?’, because Madonna’s always sent me albums and kept me informed with what she was doing. Obviously her look was taken from me, that sort of rolled-down little tube-skirt thing. She’s worn a lot of my clothes and said in an interview I was her favourite designer. So anyway, I thought, in that case I’d have to write some songs so then I’d have something to phone her about… So I wrote a couple of songs and phone up her office and a couple of days later I got this phone call in the middle of the night in this hotel in Italy and I thought, ‘Who’s phoning me at this time of night ? It must be Madonna !’ Then I did the demo with Robin Scott but she couldn’t do the song ‘cos she was getting married and doing an album and I forgot all about it, until I met Sarah…”

Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Sarah Stockbridge, Westwood’s latest muse.
“I first met Sarah when she modelled at one of my shows, and everyone was talking about her, saying: ‘I like that raunchy one.’ She was really special. She’s totally uninhibited, no false modesty or anything, she’s up for anything… I hadn’t met her before, no, because I don’t usually choose the models. People know what sort of models I like. I like Page 3 Girls actually. I don’t like anything sort of ‘underground’, that sort of ‘victim’ look. But she’s brilliant, is Sarah, the way she moves is very crude and she looks quite strikingly like Marilyn Monroe. She’s a cross between Monroe and Brigitte Bardot ‘cos she’s got that really curly mouth. I love the way she moves. Just like a real old stripper and yet very classy looking…”

What about the name, I manage to jump in.
“We won’t get rid of the name Sarah Stockbridge ‘cos it’s so English, really nice. Choice is perfect as a name, it has that element of ‘choice’, like ‘tasty’ and ‘the people’s choice’, and it sounds very international, very big.”

Bride Of Fortune is Choice’s first single, the first of six that Westwood has written and a very modern, excited piece of pop it is, too. 

It has a bit of the go-go grooviness of Be My Baby here, the brassy grind of the strip-theme there, some Gary Glitter, Bow Wow Wow, and then Sarah giving it the breathless vulnerability of – yes, you guessed – Marilyn doing I Wanna Be Loved By You. A raunchy guitar hook, some fairlight flashes, it’s pure pop – as instant even as Pop Music itself. Bride Of Fortune’s presentation, at The Fridge in Brixton, and here where we meet in Florence, toys with making silly novelty slightly subversive. Westwood knows next to nothing about what’s going on in pop, but her instincts and ideas are on the button.

“I sing the tunes into the telephone or the tape and then Mark and Simon work on them and I interfere as and when I feel like it. Simon was in that group Jimmy The Hoover and Mark’s what they call a real tunesmith. I often used to help Malcolm for the content of songs and I wrote Who Killed Bambi with Tenpole Tudor and most of I’m a TV Savage for Bow Wow Wow. I told Malcolm to bring in all those people like Reagan for the chorus. I gave him a lot of ideas like that, I think he misses that deeper thinking now… I know a lot of these old tunes, like the striptease song and Cherry Ripe, very tuneful and rocky and basic, like that dance the Teds do – Woolly Bully (she does the dance). That’s the sort of thing I want, and then we’ll have some very exotic cover versions. The striptease feel is very important because the clothes and songs are always going to be sexual…”

I’d say she pauses for breath but she doesn’t really.
“Bride Of Fortune, which we’re going to record with Steve Levine by the way, is about this fashion show, and the idea of that show was the slightly Gigi look. The image I had was of a girl of about 22 being passed off as somebody of 14 in a bordello of around 1900. It’s full of references to primitive ritual and primitive marriage rites. The first words are: ‘I’m your sister starring as your wife’.”

Radio One will love it.
“All the different roles of women are in this song. I can never say that I’m a feminist. I wouldn’t ever say that. What ? Why not ? Well, women are the most conservative section of society. They will not risk anything. Margaret Thatcher really exploited that. I’d much rather promote or defend homosexuals than women, because they’ve contributed and achieved much more to our society… Anyway, it’ll all be linked to the video, these tableaux vivants, with this magic tree which everything happens from, ‘cos no-one’s using video at all. We’ll use it live for mood and image, with lots of props and costume changes, we’re going to have an outfit for each song, one song’s just about a red dress, so in the end it’ll be just like a travelling circus…”

So that’s one song.
“The other song we’re playing here is Venus, which was inspired by this picture of Venus by Titian I’ve got on my wall, with this naked girl lying on the bed with a little dog at her feet. You know Venus was born perfect, ready to make love to the world. It’s quite space-age, the song. This is it. ‘Now I love my perfect form/My mission was formed when I was born’. It’s really lovely. You think it sounds like a motorbike song ? Oooh, that’s good…”

What effect do you think pop should have ? Or what effect do you want to have ?
“I don’t care about the effect on people. I do want to show how important art is and how important fashion is. Pop hasn’t got an awful lot of content. I mean, the key to society is art and we don’t have any today. Pop can’t convey the ideas of art, but it can show the need to have art. I don’t really know any pop people that are around. I don’t listen to it. I’m not in contact with it, I’m sorry. I do know Westworld, yes, ‘cos we did a TV show they were on. Well, something like Westworld is a good idea, to have a girl as a rocker, and she’s very pretty, but they’re just very bad… Someone mentioned Scarlett Fantastic to me today, yes. She’s a black girl, isn’t she ?”

No I say.
“Oh. Morrissey ? No, I’ve never heard of him… Bow Wow Wow hasn’t really got any relevance to this at all, except that they were not good enough. Annabella was a useless performer. I mean I like her voice when I hear her, and the idea was very good, but she was just too reluctant. Not open enough to the ideas that were being piled on. Rapport is very important. The singer or model has to receive the ideas you’re putting on. Sarah is very intelligent and she wants to use the ideas herself, that’s the important thing. Also, you’ve got to like the person. Malcolm never liked Johnny Rotten from the beginning. Even though Johnny Rotten was perfect because he understood the ideas… The best thing about Malcolm was he knew that you had to travel fast. The important thing about the Sex Pistols was that they got to the age when they see how the world works and then feel sick at what the world is and just want to fuck up everything. Sarah does have some of that, yes. But the Pistols became victims. You know this ‘revolutionary’ stuff – there are too many orthodox rebels. You never achieve things by passion, but by care and information and thought, ideas. By art…”

Westwood exits for more cigarettes and when she returns I leap in before she launches in to her next discourse.
What do you believe in then ? What are the ideals ?
“Well, I don’t believe in revolution. I don’t like the word ‘subversion’ or any of those ‘-ism’ words. What all this is about, what I want to say is: I believe in art, right ? That’s all there is to believe in. John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty: ‘We are being conditioned into having the brains of dwarfs’, and that’s what’s happened. Culture has been gradually eroded. There is no lifeblood, no culture. The world is dying… I don’t like idealism. I believe in going fast. I mean, I’d like to make people think differently, yes, but what I want to do, and what I do, is make things that are glamorous and human and simple and very attractive. That’s what artists do.”

Were you bored being a teacher ?
“Oh, I was good at teaching.”

Oh, I’m sure you were.
“Well don’t be that sure.”

Did you want to do all this ?
“I never wanted to do any of these things. I could have stayed in teaching all my life, I expect. I gave up teaching because I wanted to study and go to University. Also I was so disgusted with State Education, having to cope with these great big enormous numbers of children. My sympathies were so much with the children… Children are naughty. That’s what they do. It’s all trickery. I want to be a scholar. What I’d really like to do is to study more. Fashion is really terribly important, I want people to realise this. People are much more interested in fashion now than pop. It’s always the image people are interested in more than the music nowadays. What I want to do is create a vehicle that shows fashion as excitement, how exciting it is, especially in its early stage. Only a vey few people see that stage. It’s very elite is fashion, not even the fashion students get into the shows. But something like the Pirate Collection I did was much more exciting than any rock event I’ve been to… Choice is about clothes, like punk was, punk started from the fashion point, so did Bow Wow Wow and the Pistols.”

What should clothes do ?
“The idea of clothes is to feel great. It’s not about attitude. It’s about sex, really. Fashion should always be something new. It’s really wrong that when you wear good clothes you get that mob attitude, all the jeers and stares and cat-calls, get given a hard time. Fashion has made in-roads into the attitude in the last twenty years but not nearly enough.”

Do you think fashion should be more about the past that the future ?
“Fashion should always be new but no-one’s going back to tradition. No-one gets beyond fifty years back. This constant idea of finding The Most New Thing is absurd – another myth is the idea that we’re at the apex of civilisation, we just aren’t. You know, people looking for the Most Modern Thing in some club in New York, which is probably the last place to find new ideas. I don’t think of fashion as being ‘silly’: it’s either good or bad. Something’s good if it’s well done. I mean, my Crini collection, I got a lot of good feedback from it, but apparently everyone was saying ‘Never !’, so then when Christian Lacroix did it in that couture way it gave it a status, did me a lot of good. People can do a whole collection on one idea of mine. I’ve just seen it at Pitti Uomo, a whole show range. I could do it but I don’t have the resources, the people. I don’t mind, no, if people rip me off. Funnily enough, I prefer people to copy me exactly because sometimes the things people do from my ideas are so bad, you think, God, I’m responsible for that. Especially the ill-fitting clothes, but I mean, mine had a real dynamic to them. Other people just thought that any ill-fitting clothes would do, they were such a mess.”

You’re so prodigious. It’s not like you’re in danger of running out of ideas.
“My next collection’s going to have double the amount of outfits and I’ve already done the running order, so we’re way ahead. In my first show, all the prototypes got to the catwalk one hour before the start. I had to do everything myself, but now I’m not physically making the patterns anymore, I oversee them and adjust them. I really believe we can do all of this. And another thing I want to do is publishing. I’ll just go and get another cigarette and then I can tell you about it…”

What about your childhood ? I ask. What were you like ?
“I was straight until I was 14. Then I went funny. Why ? Boredom. Bad boredom.”

What sort of things did you like when you were growing up ?
“Boys. I’ve always liked boys.”
You don’t say.
“Mmm…I’d love to be a boy,” she sighs. “I always thought how brilliant it would be to have a dick. Boys are into better things, like cars and that. And they’ve got dicks. I had this dream once where I had a dick and I was screwing my best friend. It was brilliant.”

The Victim, Sarah Stockbridge, arrives. She is tough but innocent; very natural, almost instantly irresistible, with sweet, cocky, cockney charm and that wild, stroppy petulance that models make into an artform. 

Stockbridge is over in Italy to make a personal appearance at Florence nightclub Parramatta and do a live TV show in Rome, alongside James Brown and an Italian reggae group. Westwood describes Sarah as a “big baby doll”, and Stockbridge performs Bride Of Fortune in a puffball crini wedding-skirt, long leggings, crown and tippet, her eccentric Westwood wooden ice-skate-style boots accentuating her height as she kicks her legs high, shoves her hand brazenly between her legs and thrashes playfully about the stage having a wild time.

Afterwards we sit in Café Voltaire, waiting for the 2am kickoff of the club crawl at Plegyne or KGB. Her loose T-shirt slips further off her shoulder as her sweet, giggly voice, kitten snub-nose, freckles and big red mouth inevitably recall Monroe in her younger, sweeter photos by Bert Stein. When we walk through the streets, virtually every man on the street turns not to look but to stare. Her legs are so long, and her skirt so short, some of them can’t cope and rather than make their move and chat her up and actually complain.
“Here mate, sort it out will ya !’

Indeed, as I write, her photos are plastered all over Florence, modelling an almost exact likeness. Her bright, excited eyes gleam with daring and innocent enthusiasm. She will be a perfect star, with some Blondie, some Betty Boo and the flirty sexuality of a high-street Dalle – like a bright Wilde or a Kensit with brains, with sex, with…um, balls.

It’s as well to remember Choice could just as well be Sarah’s brains and Vivienne’s beauty rather than vice versa, even though Sarah’s perfectly expert in the art of appearing to be stupid when it suits: dumb (blonde) deception has it uses. 

She doesn’t mind talking – about being tired of black eyes from boyfriends and having to give hangers-on the wrong phone number; her penchant for champagne and tequila; her dreams of being assassinated at the peak of glamorous fame, at the head of the motorcade.
“Pow ! Yeah !”
Her favourite moment of 1987 was at The Fridge: “The stage was eye-high. Rows and rows of people looking up at me. It was brilliant. Just like being a pop star !”

The worst: “New Year’s Eve. My kitten got run over. I went over to my mum’s and she must have followed me. We were talking about her and everything, wondering how big she’d grow… She was all stiff when I found her.”

Westwood says there are already reports of “Sarah lookalikes, with fake ermine tippets, crinis and curls,” and certainly this year a lot of people are going to get obsessed. She says goodbye – “Bye bye, sweetheart” – in a way to remember forever.

“My mum tried to be strict with me, but it didn’t really work very well. I was brought up in Bahrain, Trinidad, Peru and Woking. Woking’s a dump, all posh but all naff, terribly suburban and shitty. My dad built the biggest bank in Hong Kong, and my mum’s a speech therapist, believe it or not. We went to Peru when I was eight, for two years. Peru’s brilliant. The scenery’s brilliant, with big black centipedes with red legs ! Then I went to this posh boarding school in Guildford. I got expelled. My brother got expelled for nicking a teacher’s car and crashed it in a ditch. I got expelled for wearing a dog collar with my school uniform and bondage trousers to choir practise. But as it was the week before my ‘O’ levels, I was just banned from being a boarder.”

What about punk ?
“I was a real pseudo punk. The first gig I ever went to was Stiff Little Fingers, brilliant. Everybody was puking up and that, haha. It was so boring there. That was when I cut off all my hair and nicked some hydrogen peroxide and ammonium, mixed it up and dyed it. Then I had a metallic blue crewcut with aquamarine fringe. So anyway, I got me ‘O’ levels, eight of them, and me ‘A’ levels and moved up to London with some nice people, but I don’t want to tell you about them, it’s too incriminating. One was a Saudi Prince, the other person I was involved with is a very controversial personality, a right dirty bastard. You see… I did hooking for a while, that sounds awful, doesn’t it ? Completely by accident, I was so green and innocent. This lady – I won’t tell you who she is ‘cos she’ll put a curse on me – told me we were going to Hyde Park to have tea with this very nice man. When he handed me this envelope, I clued on. I had a good time, but stopped that rather quickly.”

How did you get out ?
“Well I got into modelling when I was selling advertising space. This guy discovered me in this sandwich bar. The best job I had was in Sweden, a jeans campaign, I got £900 a day ! But I was so fucking co-operative and professional and I got it done in a day. I could make so much money out of being a Monroe lookalike but you’ve got to be an individual. The castings in Milan are terrible. They say, ‘Can you walk, please ?’ So I walk. Then they say, ‘No, walk normally.’ I’m trying to be bloody normal. They say I wiggle too much. The first show I ever did was Boy. Then I heard about Vivienne’s show. I’d always liked her stuff. She met me at the show… I thought she’d be a big, butch woman, but she’s really lovely, so clever, too clever to be a fashion designer. She’s got so much in her head. She should be Queen.”

And now you’re her singer.
“Anyway, we tried my voice out about eight months ago. The songs are brilliant. I was brought up on Ray Charles and Diana Ross & The Supremes, Nat King Cole, really good stuff. I used to like just chart stuff, David Soul, I used to fancy him, then Blondie, Adam Ant… Billy Idol’s my favourite. He’s gorgeous. Now I listen to a lot of Fifties stuff and Mozart. I always wanted to be an actress, but I know. I can’t really act, so then I wanted to be a movie-star, which I could be. I mean, I’d love to do Shakespeare but I don’t think it’d suit me…

“Since then ? I’ve done the Jonathan Ross show, with Vivienne… Typically her, she rang me in the afternoon and we did it that evening. I did a credit sequence for this Italian show, Moda, a Samantha Fox video for Living In A Box and Alexander O’Neal. He’s really big and yummy. A Radio Rentals ad. I tell you one brilliant thing I did. I did the round numbers for the Bruno-Willis fight at Wembley Arena, modelling FU Jeans, the sponsors. I met this promoter and said: ‘I wanna do more of these’ ‘cos I was getting paid loads, £250, and it was a laugh. I did the whole evening, even though I didn’t have to ! All these chauvinist bastards shouting ‘Phwoarh’ at you, which I hate, and at the ringside all the sweat flies all over you. My jeans had blood all over them by the end. So, anyway, this bloke Archie got me another one at Catford, some scrummy fight for £30. It was horrible. Wembley was televised so it was really exciting, but this… I was getting changed in the loos and all these boys were trying to climb over, it was really frightening. All these boxers sitting around crying ‘cos they’d lost, haha…’

You can tell you love the song.
“You know Vivienne wrote the song for Madonna ?! I met her ! Yeah ! I was waitressing at Blake’s. She was really nice. And I met Lenny Henry, who’s lovely. And Christopher Lambert. Who else would I like to meet ? Shirley Bassey, or Brian Cant. Me and my mum used to want to invite him to tea ‘cos we thought he’d be so nice… I want to get a tattoo, you know, here on me ankle. Have you got one ? Show us ! I know someone who’s got one on his inside lip that says, ‘hello’. Shall we go out now ?”

Who could say no ?