NEW YORK -- The notoriously noncommercial Vivienne Westwood is on the stump.
The radical British designer is in town this week for an appearance at Bergdorf Goodman tonight and -- believe it or not -- a trunk show Wednesday morning.
But she will not spend the rest of her time in New York strolling Mercer Street soaking up The Scene. The woman once known as the mother of the punk movement, the woman who co-wrote the punk anthem "Who Killed Bambi?" and ran a shop called Sex on London's King's Road, will spend her time in New York selling her clothes and quietly visiting a few museums.
"I'll go back to the Frick, definitely, and to the Metropolitan, to look closely at the 17th-century paintings," she said. "I also might look at some clothes. I've been invited to go through the Madame Grès show."
She'd like to get inside some couture clothes, particularly a Charles Worth.
"There's real anarchy in those garments," she said. "No, you'd better not say anarchy. People get nervous when they hear that word. They think it means chaos."
On her first morning in New York, Westwood sat at a table at the Carlyle Hotel lighting Gauloises and adjusting her large plaid wrap.
The designer said she's seeing a resurgence of interest in quality over quantity. And that fits right in with her work ethic, which is surprisingly traditional.
"We've been in a period of democratic envy, where people think it's bad to spend money on clothes," said Westwood. With her soft voice, white hair and porcelain skin, the 53-year-old designer seems more like a grandmother than a radical designer -- if one ignores the bright red hose and the plaid stiletto platform ankle-wrap shoes.
"I think, I hope, people are starting to look at that differently now," she explains. "We can't go on consuming the way we did. You can't go on exploiting the world in terms of quantity, so you have to do it in terms of quality."
While Westwood's image is of a rebel known for outrageous and outlandish clothes inspired by anything from pirates to prostitutes, she's more concerned with cut, tailoring and fabric quality. Her fans might remember the mini-crini, the impossible stiletto platforms and this season's fur G-string, but the designer talks about draping, patterns and "the great age" of couture. And while her clothes might make people laugh, Westwood is quite serious."I think this is the end of the explosion of designers flooding the market with secondary lines," she said. "I didn't get on that bandwagon, so I stayed pure, if you like. I was able to control my product in a very artisanal way.
"Cutting is my real forte, and the way I treat fabric," she said. "I'm just trying to make things as good as people did in the past. We can't spend three weeks turning a collar, but we can turn a collar with a little interfacing. It's between couture and artisanal."
Even with its relatively small production, Westwood's business is coming along nicely, according to Carlo D'Amario, her business manager. Right now, he said, it's doing between $12.5 million and $15.5 million (8 million and 10 million pounds) a year. And there are new projects in the works, fueled, D'Amario said, by the interest in Westwood's name and image.
In addition to the three shops in London, Westwood said, she hopes to open one "as soon as possible" in Paris. She's looking at a location in the Rue Bonaparte at the end of this month. There are some goods under her name for the Trois Suisses mail order company in France and for Littlewoods, a small mail order business in England. There's also a new shoe license with the Italian company Pasquale.
While she said those ventures won't make her rich, "It's good to oil the business," she added.
"It's not that I don't want to do more [business endeavors], but you can only do so much. My intention is to go more toward made-to-measure. That's what we're doing more and more of in the shops -- bridal, and gowns for girls who at one time might have been called debutantes, and some men's wear for rock stars."
At the moment, Westwood designs one collection made up of two complementary parts: Gold Label and Red Label. The Gold Label group is designed and manufactured in London and is a smaller group of high-fashion pieces.
The Red Label is considerably less expensive and is what Westwood calls her core group. But she's quick to point out that it's not a diffusion line -- both are shown on the runway in Paris twice a year. However, Red Label is manufactured in bigger quantities in Italy, so prices are lower. A jacket wholesales from about $193 to $300, a simple skirt is $70 and a fake fur trimmed miniskirt is $160, and this season, dresses are $120 to $220.She also wouldn't mind starting an accessories line, home furnishings and even some textile design.
Westwood has a lot of opinions, as one might expect from a woman who has put herself in the public eye since the early Seventies, when she met Malcolm McLaren, who became best known as a music entrepreneur and manager of the seminal British punk band the Sex Pistols. Together, the two were the parents of that country's punk movement, which revolved around the King's Road shop they opened. The shop went through several name changes, finally settling on Sex. It's still open, carrying Westwood's merchandise, but now it's called World's End.
Westwood said her interest in fashion started before she met McLaren, but it picked up momentum with McLaren's help.
"I got into clothes because of Malcolm, but I was always good at making things. Fashion was like a baby that I picked up and never put down. There came a point, after the Sex Pistols folded, that I was going to give up. But I saw the influence of my clothes on the Paris catwalk, the ripping and the safety pins, and my reasoning at that time was I'd be stupid not to make some money out of it. Up until that time, I hadn't considered myself a designer."
She then started to take garments apart to really learn about construction, cut and fabric. But she lost her provocative side or her ability to put a political cast on a question.
"Tailoring is the basis of my collection, which is as it should be, because it's the basis of English fashion," she said. "But until recently, I was changing my tailor every season. In Britain, they have this laissez-faire attitude toward small business, that they will just spring up on their own without any help from the government.
"Now my tailoring is quite good, because I have a little atelier here and another one there, and so forth. But I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Italy. They may have corrupt politicians, but at least they do something for the businesses."
But does Westwood think that fashion is looking back instead of forward?"Fashion is not referential enough," she claims. "A modern myth that should be demolished is that we live in an age where everything automatically becomes more modern, more comfortable and more futuristic. This is the only century that hasn't had respect for the past. When people look at the past -- and I'm not referring to specific designers, I'm talking about the general syndrome -- they become completely immersed in cliché. They look very superficially and take the first obvious thing.
"Where would I get ideas if they didn't come from the past? The great age of clothes was the couture until the 1950s. We have no hope unless we refer to the past."
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