Vivienne Westwood Puts Protest Before the Clothes for Spring 2016

While the designer may be more focused on bigger issues, her fashion business is churning on.
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While the designer may be more focused on bigger issues, her fashion business is churning on.
Designer Vivienne Westwood at her spring 2016 Red Label runway show. Photo: Imaxtree

Designer Vivienne Westwood at her spring 2016 Red Label runway show. Photo: Imaxtree

Just nine days before Vivienne Westwood's Red Label show, the designer made many British headlines for what may have been her most extreme protest yet — driving a tank to the Prime Minister's house as part of the anti-fracking movement. Fracking, to put it simply, is a controversial method of extracting oil and gas by drilling the earth with an extremely high-pressure chemical and water mixture. It's currently the hottest topic of environmental debate in the UK, and Westwood has emerged as the most well-known face of its opposition.

Had it been any other designer, you could be forgiven for seeing the tank driving incident as a big publicity stunt to generate buzz in advance of an upcoming fashion show. With Westwood, however, there's no question that the protest will always come before the clothes.

Of course, anyone who's attended one of her shows knows that they always involve some sort of "anti-establishment" demonstration. But this season, it felt like the clothes were almost an afterthought, the show a platform for her message.

For one, the show notes did not mention the clothes at all. It was a manifesto on the meaning of life (yes, really) and labeled all politicians, regardless of party, as "criminals… and every one of their policies is a crime against humanity." The show soundtrack began with police sirens, and progressed to a girl (who can only be described as having a "Valley" accent) chanting "hashtag hashtag Twitter Tumblr Instagram fashion app" on repeat.

On a balcony above the audience, a crowd of Westwood's activist friends wore colorful crowns and held high signs reading "Austerity is a Crime" and "Fracking is a Crime." The in-show demonstration packed a powerful punch, as did the soundtrack, as Westwood encouraged us all to focus on bigger issues, put down our phones, and stop the mindless social media frenzy. The irony was not lost on us though, that the audience immediately leapt to their feet to film the activists and share images online as fast as they could. 

It wasn't until about the 10th model sailed past that the crowd started to actually pay attention to the clothes. It's a pity, because all of Westwood's greatest tailoring skills were present. Granted, the fitted jackets and high-waisted trousers were not a huge departure from prior seasons. But the designer did showcase her signature folded off-the-shoulder dresses in buttery linens, and there were standout pieces in the form of high-necked kimono shirt dresses and lightly swinging tapestry coats. We spotted tartan-screened lamé, echoing the metallic print trend we've seen so much of already this London Fashion Week. Models had black oil-slick smudges across their foreheads in another nod to the protest, and for the finale they joined the activists in holding picket signs and storming around the room.

If this all sounds like 74-year old Westwood is less interested in fashion and focusing more on politics in her later years, it's important to note that she's opening a huge new flagship store in New York City later this fall. While the woman herself may be leaning towards the bigger issues, the fashion arm will churn on, business as usual.