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Vivienne Westwood's Advice for Aspiring Designers: Copy

We sat down with the British designer to talk "Game of Thrones," advice for design students and why she wants to do less.
Vivienne Westwood in 2014. Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images

Vivienne Westwood in 2014. Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images

Over the weekend, I attended the Savannah College of Art and Design's fashion show, which presented a juried selection of graduating fashion and accessories students' final work. Among the fashion world professionals in attendance was Dame Vivienne Westwood, who had flown out to Savannah to receive SCAD's André Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award and to ring in the opening of an exhibition of her work at SCAD's Museum of Art, curated by Talley. 

On Saturday, I sat down for an interview with Westwood and her husband, co-designer Andreas Kronthaler, in a sitting room in one of SCAD's stately but whimsically decorated houses. We talked through her advice for design students, that excellent choice to cast Gwendoline Christie in her Paris runway show and her plans to reduce the number of collections she currently has going, adding to the growing number of designers electing to do so.

In March, you cast Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth in "Game of Thrones," in your runway show. How did that come about?

Andreas Kronthaler: [Gwendoline] came to a Red Label show in London, which is two or three weeks before Paris, and she was backstage. We had a little drink after, and Vivienne was introduced to her and spoke to her. She was so impressed with Gwendoline, certainly with the way she looks.

Vivienne Westwood: We were doing a show called "Unisex," with exactly the same clothing for a woman as for a man. I thought to myself that Gwendoline could fit in the men's clothes, so we asked her to be in the show. I asked Andreas, and he was quite cross with me when I asked him, because he said, "I have to look at her [before deciding]. I don't know." He was worried that we wouldn't be able to fit her into the clothes.

AK: Because she really is very, very unusually tall. A big girl, you know. I was a bit insecure, but in the end, after a week thinking, we did it. I liked the idea as well of doing the campaign at the same time as the show, backstage afterward. We thought it would be brilliant if we could ask her to be in it.

VW: And she was really into it. She was so keen to do it. I was worried she might not want to.

AK: I must say, it was such a pleasure to get to know her a little bit. I think she is a very, very interesting person. I actually don't know her in this "Games of Thrones."

I was going to say, Vivienne, you rather famously don't watch TV. 

VW: I've still never seen it.

AK: Me too.

VW: I would like to see it, but someone said that we'd have to pay for it [through HBO] and it wouldn't be on our TV anyway, so I'd have to make a point of doing so. But at the after-show party, Gwendoline and I couldn't stop talking. There were other people I wanted to talk to, but I was so engrossed. I've never had such a stimulating conversation with anybody. We were talking about Shakespeare, all the time.

AK: She's a bright woman.

VW: She's so educated, and it's not always the case. It would seem that she's met very inspiring people. She's been in touch with original thinkers; she's a really brilliant person to talk to. She's so wonderful and lively and just loves people. She just did a photograph for us as well. We've got a campaign, "Save the Arctic," and we got all these celebrities to wear this "Save the Arctic" t-shirt.

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When does that come out?

VW: First week of July.

I'll look out for it. Since we're at SCAD, what sort of advice do you have for fashion students?

VW: We're told that it's a four-year course here, and the first two years are foundations, when they learn history of art. [My advice is to] have a foundation to know where your deep interests lie. If you continue to pursue that, that's how you become a designer, if you've got the talent. It's not just going to come out of you. You get out what you put in. When it actually comes to the designing, people all want to throw it away and say, "I've got to do something different." I taught fashion, and I started off getting students to copy things.

So it's like learning to paint by copying the old masters.

VW: Absolutely. That's the only way you learn things. A young person has experience up to a point, and they can do something and it might be very good, but you can't do something for very long if you don't have the ideas coming, you know? It doesn't come just from you. You have to get it from somewhere.

Are there any young designers out there that you're paying attention to?

VW: We always get asked that. I think Bernhard Willhelm.

AK: He's a good friend.

VW: He did a stage for us and we got to know him, but then he became a very good friend of Andreas's. He's just really, really, really good. His clothes are terrific. He finds a way to move his atelier [from place to place]. He was in Mexico one year doing a collection, just him and his assistant. It's a small collection, and I love small collections anyway.

Speaking of small collections, you're famously anti-overconsumption and in your talk after accepting the André Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award, you mentioned that you're trying to pare your collections down somewhat. Can you speak more to that?

VW: What we're doing first of all is really making sure that things are under control and that we can guarantee the quality of things. We have to delegate; we depend on other people. But the intention is actually to cut down the product, not to have so many lines and not have so many accessories. I think we've got too much. What we say to customers is: "Buy less, choose well, and make it last."

What's the time frame on doing that?

AK: I hope we can put it in place at the end of next year, to put two lines together so in the end there are two. At the moment there are four lines [Red Label, Gold Label, Man and Anglomania], really, and we'll make two out of it. We at the same time are trying to redefine a bit the men's collection. I'm going to build up a new team, and it's an opportunity to really look at it, because I wasn't particularly happy in the last couple of years or so.

But I like what we're doing. It's very challenging. Every day there are problems, and you have to adjust constantly and find your way through it. You're on a time frame because you always have shows every half a year. It's unbelievable how quickly they follow up.

Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodation in Savannah to cover its senior fashion show.