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A Passion for Fashion

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November 1, 1996, Books

Vivienne Westwood: Fashion,
Perversity and the Sixties Laid Bare by Fred Vermorel
Overlook Press, $23.95

The humble beginning and meteoric rise of Britain's high fashion bad girl Vivienne Westwood is the stuff of legend. Westwood was lover and muse of self-styled entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, bore his child, dressed his pet project the Sex Pistols, and twice won London's coveted "Designer of the Year" award.

Not nearly enough information is available about her turbulent relationship with Malcolm McLaren (né Edwards) and how the two formed the core of what has since been called the "punk" movement, so I eagerly anticipated Fred Vermorel's account, Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity and the Sixties Laid Bare. Vermorel was apparently a close friend of McLaren's before the appearance of Westwood in his life, and Vermorel evidently resented her intrusion into their young men's paradise of bohemian pseudo-intellectuals. This is possibly the reason for Vermorel's strange, detached treatment of the subject (although that might be giving the author too much credit).

Westwood begins interestingly enough: In the introduction, Vermorel explains how he wrote Part One ("Vivienne Westwood: An Imaginary Interview"). He readily admits this is a collection of conversations remembered from 30 years ago, things Westwood said in published interviews, and extensive questioning of past associates by two of Vermorel's students. Vermorel even offers a disclaimer up front, saying that he doesn't claim to represent what Westwood might say on her own. After this confession, Vermorel goes on to write Part One completely in the first person, just as if Westwood were saying every word herself. This curious writing technique gives part one of the book a disjointed, non-linear quality. The narrative frequently changes time sequences, giving this "imaginary interview" a rambling, almost absentminded feel. But the story of Westwood, McLaren, and the origin of punk is a fascinating read, no matter how the pithy bits and pieces of their lives are patched together, and once I got past Velmorel's self-conscious writing style, it was engrossing. (Vermorel clearly feels comfortable as a punk literary maven: He is the author of books on the Sex Pistols and The Secret History of Kate Bush.)

Following a trip to New York City where they were inspired by the glam remnants of Andy Warhol's Factory scene, McLaren and Westwood revamped their infamous King's Road store in 1974, named it SEX, and incited a cultural and social revolution when the store mixed fashion, music, anarchy, and rebellion with exposed seams and safety pins. McLaren and Westwood unearthed the most controversial political and sexual sentiments they could find and Vivienne translated these into clothes. Even McLaren's first band, The Sex Pistols, was a machine, custom-built and designed to cause riots and mayhem wherever they appeared. As Westwood says, "The Pistols were never about music -- they were always about fashion." Or anti-fashion, anyway. McLaren decided what the Pistols were to sing about, how they were to behave (or, rather, mis-behave) in public, when it was time to blow their record deal, and Westwood decided how they dressed. Soon, Westwood began designing more than ripped T-shirts with slogans splashed across the front. As her designs became stronger and more cohesive, her personal success grew and the decline of her relationship with McLaren began.

Part Two, "Growing Up as a Genius in the Sixties," is considerably less interesting than part one, this portion being almost exclusively about the author, Fred Vermorel. He writes about the better part of his youth spent hanging out with McLaren and starting arguments with him and everyone else. Vermorel avoided anything that resembled work as long as possible and when he had to hold down a job, he cleverly sabotaged his work environment to ensure that nothing was ever actually accomplished. He brags about his cleverness constantly in part two of the book, thoroughly convinced that he did it all for art, and therefore his behavior was proof of his own genius.

This period of time must be the highlight of Vermorel's eclectic life because his memories retain the patina of stories told often in front of a large class of worshipful students over a long period of time. In any case, I felt as if I were being forced to endure a written account of Fred Vermorel's 15 minutes of fame: He honestly believes that Malcolm McLaren's true genius was that he probably suffered secretly from Tourette's syndrome. By the brief third part of the book, "Pictures from the Revolution," Vermorel's narrative is so self-absorbed that it is difficult to separate the facts from his imagination. This final chapter hopscotches through a few scenes in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties, contains one visit to a 1995 Vivienne Westwood fashion show, and has some behind-the-scenes activity in Vivienne Westwood LTD. Though Part Three seems to gloss over her contemporary life in favor of Vermorel's reverie, it is nonetheless fascinating because Westwood is today still hard at work.

One interesting inclusion to this book is the collection of candid snapshots and photographs of Westwood, McLaren, and the gang. I did expect some photos from a few of Westwood's clothing collections and I was disappointed but not surprised that none were included. Given the focus of the book, Westwood comes off more as an accessory to the author's life. In fact, in the last paragraph of Part Three, Vermorel relates his last encounter with McLaren at a party, where McLaren calls the author a vampire. Maybe Malcolm McLaren was on to something after all. n Award-winning stylist Deborah Carter is the co-owner of Astarte Salon and occasional fashion critic on the scene.

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