Vivienne Westwood defends her Derelicte-style ‘homeless’ catwalk show
Updated: Sep 3
This was an enormously fun article from start to finish. I called Vivienne's office out of the blue... and to her eternal credit, she agreed to answer her critic's questions. It was right after her controversial 2010 'homeless chic' show, and she certainly knew that The Big Issue would have something to say!
Vivienne Westwood’s ‘homeless chic’ catwalk show caused show caused outrage, with critics comparing it unfavourably to Ben Stiller’s satirical movie Zoolander. But fashion’s queen of punk tells Laura Kelly she was being deadly serious...
Making headlines around the world, Vivienne Westwood’s recent show Sin Milan shocked at least as many people as it delighted. Proving that she can still be every bit as provocative as when she exploded onto the scene by spearheading punk alongside her then partner Malcolm McLaren, the veteran designer decided to “style it homeless”.
Some models carried bedrolls, another emerged from a cardboard box and many had silver in their hair that was supposed to look “like they were sleeping rough and they'd got frost in their hair”. Despite rapturous applause at the show, many felt the theme was a little too close to the bone. Still others pointed out a striking similarity to the climax of the 2001 Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander. In the fashion industry spoof, Mugatu, played by Will Ferrell, puts on a show called Derelicte, which he says is “inspired by the very homeless, the “vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique”.
Granting a rare in-depth interview to The Big Issue, Westwood defends her show, adding that she has never seen Zoolander. In the week when an Edinburgh hotelier attempted to have the streets swept clear of beggars, Westwood insists she was trying to give homeless people importance. She also warns of an upcoming global apocalypse brought on by climate change, and comes out against jeans.
Tell me about the idea behind the menswear show in Milan...
I’ve a friend who is a lawyer and he’s also a member of the Croce Verde, which is the Green Cross in Italy [an environmental organisation set up by Mikhail Gorbachev that attempts to ensure a “just, sustainable and secure future for all”]. For his 50th birthday, he wanted to give a present to the homeless people of Milan and he said to me would I design a T-shirt that he would then give to them and nobody else could buy it.
I’ve been trying to use my position as a fashion designer to impress upon people the urgency of the problem of climate change. I did these T-shirts that say: “Act Fast, Slow Down, Stop Climate Change.” I took that graphic and I put a diagonal strip of white across it, like you do on a newspaper placard when you put the latest news on top of the old news. It said: “Billions Made Homeless.” Because that is what will happen with climate change.
I put that message on the T-shirt for the homeless people because I wanted to engage homeless people in the global problem of climate change. I hope to give importance to homeless people. I also wanted the privileged people in the fashion world to engage with homeless people. Their kids are going to be in that they grow up they're going to be homeless as well.
We are an endangered species. In one or two generations we'll be down to one billion people instead of six-and-a-half billion. The people who are left, who aren't killed by natural disasters, will be moving. It will be so hot that it will be uninhabitable in all the places we know. We're going to have to move to the North Pole or something. People are just living with this because they want to keep their jobs. They haven’t got the idea of the urgency of it.
Some people found the show hard to take seriously – was it a joke?
I’ve never come across that response. I’m surprised how seriously people do take me. Have you heard anyone say that?
There were a couple of people who pointed out the show’s resemblance to Mugatu’s Derelicte show from the satirical film Zoolander...
Whenever I go to the cinema, I find it boring. | don’t know that film. I haven’t seen it.
Your intentions were serious, then?
Yes. It was very good for the Green Cross in Italy.
Can a fashion designer really engage with politics?
Yes. It gives you credibility because you are known as a personality. It gives you a voice, it gives you a mouth you can open. After a fashion show people ask me, what is the inspiration? I say, I can only talk about climate change. I just talk about what I've got to talk about. I have been hijacking my own fashion to put my politics in there for years.
Aside from speaking up about climate change, what point do you want to make?
One of the things I’ve been talking about even longer than I've been involved in climate change is the idea that people should get a life. Time is luxury and I know that without money time isn’t a luxury, but nevertheless the museums are free. You can manage to go sometimes, perhaps. For homeless people who are not completely on the street, maybe they have a bit of a refuge, perhaps time can be seen in that way.
I’d like more time. If I were a homeless person, I would be stealing a bicycle and getting to the art gallery. There was a lady in the Barbican last time my husband went there. She didn’t have shoes and she had some of her stuff with he r – she really was homeless. She wasn’t in the main concert hall but she was in the public area sitting, watching the screen and listening to the music. They let her stay and that was really nice.
Homeless people can face the problem of being marginalised, can culture help them be part of society?
Yes, that’s important to say. It would be good if they could read in the library. We need people who think. If we aren't thinking we have no chance in the future.
Is it still important for you to ruffle feathers?
No it isn’t. I've never attempted to do that. Whatever I've done, it’s never been done with that purpose. I expect I do have a very strong sense of theatre and what will involve people, but I’m not trying to do it to shock people. I'm trying to involve people.
Given that fashion is based on buying things, is it the best means to address climate change?
I understand that fashion is about consumerism but I would even defend it and say that consumerism is about the consumption of crap. If you do buy something, please try to buy less and try to buy something that either you think you really need or that you can keep on wearing.
I say there is status in holes, especially as you patch them, because it means that you've chosen something and you really like it and you think it suits you and it’s part of your personality. I think that’s what things should be about, not everybody looking like everybody else. Not buying all these landfill clothes that are made by people on less than $1a day.
There’s this wonderful choice of clothes that I offer and maybe you would like to buy something, but choose well. Don’t keep buying all this crap and don't buy my stuff if you don’t want to. I think the age in which we live, the only possible growth might be in quality of one sort or another — especially quality of life, where you get off the consumer treadmill. Where you're not just a shopper.
What's your best advice for how to dress well?
Well, I can borrow clothes from my collection and just put it back. But other people aren’t in that position. If I get one really good outfit, I wouldn’t want anything else. I would want to keep on wearing it. For other people, I'd say – keep on wearing the same thing. There's nothing wrong if you keep on wearing the same thing every time you go to a party or whatever, it doesn’t matter. So long as you look absolutely great. Maybe people should try to look like homeless people. Maybe it would give them an idea. It might look good.
Do you worry about dressing your age?
Maybe there’s something in that. I worry sometimes. I'm not really sure whether I would wear a miniskirt. Although I did wear a miniskirt the other day. I don’t think there are any rules but you shouldn’t look stupid. You should be able to carry it off. But if you feel comfortable, you should be OK. For me comfort is if I look good, not if it’s something that I don't even know if it’s on. I wouldn’t wear jeans, they are terribly conventional.
Where do you stand on the size zero debate?
It's a boring question. I can’t be bothered answering it. We don't use size zero. The girls have to look good and if they’re too thin we don’t like them.
We've just had Burns Night in Scotland, giving many kilts their annual outing. Where did your love of tartan come from?
The fabric itself is just fabulous and Robbie Burns was one of the best poets who ever lived. I don’t know if there’s a better poet in the English language, except perhaps Shakespeare.