'I've always been a rebel' – Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler on squaring environmental activism with selling fashion

Jess Cartner-Morley

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Vivienne Westwood has barely taken her coat off and she is already halfway through explaining her plan to save the planet. “I’ve figured it out, you see,” she tells me in her distinctive Alan Bennett-esque tones: dry, quiet, matter-of-fact. Her roadmap to an equitable, sustainable world economy, without private land ownership, is laid out in slogans on a set of playing cards. The idea is to print a million packs to be sold as works of art, for £100 each. “You see, anybody who is prepared to pay £100 for a pack of cards is buying them because of what those cards represent. So if Greenpeace sell hundreds of sets of cards, they are in a position to say, we have hundreds of people supporting us.” She believes this will convince the world’s governments to adopt a new global economic system. “It seems I am the only person who has identified a total strategy and who also has a platform to speak,” she says.

It is quite the opening salvo, but at 78, Westwood has been ruffling feathers on a grand scale for half a century. She is the queen of punk, the fairy godmother of streetstyle, the dame who twirled knickerless at Buckingham Palace. In the dressing room above photographer Juergen Teller’s studio, Westwood begins to extract the pins that secure her halo of delicate, baby-soft strands of vanilla-blond hair in its complicated updo of avant garde kiss curls. She spent this morning at her Mayfair boutique overseeing the presentation of a new collection, and was thinking through the playing card strategy all the time. “It’s given me a headache,” she sighs. Westwood’s concept of no man’s land, a principle that outlaws private land ownership, “can stop Putin saying he owns the Arctic,” she says. “We can stop Bolsonaro saying he can cut down the Amazon. If no one owns land any more, they can’t do it. I won’t go into exactly how it works, but it will give a fair distribution of wealth. It all fits together. The strategy to save the Earth is on these cards.”

It would not, obviously, be difficult to pick holes in this argument. But to do so would surely be to miss her point. Because for all her over-reach on the granular detail, Westwood grasps a truth that many others in the fashion industry and beyond fail to see. She gets that saving the planet is going to be about root-and-branch disruption, not making the odd tweak to schedules and shopping lists. For all her flamboyance and braggadocio, she has a clear-eyed view of the shape and size of the climate crisis.

Westwood is an English rose, as delicate as she is doughty. Her pale skin seems to be lit from beneath, like a bone china teacup held up to the light. It’s not that she looks young, more that there is something Puck-ishly ageless about her. She is spry and petite, wearing a check shirt in soft brushed cotton tucked neatly into nubbly woollen jogging bottoms in dusty pink, with thick orange socks and brown suede boots.

The six-foot Austrian beefcake who strides across the room to take a seat next to her at the makeup table could not present more of a contrast. Andreas Kronthaler has olive skin, rakish salt and pepper curls, a lustrously Tyrolean accented voice. The two have been inseparable, in life and work, for over three decades. They met at art school in Vienna in 1988 – she was teaching fashion design, he was her star pupil – and married in 1993. Westwood was 52, divorced with two sons; Kronthaler was 27. After decades as a silent partner in the design studio, his creative role was recognised in 2016 when the high-end Gold Label line, which is shown at Paris fashion week, was renamed Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood.

Over lunch, Westwood sits quietly, daintily eating tiny pieces of pizza with a knife and fork. Her hearing is not perfect these days and she finds it hard to follow conversation in noisy rooms. But half an hour later, hair and makeup done, laced into angular, teetering boots, she is in her element. Wearing a crown of straw and flowers – imagine a bird was let loose to make a nest in a very chic florist’s – she smiles for Teller’s camera, as sweet and tiny as a little girl lining up for her school portrait.

It is perhaps worth noting that, for all her famed eccentricity, Westwood’s label remains fully independent in an industry peppered with burnt-out talents and backfired business deals. Around 300 people are employed in Britain, many in the Battersea offices where I arrive the following morning to find Kronthaler, in a rainbow-striped sweater, breakfasting on pancakes and Nutella in the light-filled design studio on the top floor. His wife, who is to join us later, is for now two miles away, in the Queen Anne house in Clapham that once belonged to Captain Cook’s mother and which has been the couple’s home since 2000, when Kronthaler persuaded Westwood to move from the ex-council flat nearby where she had lived since the 70s, when she shared it with Malcolm McLaren. The studio walls are covered with ideas for the forthcoming Paris show: a black and white photograph of a 20s showgirl, torso wrapped in furs, has been spliced with a clown in pantaloons. “I’m trying a few things. Who knows?!” Kronthaler exclaims happily, with the abandon of a designer whose last show featured women in decorative codpieces and a five-foot sequined tuna worn as a hat. An assistant appears clutching swatches of lace in gold and black on which she urgently needs his opinion. She is working on a possible outfit for Beyoncé to wear at the Oscars, he tells me. “But now I’m gossiping.” He grins. “I must stop.”

Westwood has dressed punks, princesses and prime ministers. Siouxsie Sioux wore Westwood T-shirts on stage with the Banshees, Princess Eugenie chose a Westwood dress for the 2011 royal wedding, Theresa May had a “lucky” tartan Westwood trouser suit. Her dresses are especially beloved by women with breasts and bottoms: Nigella Lawson, Helena Bonham Carter, Daisy Lowe and Christina Hendricks are all fans. Joining us in the studio – wearing a one-shouldered taupe knit dress layered over a fine-knit olive T-shirt, accessorised with a silk scarf at the throat and an Extinction Rebellion badge – Westwood says she likes working with men (McLaren, and now Kronthaler) “because men always want to put a woman on a pedestal”. She loves a corset not just for the way it shapes the body, but because it is the best foundation piece on which to hang a truly imposing dress. “You can build something grand, if you start with a corset, because it holds up so much fabric. You can have a train that goes halfway down the catwalk, with a corset.” Westwood not only revived the corset in the 80s, she reinvented it: she gave it a zip, so that a woman could get in and out herself, and elastic side panels “so it pulls you in but you can still breathe, and you can do three sizes and it fits everyone”. Kronthaler says he likes “to form the body, but also to give it air. To fix it, but not too much. A corset can make small breasts look big and big breasts not so big. When you wear it, you can manipulate it how you like.”

Kronthaler says of the day he met Westwood, “I found a soulmate. You go through life feeling isolated and alone, and then one day there is someone who says out loud all the things in your head. Suddenly I felt recognised. It was like bliss, pure bliss. Everything she liked, I liked. Everything she thought was interesting, I thought was interesting.” After five years training as a goldsmith (“I think I always wanted to do fashion, and where I grew up that was the nearest to it I could get”), he had recently switched to the fashion course when Westwood arrived in Austria. “She asked me to help her on a project, and that was that.” He arrived in a London slipping into recession, into an era of minimalism and grunge. “Everyone wore flat shoes. The look was very unadored, you know?” (I suspect the word he means is unadorned, but the slip of the tongue is more evocative.) Much of the couple’s courtship was spent poring over the haute couture dresses in the V&A, bonding over a shared passion for Christian Dior. (It is said Westwood would have liked the Dior job that went to John Galliano in 1995.)

It was Westwood’s idea, four years ago, to change the name of her most high-end collection to reflect the de facto design primacy of Kronthaler, now that activism was her focus. “Really we had an equal relationship right from the beginning, and I was perfectly happy when Vivienne was the figurehead,” he says. “And I still struggle with it [having his name on the label] a little bit, because who cares about me? But maybe it has helped me grow up.” He is happy to focus on fashion and leave broader issues to his wife. “I might be… a bit more left, for sure” is about as much detail as I can get out of him on his own politics. “I found Jeremy Corbyn very strange, but I don’t blame him, because who am I to blame…” He trails off, disappears momentarily and returns holding a box of chocolate-dipped orange slices which his assistant brought him from Naples, which are so distractingly delicious that he easily changes the subject to people he’d like to dress: Cate Blanchett (“Ravishing!”) and “this very elegant man I saw on TV at the gym when I went to pilates the other day, what was he called, Stormy? He was at Glastonbury also. Stormzy! So tall. Such beautiful hands!”

Westwood, on the other hand, refuses to be deflected from politics on to fashion. She still oversees a separate collection, more accessibly priced than Kronthaler’s, which is presented digitally during London fashion week, but she devotes most of her time to environmental causes. She parries and dodges my questions about her iconic shows, her career highlights, her place in fashion history and her take on the current scene like a politician on the Today programme. “I’ll come to that in a minute, but what I want to say is…” and so on. I ask her about the Pirate collection of 1981 and she tells me about her friend James Lovelock’s work on the coming age of superintelligence. I bring up her signature 18th-century silhouette and she launches into how the inequities of the global financial system are a cause of 21st-century terror. She does, however, still feel connected to her punk heritage, which is currently enjoying a renaissance as a new generation of designers rediscovers fashion’s rebel spirit. Riccardo Tisci’s first move on arriving at Burberry two years ago was to collaborate with Westwood on a collection that reimagined some of her most iconic pieces – including the platform boots that famously felled Naomi Campbell – in Burberry check. “Punk was a protest,” Westwood says. “[The clothes] said, ‘We don’t accept your taboos, we don’t accept your hypocritical life.’ I’ve always been a rebel. I stopped traffic sometimes. I remember one time I was on the zebra crossing in front of the shop on Kings Road, in a rubber negligee with my hair all in spikes, and a man said to me – you won’t believe this – he said to me, ‘Does your bush look like that?’” Always one to relish shock value, she looks positively gleeful. “Vivienne,” chimes in Kronthaler from across the table, “people still look at you, wherever we go.”

Squaring environmental activism with the business of selling fashion is problematic when, as Kronthaler himself says, “We already have enough clothes in the western world to last us for hundreds of years.” Westwood company policy is to downsize production – all collections are now 50% smaller than three years ago – and sell at a price point that encourages Westwood’s mantra of choose well, buy less, make it last. “I don’t let my company print T-shirts any more unless they guarantee they can sell them for £100 or more. Cotton is a luxury product [because of its environmental footprint] and we can’t keep exploiting it.” Westwood is old enough to remember a culture far less in thrall to consumerism. In her Glossop girlhood – she was born in 1941 – the churn of disposable purchases was not yet normal, the craft of making clothes yourself not yet unusual. “We need to get back to having fewer things, and treasuring what we have. That’s why I defend high fashion,” she says. “But of course, we need a fair distribution of wealth…” and she’s off again. Kronthaler has picked up a pencil and quietly begun to sketch. Paris fashion week is only a few weeks away, after all. But Vivienne Westwood has designs on a whole different kind of future.

• Read more from the spring/summer 2020 edition of The Fashion, our biannual fashion supplement