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Adrita Talukder

Remembering Vivienne Westwood, an architect of modern punk fashion

On what would’ve been the designer’s 82nd birthday, the New York City store drew an intimate crowd of enthusiasts, gathered for a day of appreciation for the fashion legend.

April 11, 2023

A small line formed outside the Vivienne Westwood store in midtown Manhattan on Saturday morning. It was a markedly small scene, drawing a sharp contrast between the busy fashion hub of Fifth Avenue right around the corner. But those in the line had all the reason in the world to be there — Saturday would have been Vivienne Westwood’s 82nd birthday. The renowned British fashion designer passed away last December.

The jewelry display inside the Vivienne Westwood New York City store. Two orb pendants take prominence in the photo.

The crowd remained small throughout the day, many seemingly unaware that it was her birthday. But Westwood never “liked to make a fuss” of her birthday anyway, as noted by her granddaughter Cora Corré in a letter posted to Instagram. This humble approach to her life — and design — is what has captivated generations of fashion connoisseurs.

Rachel Leisring stands and shows off her earrings — they are the gold orb stud earrings by Vivienne Westwood.

At the front of the line stood Rachel Leisring and Raelle Wilson, a mother-daughter duo from Cincinnati. They had made the trek over to New York City to celebrate Wilson’s 17th birthday, and visiting the Vivienne Westwood store was at the top of their to-do list. Having been longtime buyers of the brand, the two felt it important to pay homage to Westwood by visiting the store in person.

Wilson shared that her love for Westwood had deep roots, something she credited her grandmother for.

“My grandma had a lot of Vivienne Westwood stuff,” Wilson said. “I was really a big fan of it when I was younger, and I inherited a lot of her Vivienne Westwood pieces.”

Both mother and daughter had ears adorned with Westwood’s designs — Westwood’s jewelry line, the two said, has had a great impact on their fashion style. Leisring also touted a black, crinkle leather bucket bag with a prominently placed silver orb, Westwood’s instantly recognizable signature icon.

Mother and daughter Rachel Leisring and Raelle Wilson stand together in front of the Vivienne Westwood New York City store. They are wearing all black clothing.
Mother and son Isabel and Titus Duellmann stand together in front of the Vivienne Westwood New York City store. They are wearing all black clothing.

Leisring and Wilson weren’t the only mother-child duo that visited the store that day. Isabel and Titus Duellmann made the journey to New York City from Cologne, Germany, where Isabel is a shop owner. Isabel attributed her connection to Vivienne Westwood to the time she spent in London, where Westwood spent decades working as a designer. For Titus, Westwood’s work was something he encountered as his interest in fashion developed.

Titus was wearing his mother’s blazer — the two regularly borrow clothes from one another, his mother said. Titus’ first Westwood piece — a simple silver chain with an orb pendant — was a gift from his mother, another testament to their shared appreciation of fashion. 

“I’m happy that my son is so much into Vivienne Westwood,” Isabel mentioned, and added, “I really like that [he] is not looking after gender in fashion.”

Both families had traveled far to pay homage to Westwood at her store, one of only two locations in the United States. Inside the store, the gallery-like displays of clothing, jewelry and shoes, alongside framed archive pieces hung up on the walls, make it easy to see why it’s such a destination spot for Westwood fans around the world. 

The modern, softly lit space featured a distinct mix of industrial style and traditional British details that recalled Westwood’s wide-ranging influences. Westwood, who was born in Derbyshire, near Manchester, worked as a teacher before her foray into fashion, which began after she met Malcolm McLaren, the future manager of the punk rock band Sex Pistols. 

Westwood’s fetish-wear-inspired designs for the band — which she sold at her King’s Road shop, SEX — captured and popularized the look of punk fashion in London during the ’80s. But after splitting from McLaren and starting her eponymous line, Westwood began referencing traditional 18th-century sources, from which came her signature corsets, the Mini-Crini, and of course, the crown-jewels-inspired orb

Westwood was able to combine her various influences into a signature look and aesthetic through a radical, rebellious ethos that she also embodied through her relentless activism. During her lifetime, Westwood outwardly supported a number of causes, from anti-terrrorism to Scottish independence to climate activism. Her identity as an activist was just as much a part of her as being a designer.

Westwood’s incessant mixing of styles preached the value of personal style, which is still felt strongly today, especially at her store.

Jada Ortega, a sales associate and personal shopper at the Vivienne Westwood New York City store, stands in the lower level of the store.

Jada Ortega, a sales associate and personal shopper at the New York City store, said of Westwood, “She always said she wanted to create a world for freaks … Here, you’re not really trendy — it’s how you feel. She made it OK to dress how you feel versus how everybody else wants you to dress.”

Dressed chicly yet boldly in a tartan pattern corset paired with the statement Northern Sole Westwood platforms, Ortega mused on Westwood’s influence on her own personal style. 

“I did grow up in a predominantly low-income neighborhood, where designer clothes weren’t so accessible,” Ortega said. “So I tried to mimic these [designer] outfits. I was a real punk when I was younger. It just drew me to Vivienne, because she’s all about that. Even if you don’t have the money, you can still do what you want to do.”

21-year-old Hallie Smith stands by the Vivienne Westwood New York City store. She is wearing an oversized leather jacket, a pink checkered skirt, Adidas Samba shoes, and a Vivienne Westwood necklace along with a Vivienne Westwood bag.

Outside the store, passerby Hallie Smith also reiterated the individuality that is so prominent in Westwood’s work, describing it as a sort of “main character energy.” Smith was dressed not unlike a main character herself, in a black leather jacket, pink checked skirt, purple socks and orange Adidas Samba shoes, accessorized with a multitude of Vivienne Westwood accessories, including a heart-shaped bag that depicted a Renaissance style painting.

Hallie Smith stands and shows off her necklace, the Three Row Pearl Bas Relief Choker by Vivienne Westwood.

“In the last decade [London has] become one of the most international cities in the world… I think Vivienne Westwood embraces that and understands that,” Smith observed.

Westwood’s subversive designs and “radical” activism — especially perceived as so at the start of her career — provoked mainstream culture throughout her lifetime. This impact, as noted by Smith, has been global. As Westwood noted in her memoir, “What I am doing now, is still punk. It’s still about shouting injustice and making people think, even if it’s uncomfortable. I’ll always be punk in that sense.”

Hallie Smith stands and shows off a heart-shaped crossbody bag in the Fisherman style, which she purchased in London.
The jewelry display inside the Vivienne Westwood New York City store. Front and center is a silver bejeweled bone necklace by Vivienne Westwood.

At the store, to see how Westwood’s legacy as a designer and activist touched each individual so deeply in different ways — through a shared bond of fashion between mother and child, a passion for curating a cult accessory collection, or a philosophy on approach to personal style — was a testament to the powerful impact Westwood left on the world. As we commemorate and celebrate her life and birthday, we also remember her punk and daring attitude towards life, design and activism, and how they continue to live on strongly.

Photos by Adrita Talukder
Contact Melody Jiang at [email protected]

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