Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity, and the Sixties Laid Bare

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9780879516918: Vivienne Westwood: Fashion, Perversity, and the Sixties Laid Bare

The outrageously revealing ("Look, ma, no knickers!") biography of the high priestess of punk rock fashion.

Vivienne Westwood was the Queen of Punk Rock and her fashions have scandalized and fascinated the world since the Sixties. Parading models bare-breasted down the catwalks of Paris, posing pantiless outside Buckingham Palace-she has an insatiable appetite for anarchic outrageousness. She has never lost her power to shock, and her continued innovations make her one of the most talked about fashion designers in the world. But little is know about this essentially private woman. What is she like What is the secret of her success.

Gleaned from more than thirty years of interviews with Westwood herself, Vivienne Westwood describes for the first time in detail Westwood's childhood and early years; it also exposes the inside story of her stormy and bizarre relationship with musician and fashionista Malcolm McLaren. The author looks at the origins of Westwood's witty and erotic sensibility, placing it in the context of the sixties, and throwing light on the dynamics of punk and on Westwood's later ability to tap into the inner logic of fashion - a Romantic perversity which is at the heart of mass consumption itself. As a dirty history of the Sixties shared by Westwood, McLaren and the author, and as a story of the triumph of a mad, bad, outrageous girl, Vivienne Westwood succeeds brilliantly.

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Vivienne’s secret, as she admits, is Malcolm McLaren. Malcolm’s secret is told here for the first time in Part Two.

Part One: Vivienne Westwood, an Imaginary Interview is me taking liberties with everything I can recall Vivienne saying to me over thirty years, plus what she’s said in her many published interviews. Quite a lot, as you will see. Some of this is put into her mouth from other sources as well – for example, her family and Malcolm.

I also put two of my students on the case, and they extensively interviewed people from Vivienne’s past. It’s got that rather flat ‘interview’ tone, but I also think it’s got a lot of her. If you think ‘We’ve got a right one here!’, then I’ve done the job OK. This section is in a sense ‘factual’, as it has some ‘dramatised’ sections but is based on what I know and on what has been documented by others. In other words, I didn’t make any of it up, though you might be tempted to think so. I also resisted the temptation to put my own spin on events in the guise of her voice – my version comes in Part Two. Needless to say, however, this ‘Imaginary Interview’ doesn’t claim to represent what Vivienne might say on her own account or what she might say about all this in retrospect.

Like me, Vivienne and Malcolm are sixties people. That was our formative decade. But a lot of shit has been written about the sixties. I’ve tried to go beyond the clichés and examine our origins more ruthlessly by interrogating my own experience along with theirs. So this section is an eyewitness account of how we grew up together in an inconspicuous corner of the sixties, roughly from 1963 to the early to mid-seventies, when the sixties finally began to peter out – or are they still with us? There’s a lot about me in this, because biographies, after all, overlap, and shared circumstances and attitudes can say it all. Hence Part Two: Growing up as a Genius in the Sixties.

In this section I also reveal the strange secret of Malcolm McLaren’s talent – his talent for genius. I sketch the Romantic context of this talent – where it can thrive – and show how Vivienne has absorbed and made it her own.

To bring it all up to date I wrote Part Three: Pictures from the Revolution, which traces a line of vignettes up to October 1995, when I observed the scenes behind Vivienne’s Paris show at the Grand Hôtel. I’ve also tried here to give a sense of that curious organization, Vivienne Westwood Ltd.

The funny thing was, everyone assumed that because we were at the centre of punk Malcolm and I were incredibly debauched and perverted.

There were stories, for instance, that I used to lock Malcolm up in a cupboard all day, and that our Clapham flat was the scene of wild orgies, some of them lesbian, featuring me and young punk girls. In fact we were probably the straightest couple on that scene. Though the rumours were good for business.

Of course, there’s always been a dominant side to me, and Malcolm sometimes liked to enact his childhood traumas. But all that is very private to us, and I would never tell anyone anything that might hurt Malcolm. Whatever he has said about me since our break-up, I still feel very loyal to him. In any case we were usually too busy with our projects and our business to do anything very exotic. In fact, I don’t recall either of us having very much sex around that period – straight or kinky.

When did Malcolm and I split up? Perhaps it really started around the time of my Pirate collection, 1979-80. Adam Ant – around then.

I had known Adam for some time as someone who used to hang around SEX, our boutique in the King’s Road. I thought him a nice boy, very polite. Adam had been pestering Malcolm for ages to manage him. Eventually Malcolm gave him advice about stage presentation, like painting a big white stripe on his nose. He charged Adam £1000 for this advice. That was probably the best advice Adam ever got.

But Malcolm needed a band himself at the time, since he was thinking of starting Bow Wow Wow. So he got talking to Adam’s backing band. He explained that Adam was basically a no-hoper. Malcolm suggested they should leave Adam and form another band with another lead singer, and he would then manage them as Bow Wow Wow. He was thinking they might front the pirate look I’d been designing.

That band were all such craven boys really. They had no loyalty to Adam, and caved in pretty quickly. So Malcolm put them to work, sending them to recording studios to record demos.

He’d tell them to go into a studio, work there for several days, and once the engineer’s back was turned, steal the tape and do a runner. Then they would take the same tape to another studio and start all over again. That way all the demos were made for free – another kind of piracy, plus he sent a buzz of notoriety around the industry in advance of any sales pitch.

Then Malcolm came up with Annabella. She was fourteen then, with a high, shrill voice and a manic presentation. I thought she was crap to start with and the first time I heard a tape of her I smashed the cassette machine! But then Malcolm got a deal with EMI, of all companies, which was a surprise to everyone.

At the time Malcolm was also writing a film script. He wanted to fuse this with the band he was creating. The script was about the ‘Mile High Club’, a group of kids who meet in the ruined fuselage of a plane and use it for meetings which turn into sex orgies which get more and more elaborate and outrageous. I thought this was quite a promising idea.

You see, Malcolm thought the rock industry was really about kids having sex and wanted to rub its nose in the fact. So the idea was to get the industry involved in some aspect of supposedly underage sex, and then say innocently: ‘Oh, but what’s the problem with that then? It’s what you do all the time! It’s what makes the wheels go round!’

While this was going on, a BBC film crew headed by Alan Yentob was making a documentary about Malcolm creating this band. They were filming meetings inside EMI, with EMI people solemnly checking out pictures of kids in sexy poses, and listening to Annabella having an orgasm on ‘Sexy Eiffel Towers’. They were all making judicious comments about the whole thing and acting as if it was business as usual. They didn’t realize that Malcolm was setting up a crafty trap. But then everything started to go wrong.

Adam had sworn revenge on Malcolm. He’d got together with Marco Pirroni to form a rival band to Bow Wow Wow. Adam then pinched Bow Wow Wow’s ‘Burundi beat’ (which Malcolm had pinched from Bernard Rhodes, who got it from an old sixties single). Adam even stole my eighteenth-century feel in costumes and the pirate look!

Then Adam was very successful and had big hits with all this, while Bow Wow Wow was left standing.

I remember when Malcolm told the Bow Wow Wow boys that Adam had just released ‘Dog Eat Dog’. Malcolm said they looked so fed up. We thought that was funny!

But Malcolm had overstretched the kiddy sex angle – especially through a series of photo shoots in different locations across London. These were about Annabella and the band with lots of other kids, and they took place in different houses all over town during one day.

As ever, Malcolm wanted to push things as far as he could – to make it really crazy – and had these kids posing with the band erotically. This started to worry the photographer. Then, at the last place we went, Malcolm started a situation in which the photographer and a twelve-year-old girl were locked into a confrontation. The girl was supposed to take off all her clothes, but instead she held a cushion in front of herself. Malcolm was shouting: ‘Take that away!’ and the girl burst into tears.

Her mother, who had been watching television in the next room, was furious, and the photographer couldn’t believe what he’d been involved in. That was just Malcolm getting carried away as usual.

I think it was one thing to implicate the industry in its own salacious tastes, but another to upset children like that. I didn’t agree with it.

After that, things went from bad to worse. The BBC abandoned their documentary and locked the film they’d made in the vaults, like it was a deadly virus. Alan Yentob is one of those people who likes to be thrilled, but not that much.

Then Annabella’s mother heard about some of what was going on and started making all sorts of mischief. She had some funny idea that Malcolm was depraving and corrupting her daughter and made a huge fuss, contacting Scotland Yard and all the papers, and ringing the record company non-stop.

Eventually Bow Wow Wow failed, and I think it was for several reasons. To start with, those boys in the band. Basically, they just wouldn’t try hard enough or persist, so really they didn’t deserve any success. They had an attitude problem. Then Annabella was a real problem. She just wouldn’t do her bit properly and became very childish. I remember me and Malcolm endlessly trying to talk her into taking her clothes off. We wanted her in the nude and therefore in the news. But the poor silly girl couldn’t see that. She was so hung up about sex. I said to her: ‘You’ve got a beautiful body, so what’s wrong with showing it?’ But she was still a mummy’s girl.

After that, sadly, she got raped by one of the band, or so I heard, and then hooked on drugs, and the whole thing became a complete mess. A pity really.

But I also have to say the music wasn’t very good. And the fact that Malcolm wrote the lyrics perhaps didn’t help. That was his megalomania. By then he had got to thinking he was an all-time, all-round genius. That everything he did had to work and everyone who disagreed was a traitor. I think he is a genius, but sometimes he won’t listen to sense.

And I wonder in a way if he didn’t really hijack what I was doing at that time. Because Bow Wow Wow was never as strong as my fashion.

The pirate thing took off phenomenally and in some ways was the most successful thing I’ve ever done. I exhibited it as a collection in the Pillar Hall at Olympia in March 1981. My slogan was ‘a new age of glamorous heroes standing tall and slim and proud’. Some of those designs also featured in Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s and Henri Bendel. And my ideas went all round the world and popped up in other people’s collections on catwalks from Milan to Tokyo. I couldn’t believe how much I was copied. It was very flattering in a way as I’d not got much self-confidence at that stage. I suppose it’s ironic that the one thing that really did get pirated was my pirate collection!

But it was around about then that things between me and Malcolm started to go seriously wrong.

I’d usually tolerated his affairs with other women because he’d told me he needed to do that. I tried to understand his needs as an artist to explore himself and experiment with his freedom. So when he slept with Helen Waddington-Smith (the dwarf in the film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle) for example, I just thought, well, if that’s what turns you on! I hardly thought of her as a rival.

Then, in 1980, Malcolm got himself a flat in Paddington and took up with this horrid German girl, Andrea. I thought she was a bloodsucker and a groupie. She had a hard little face and a putty-like expression. We had quite a few rows over Andrea. Once I even hit Malcolm at a show where Bow Wow Wow were modelling my clothes. That caused a commotion backstage! Malcolm told me he was in love with this Andrea girl, but I just knew it wasn’t true. I was convinced he said it simply to hurt me.

He even had the nerve to say Andrea was only his mistress and that I was his real partner – as if I wouldn’t mind or would tolerate that kind of situation. When he told me that I saw red. I thought it was an insult to even compare me with someone like Andrea. I threw Malcolm out of the flat and said don’t you ever come back in here. After all we’d done together! As if I was some kind of housewife! I was so angry that night. I really punched him hard. That night I really wanted to hurt him.

A few days later I went round to his flat. Like a coward, he wouldn’t let me in, so I made quite a commotion in the street. Then I threw a brick through his window and went back to Clapham. I was in my pirate clothes so I don’t know what the neighbours thought.

Even so, we didn’t really split up then. We had too much invested in each other. We had the shop and the collection and we had all the culture we shared and all the culture we had made together. I still needed him to feed me with ideas and he still needed me to turn his ideas into clothes. So eventually he came back yet again and sheepishly admitted he’d made a mistake. And perhaps stupidly, I took him back.

It wasn’t until 1983 that the final break came. Though, to tell the truth, there had been so many breaks and reconciliations already that in the end I couldn’t really put an exact time or place to it. All I know is, it just started to hurt more and more as it became inevitable that we would have to part in a radical or complete way. Both emotionally and professionally.

But one good thing did come out of the split – I got closer to my mother. Malcolm had always come between us as a source of suspicion, poisoning my feelings towards my parents and my past. My mother has always disliked him. She calls him ‘the interloper’.

My family had come from Tintwistle, in the Derbyshire Peak District, a grim, working-class village straggling both sides of the Manchester Road. They had lived in the village since about the year dot.

Life was settled there, and it still is. Many of the people I grew up with are still around, in Tintwistle itself, or in Glossop, the nearest town. The place was founded on the cotton trade in the industrial revolution. The Victorians built its factories, schools and chapels and people like my dad joined the village brass band, and the Odd Fellows, with their secret handshakes and ancient rituals. All of them were self-made, self-reliant and self-educated – like me.

In the 1940s my father’s mother ran a grocery store. In that area this meant they were lower middle class. They were also the only family with a car, which my father drove to Manchester and back early in the morning for shop supplies.

My mother, born Dora Ball, worked in a modern cotton mill which also produced silk. She was able to buy material cheaply and she loved making dresses, especially to go out dancing in. She was a committed ballroom dancer, and started ‘serious’ dancing at the age of sixteen. She never lost her love of ballroom dancing, so I suppose I was brought up with bits of fabric, exotic colours, sexy slippery silks. Quite a contrast to the sensible tweeds and wellington boots of everyday life in Tintwistle.

In those days the cottages were two-up two-downs with outside lavatories. The water was heated by a log fire in a zinc tank and there was a tin bath. Immediately behind was a common area called ‘the quarry’. There were no fences because the quarry was like one big back garden with a disused wash-house where everyone had a washing line and all the children from the terrace played. No one would lock their doors in those days and we would wander in and out of neighbour...

From Publishers Weekly:

London fashion designer Westwood's "impishly erotic couture" won her international acclaim in the '80s and '90s, but she made her first and perhaps most indelible mark on popular culture in the '70s, when she, along with her notoriously Svengalian partner, Malcolm McLaren, was instrumental in shaping both the ethos and the iconography of punk rock. Operating under the philosophy that "You can never go too far," the two used their SEX boutique to launch outrageous fashion trends that became the most visible markers of underground chic. Rock critic Vermorel (The Secret History of Kate Bush) here parlays a decades-long acquaintance with Westwood into an intriguing biography that is noteworthy for its focus on its subject's engagement with the intellectual currents that seized the countercultural imagination at various stages in her career. He also charts her stormy but creatively fertile relationship with McLaren and explores the evolution of her philosophy of fashion. Utilizing an unusual technique that works surprisingly well, Vermorel devotes the second half of his narrative to an account of his own coming-of-age under the auspices of countercultural ideologies. Westwood becomes a disappointingly peripheral figure in this section, but Vermorel's self-scrutiny permits a sustained and highly insightful examination of the kinds of ideas that fueled Westwood's own creative imagination. "The secret which McLaren and Westwood learned by heart," Vermorel concludes, is "how to paint your subjectivity in the codes of culture and foment an insurrection of like-minded solitudes." Photos.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Vermorel, Fred
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