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Punk rock to the Stone Age

At 65, British fashion maven Vivienne Westwood proves that being provocative can be timeless.

March 09, 2007|Rose Apodaca | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — With her thumb and forefinger, Vivienne Westwood tugged at the darts at her bust, then her hips, creating torpedo-like effects on her gold-speckled black cocktail dress, made all the more exaggerated by way of her killer wasp waist.

Wilma Flintstone comes to mind, and, for the designer, that is exactly the aim, given the scrawling prints resembling cave drawings that she presented in her fall '07 collection, titled "Wake Up, Cave Girl," in Paris last week. The morning after that she hopped a plane for the opening here of the only U.S. stop for her traveling retrospective, at the De Young Museum through June 10.

"As a human race, we've made such a mess of things we should just start all over again, go back to the Stone Age," she explained during a respite between the media tour last Friday morning and the evening gala, where she turned up in the cocktail dress -- the same one she wore to close the Paris show, she said. "The thing about Stone Age people is they did not realize just how important the human race was or would be. They didn't realize they had a choice between cultivating themselves, having more social cement and caring and becoming more human. Or the other choice to become the animal that destroys."

Politics and culture have always played a part in the outspoken British designer's work, as evidenced in many of the 150 looks on exhibit here representing her 36 years in fashion.

There are the slashed and patched zip-up T-shirts from her first shop in 1971, called Let It Rock, on London's King's Road, from where, within eight years and by strategically renaming the space four more times, she and second husband Malcolm McLaren kick-started the cultural revolution known as punk. And there are the complicated knits and exacting tailored tweed suits with bustle silhouettes paired with the kinds of super-high, fetish-like boots the designer was wearing during the media tour she personally hosted.

Boundless energy

An hour into the tour, in which Westwood carefully recalled trivia on each look, a few of us who are roughly half the designer's 65 years wondered if she would ever tire of standing on the concrete of the new, below-ground costume hall in those rouge-colored platform, lace-up boots with those severe 6-inch spike heels.

"I'm very proud of the exhibition," she quietly told the crowd, holding the tiny microphone of her headset close to her mouth while simultaneously removing her white pearly framed glasses. A few new looks have been added since the show began at London's Victoria & Albert Museum three years ago. "I'm very impressed at the number of things I did do."

The woman who is hailed as the queen mother of punk rock has just about done it all. Yet it's always according to her own politics and her very own signature style. She remains fiercely independent in her business, which she runs with her partner Carlo D'Amario and her co-designer and third husband, Andreas Kronthaler, a former student she met while teaching in Vienna who is 25 years her junior.

Beyond the 30 or so flagships and the 700 other stores the company sells to globally, the team hopes to finally open a few signature stores, if not widen distribution, in the U.S., where a fervent fan base is sometimes forced to search EBay to score an orb medallion necklace or strappy boot. (The brand sells at Diavolina, Maxfield and Traffic in Los Angeles.)

Being made a dame in 2006 has only emboldened Westwood's sense of responsibility to speak her mind as a citizen living in a democracy. "It's all very useful, because people will give you a platform because of who you are. To some, it might only be, 'Oh, she's a nut case. There she goes again.' But at least people know who you are and might even listen."

That was her hope as her team handed out envelopes filled with a petition letter and fact sheet on Leonard Peltier, the Native American artist jailed for three decades now after being convicted of murdering two FBI agents. Many Native American groups, civil rights leaders, members of Congress and others believe Peltier was not given a fair trial.

"What is happening to Leonard, what is happening to some of these people falsely called terrorists could happen to anybody," Westwood said.

To that end, the grandmother points to a large metal disk she wears chained as a choker around her ivory neck. Scribbled in black over a red heart is the rallying cry "I am not a terrorist. Please don't arrest me." It's also on a $75 T-shirt in adult and infant sizes that she's created to raise funds for the human rights group Liberty.

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