When applying for this course, I seriously didn’t think twice about being a girl in this male dominated industry. I knew there would be more boys, but I have two big brothers and have been tormented by them my whole life so a few more years wouldn’t make any difference. It wasn’t until I started doing this blog and seriously looking into it that I realised only 20% of product design engineers/ industrial designers are ladies, and I started to get a bit worried. Until I read the story of my favourite fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood.
Westwood was born Vivienne Isabel Swire in the village of Tintwistle, Derbyshire on 8 April 1941, the daughter of Gordon Swire and Dora Swire, who had married two years previously, two weeks after the outbreak of World War II. At the time of Vivienne’s birth, her father was employed as a storekeeper in an aircraft factory; he had previously worked as a greengrocer. She attended Glossop Grammar School.
Aged 17, Vivienne and her family moved to Harrow, London. She studied at the Harrow School of Art - University of Westminster, taking fashion and silversmithing, but she left after one term saying, “I didn’t know how a working-class girl like me could possibly make a living in the art world”. After taking up a job in a factory and studying at a teacher-training college, she became a primary school teacher. During this period, she also created her own jewellery, which she would sell at a stall on Portobello Road.
Then she met Malcolm McLaren, her life changed forever and she became (amongst other things) Britain best fashion designer. I’ve listed a few of her many accolades below.
She began designing clothes in 1971 with the opening of her first shop, Let It Rock, at 430 King’s Road. In 1974 it was renamed Sex.
In 1976, with her then lover and business partner, Malcolm McLaren, they dressed the Sex Pistols.
In 1990, Westwood launched a menswear collection in Florence. She was named British Designer of the Year that year, as well as in 1991
In 1998 she won the Queen’s Export Award
In 2007 she was awarded the gong for Outstanding Achievement in Fashion Design at the British Fashion Awards - but she was late on to the stage to collect it since she’d popped out to go to the loo.
In 2010 she was honoured at a ceremony for the Prince Philip Designers Prize. Westwood received a special commendation for her contribution to design from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh.
Alongside her fashion range she launched a range of stationary in 2010 including notebooks and diaries in classic Westwood prints. She made her mark on the interiors world the same year with a selection of new table-cloth designs in support for eco charity Cool Earth. The designs were covered with bold, bright prints often with Westwood’s trademark political polemics emblazoned across.
In 2011 she was named Britain’s Greatest British Fashion Designer in a poll conducted by Greenall. Over 3000 people voted with the Westwood scooping 24 per cent of the national vote .
Vivienne Westwood and photographer Juergen Teller went to Africa in 2011 to work on her autumn/winter 2011-12 Ethical Fashion Africa collection. A programme which enlists thousands of local women to use their skills to produce bags for Westwood and earn a fair wage in return. “This project gives people control over their lives,” she said. “Charity doesn’t give control, it does the opposite, it makes people dependant.”
In 2011 she joined the Occupy London anti-capitalist protesters outside St Paul’s Cathedral. She has often outlined her concerns for climate change and during a talk at the V&A in 2009 Westwood said: “There is hardly anyone left now who believes in a better world.”
Never shy of controversy, Westwood complained of the lack of style in society. “People have never looked so ugly as they do today, regarding their dress,” she told journalists after her Red Label show in London. “We are so conformist, nobody is thinking. I’m a fashion designer and people think ‘what do I know?’ but I’m talking about all this disposable crap. So I’m saying buy less, choose well, make it last…in history people dressed much better than we do. If you saw Queen Elizabeth it would be amazing, she came from another planet. She was so attractive in what she was wearing.”
In January 2013 she helped rebrand the English National Ballet with a new campaign that shows the ballet dancers wearing her creations. “It’s a dream come true to be able to collaborate with someone of such stature,” said Tamara Rojo, the English National Ballet’s artistic director. “Her designs capture the creativity and ambition of our dancers who, in turn, add drama and movement to the clothes.”
Vivienne Westwood’s story shows that with enough determination and hard work any one can “make it” as a minority, in her case a working class girl, in an area you love, in her case fashion. So I’m not going to think twice again about being a female product design engineer because I’m sure I will be able to find a way to make it too.