A Eurocentric Designer Descends on New York

“Vivienne is a household name,” said architect David Collins, who created Vivienne Westwood’s first American store, which opens in SoHo on Feb. 12. “But do people know exactly what she does?”

After the masses from New York’s fashion week trample into Ms. Westwood’s new 7,000-square-foot boutique on Greene Street–a former art gallery, how appropriate–for the opening-night party, the rest of the city will be welcomed in to discover that Ms. Westwood has several clothing lines: Gold Label, which approximates couture and includes Ms. Westwood’s made-to-order society wedding dresses; Red Label, her finely tailored ready-to-wear collection; Man, a collection with Savile Row influences; and Anglomania, a casual line featuring many pieces from her punk days in the 1970′s. Ms. Westwood’s first perfume, Boudoir, was launched at the Harvey Nichols store in London last fall and will be available here in about six months.

The clothes range from the most histrionic costumes to street-inspired jeans and T-shirts. “The idea is, we’re not going to settle for all the crap, the mass-market identikit,” Ms. Westwood said on Feb. 4 from Paris, where she was conducting some business. “Our clothes have a rapport with the body and tell a story.”

Ms. Westwood, 58, is even showing her fall-winter 1999 Red Label collection at high noon on Feb. 16 in the Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library, rather than in London, where she is based. But will Americans get her?

Nan Kempner, for one, is ready to wear Westwood. “Oh, goody!” Ms. Kempner said, when she heard of the designer coming to town. “I’ll give her a lunch, maybe on the 11th.” Unfortunately, the British Consulate, which is honoring Ms. Westwood on Feb. 11, just as the final racks of clothes will be pouring into SoHo, has scooped Mrs. Kempner.

“New York needs new blood, don’t you think?” Mrs. Kempner said.

“The erudition of her work makes Americans very suspicious,” said Richard Martin, curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, of Ms. Westwood’s designs. “Maybe the recent attention to Paris couture has trained Americans more in a certain sense of historicism, but Americans look for casualness. Simplicity. The classic issue of being modern.”

Ms. Westwood won’t be labeled modern–or anything else, really. “This word ‘modern’ is just another ism, another category,” Ms. Westwood said. “I’m sorry, darlin’, if you’ve heard this before,” her voice a planed soprano with gentle, but pert, duchesslike punctuations. “Cloth and the human body. I have to make cloth give expression to the body. The whole load of possibilities inspires me.”

Although Ms. Westwood began her design career using the iconography of rebels, she said, “Rebellion wasn’t enough for me because it wasn’t rebellious enough. People loved it.” Now she finds history refreshing. “But I completely deny any allegation that I blunder history! Most people don’t go as far back as I do, that’s all.”

In his 1989 book, Chic Savages , fashion publisher John Fairchild calls Vivienne Westwood one of the top six designers in the world, in the company of Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio Armani, Karl Lagerfeld and Christian Lacroix. “Of the six, British Vivienne Westwood is the designer’s designer, watched by intellectual and far-out designers including Jean Paul Gaultier. She is copied by the avant-garde French and Italian designers because she is the Alice in Wonderland of fashion.… Yet, copied as she is,” Mr. Fairchild also observed, “Westwood struggles in her World’s End shop in London, living hand to mouth.”

Disarray is a subtext in Vivienne Westwood’s work. Her punk designs in the 1970′s and her deconstructivist collections in the early 1980′s paved the way for the Japanese deconstructionists Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, as well as Belgian designers Ann Demeulemeester and Martin Margiela. She has championed fashion as a platform for political and personal rebellion.

Alas, not necessarily the stuff of mass-market American fashion. But the SoHo store may draw traffic, anyway. At the center is an elevated stage in a graphic herringbone pattern, surrounded by mirrors and lit by a pair of Swarovski chandeliers. There are several dressing rooms just off stage. “Slightly eccentric, I hope,” said Mr. Collins, whose clients include Madonna and the John Barrett Salon atop Bergdorf Goodman. “It looks like Vivienne might have designed it herself.”

Born in Derbyshire in 1941, Ms. Westwood lived above her mother’s general store. She learned about fashion from reading the magazines in the shop. “As a child, I was in waiting,” Ms. Westwood has said. Her warmest recollections of growing up are reading books in a sunny meadow. She is married to her business partner, Andreas Kronthaler, who is 25 years her junior, and she has two grown sons from previous marriages.

In 1993, Ms. Westwood entered into a licensing deal with Japan’s Itochu Corporation. From $400,000 that year, Ms. Westwood’s business annual revenue increased to almost $9.5 million in 1995. A 1996 campaign to appoint her designer in chief at Christian Dior failed when her discomfort during the interview process, as well as her reputation as a renegade, dissuaded executives at the French firm. Instead, they hired John Galliano, whose work Ms. Westwood considers derivative of her own.

Recalling her first visit to New York in the early 70′s with Malcolm McLaren for a fashion show, Ms. Westwood said, “We didn’t sell much, except we met the New York Dolls and went to Max’s Kansas City every night, so I did enjoy it. But I was surprised to find New York much more dilapidated than I imagined. Holes in the roads and taxis bumpin’ up and down.” She paused. “I suppose America is very glamorous for people who believe in the 20th century.”