At some point in your life, a young Greenpeace activist has probably stopped you, and chances are, you smiled and avoided eye contact. Or you stayed and talked—good for you. But Vivienne Westwood is urging you to linger for more than a few seconds. The legendary designer knows she can get your attention, which is harder than it sounds, especially within the world of fashion. Westwood, though, tries to use this moment of attention as a medium to express her brand of politics and environmental consciousness.
Recently, she’s been involved with a Greenpeace initiative that asked the world to compete in designing a flag for the North Pole in efforts to help claim it for mother nature—At the moment, no single nation owns the high seas around the Pole. But as a convincing British male-voice explains in a video on the Greenpeace website, industry is lurking for the ice to melt and give way for drilling and hunting. Given Westwood’s passion for climate wellbeing, she was a natural choice as one of the judges.
The winner of this futuristic contest is 13-year-old Sarah Bartrisyia from Malaysia, and her design will be etched on a Titanium flag, planted deep inside the seabed in a time capsule. The capsule also holds signatures of 2.7 million “Arctic defenders,” including celebrity names such as Jude Law and Pamela Anderson. The judges, including Hilary Tam (a Chinese-Canadian TV presenter), two Canadian Northern Indigenous artists and 15-year-old Aishah Morshed from Ireland, had to choose between more than 1,400 designs from 54 cities,
On a typically rainy London day, I was escorted up a tiny elevator (as most things are here— tiny), and into a studio not very big for a woman as iconic as Westwood. She’s been making noise for a few decades now, if not with her clothes then with her choice of men, activism, and critique of Kate Middleton and Michelle Obama–gasp. But the studio seemed sincere, a bit messy and understated, with a big table in the middle and stools around it, where I assumed her creativity pours out to be tailored. Although recently, she admits, her husband carries most of her label’s heavy load—she’s too busy saving the world.
It’s easy to be skeptical, if not resentful, about celebrities that find time and the money for philanthropy. They can adopt multiple non-white kids, donate millions to their favorite charity, or go naked for PETA. But Westwood’s philosophy was just that; a philosophy. She lives by her manifesto, and explains it with a candor that can recruit.
Vivienne Westwood: The main message of Climate Revolution is that climate change is caused by the rotten financial system we’ve got, designed to create poverty and rip off any profits for a small amount of rich people. Meanwhile it destroys the earth. There’s no way out of this unless you put the planet first– what’s good for the climate is good for the economy, and what’s bad for the climate, is bad for the economy.
Tara Aghdashloo: What about your personal life? Are you as revolutionary outside of your company as well?
VW: I’m frugal. I’m not a very acquisitive woman. I never waste food. If you prepare your own food, you engage with the world, it tastes alive. It tastes good. And I’m lucky I can borrow clothes from the company [laughs].
TA: So why this flag? Did you [the judges] fight over the final choice?
VW: It was quite unanimous actually. It’s brilliant, it has doves and olive branches and all colours from seven different continents.
TA: How does the message of anti-consumerism and being a fashion designer go together?
VW: I wish you didn’t have to design so often. Try to do quality and cut down on quantity. I think fashion is very, very important. My last collection has a medieval inspiration. Arabs at that time were very active and had beautiful things, and the crusaders were inspired and looked to other cultures. So I wanted to project that onto the world. I think understanding comes from the past. My ideas come from the fact that I am an art lover and I read a lot. That is what sustains me.
TA: Why are most of the finalists for this competition female? I get that it was promoted by World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. But is there something else?
VW: Women fight for democracy and engage in the world. But they shouldn’t try and be copying men and be masculine, they should anchor on the home and build on those fundamentals.
After a while, Westwood leans in, looking intently at me and the other two journalists (we are the only Canadians) that join us in the studio. It’ a cozy crowd. “I want to ask you a question…” she says, whispering almost. “About the dissemination of ideas. How do you engage the public? Of course, you know if you write these articles it’s going to help other people to want to help save the Arctic. If you just want—” she instructs the photographer to “stop that for a sec.”
“If you just want it, what good is that? Well, to me, it’s all the good in the world.”