“He’s dead now,” said Vivienne Westwood, as if to justify herself, before slagging off (yet again) her erstwhile romantic/creative/business partner, Malcolm McLaren. Now that Westwood is dead, I can tell the truth without being accused of defamation by her and her company — again. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. How else can you explain Westwood’s unrelenting animosity towards McLaren, who gave her a career and set her up for life, before they broke up in the early Eighties after roughly 15 rocky but productive years together.
She made it a life-long mission to rewrite history, trying to erase his fashion legacy. A gentleman, McLaren didn’t think it right to “speak ill of a woman” and let it go. This was a mistake as she made sure he was never credited for the clothes from their partnership (bearing labels all designed by him, some marked with both their names) if she could help it. Whenever she gave credits for the clothing designed during their partnership, she insisted he be left out.
How could she have expected him to stay with her forever? McLaren was kind and decent to stay that long and ultimately give her a career. When they met, he was a naive and damaged teenager in art school, coming from a dysfunctional and negligent family, only just finding his feet with like-minded peers. The last thing he needed was to end up with a baby aged 20 with the first woman he had slept with. When I met Fred Vermorel, McLaren’s art school friend, the first words out of his mouth were apologetic: “I was the reason Malcolm met Vivienne.”
Vermorel, had been friends with her younger brother who was studying film. Vermorel, said as soon as Westwood saw McLaren, she became obsessed with him. He was not interested, understandably, in an uneducated provincial woman five years older than him who had run away from her husband with a young child. Like most teens, he was into rock ‘n’ roll, running wild with other students and following artistic and intellectual pursuits.
When nothing else worked, she moved into the student flat he shared with others and walked around naked until she got his attention. As McLaren left fashion after their partnership was dissolved and she continued, it was easy to convince the public that he had no creative role in the clothes. However, the reverse is true. McLaren was the designer and Westwood acted as his first assistant, realising his ideas but contributing certain ideas from time to time, as assistants do.
He came up with the concepts and made all the decisions for everything, including the fashion. “I was a dictator,” he told me. The shop at 430 King’s Road (Let It Rock, Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, Sex, Seditionaries, Worlds End and at St Christopher’s Street, Nostalgia of Mud), which he started on his own with art school friends, and the concepts were solely under his control.
During their years together Westwood learned everything about fashion and marketing while working with McLaren who combined his fashion background (his technical knowledge was phenomenal—his mother had a dress factory and his grandfather was a Savile Row tailor) with his art school education and obsession with pop culture to design truly innovative clothes that verge on artwork whose power remains relevant today.
You can tell who came up with what during their partnership because in contrast to McLaren, Westwood’s obsession was high culture and historical costume. There was a generation gap between the two. McLaren was a baby boomer who grew up with pop culture and looked forward; she that bit older, so that she was a part of the generation that came before, that never understood pop culture and looked to the past.
This explains why Westwood’s career is schizophrenic. The first part, designed by McLaren, is at dissonance with her solo career which focuses on corsets and crinolines with soundtracks by Tchaikovsky. The rock photographer, Bob Gruen, who still treasures the clothes he bought when McLaren was involved, scratched his head and wondered how Westwood could have gone from those to the clothes she designed solo. When I explained, he finally understood.
A perfect example to dissect is the Worlds End Pirate shirt. The 18th century pattern comes from Westwood’s interest in historical dress but McLaren imbued it with everything that made it relevant to the contemporary world: the Squiggle print, the romantic notion of Blackbeard (an outlaw McLaren loved) and music pirating. And of course, he dressed the group he managed at the time, Bow Wow Wow in the clothes, styled them brilliantly and wrote C30 C60 C90 Go! a song about music pirating. And thus the New Romantics took off, just as he set off punk, hip hop, voguing…
More egregious than Westwood were professionals — museums, institutions, journalists, who were supposed to be knowledgeable, unbiased and have integrity. For me, the most shocking was the V&A’s 2004 retrospective on Westwood where we found out at the eleventh hour that McLaren was not initially credited adequately for his work — a significant part of the exhibition. He was not credited for any of the clothes he had designed, his name was cropped out of archival documentation and he was cropped out of photos. We were forced to take legal action to correct this.
Unfortunately, we could only do major damage control at this late hour, so the catalogue was riddled with inaccuracies (“When I did the Pirate collection,” “Westwood launched her second collection…” “Westwood’s third collection, Buffalo…” all collections made with McLaren, masterminded by him) which are tragically repeated since the V&A is considered an authority.
Besides this, I’ve had to go running after curators in this country and beyond. They all made corrections but their excuse that Westwood and her company supplied erroneous credits is not acceptable, especially when McLaren’s name is on the label inside.
McLaren’s role in Worlds End was not recognised properly in a Westwood Worlds End x Opening Ceremony collaboration, which mainly referenced designs from the partnership. When I declared publicly that Westwood was erasing McLaren’s legacy, I was hit with a defamation letter from Westwood and her company. I defended myself with decades of evidence and I never heard from them again.
But the damage has been done. This spring, someone sabotaged my wall text of McLaren’s bio for the Beyond The Streets exhibition at the Saatchi. It was secretly changed from ‘In these shops McLaren sold the clothes he designed with Westwood’ to ‘McLaren sold the clothes designed by Westwood’. I had it taken down instantly and corrected.
As much as Westwood exploited the work with McLaren, which had made her reputation, she also resented them. He told me: “Vivienne hates these clothes because they are all my ideas and designs. She doesn’t understand why her own ideas [her solo career] are not considered as important.” He explained that she wasn’t capable of talking about the clothes for the same reason.
It pained McLaren’s to see inferior fraudulent fakes passed off as his work — as it would any artist. He had put great care, attention and thought into every detail and now his work was being diluted and distorted. People would think he had made these terrible versions. He said, however, that Westwood would be happy about them: “She wants people to forget what the original clothes were.” This is why she refused to take a stand against the fakes.
After McLaren found a new girlfriend and moved out of his home with Westwood, he was willing to continue working on the fashion with her. At her request, he had set her up as a “fashion designer” — something he was not personally interested in — and financed the new business model of catwalk shows and wholesaling through his music work. But Westwood made it impossible for them to work together. The episode of her throwing a brick through his window is well-documented.
McLaren told me she deliberately ran up bills—ordering cloth she didn’t need— to punish him because he was liable for it. No matter what he did, she wouldn’t stop. Finally, he threw up his hands and the partnership was formally dissolved in March 1984.
He gave her the shop (as it had always been his), the goodwill from the work they had done together and allowed her to continue trading with the Worlds End marque. She had to take responsibility for the debts she had purposefully incurred. With all this, she was set for life. He gave her everything. She should have been grateful but instead, she was bitter and unfair. I resent her. Women like her give women a bad name.
Young Kim was McLaren’s partner in life and business for the last 12 years of his life and is the sole executor of his estate. She is finishing a book on her life with him. Her first book, A Year On Earth With Mr Hell, relates her affair with the punk rocker Richard Hell, while processing her grief over McLaren’s death.