Vivienne Westwood, the British luminary who molded punk’s style and redefined high fashion with subversion, wasn’t a formally trained fashion designer. Westwood, who died in December, started by selling trendy clothing out of a boutique with her romantic partner at the time, Malcolm McLaren. Their shop, which changed names and concepts often but remained at 430 Kings Road, was an early predecessor to retailers like Union (aka the world’s “first” streetwear store). Westwood and McLaren opened Let It Rock in 1971 selling vintage rock ‘n’ roll clothing to “Teddy Boys,” a British youth subculture obsessed with American rock ‘n’ roll that emerged in the 1950s. Evolving alongside British youth culture, they rebranded the store as Sex in 1974, and then Seditionaries in 1976. McLaren and Westwood’s shop stocked styles that defined what a burgeoning punk subculture in London would wear before the rest of the world caught on.
“Malcolm and I changed the names and decor of the shop to suit the clothes as our ideas evolved. But punk didn’t mean anything more than that at first. I did not see myself as a fashion designer but as someone who wished to confront the rotten status quo through the way I dressed and dressed others,” Westwood wrote in her 2014 self-titled memoir. “Eventually this sequence of ideas culminated in punk.”
Westwood went from running her unconventional clothing boutique on Kings Road to becoming a world-class designer who exemplified the best of British fashion. She bridged French couture with traditional Savile Row tailoring, reimagined uses of heritage British fabrics like Tartan and Harris Tweed, and referenced everything from the royal family to 18th-century European art with her runway collections. Her dresses and corsets and signature pearl chokers are timeless and still being worn by celebs like SZA and Saweetie today.
Of course, Westwood was not alone when it came to breaking conventional street style through punk. Alex Michon—a Central St. Martin’s student who designed outfits for the Clash—and the Situationist art movement also contributed to the punk movement alongside shops like Ray Goodman’s Trash and Vaudeville in New York City. And while punk clearly influences the style of rappers like Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti today, one can’t forget the many Black punk artists throughout the ’70s such as Death, Bad Brains, X-Ray Spex, and Pure Hell who also pushed their own unique style forward. But Westwood shaped the look of punk rock and helped establish our contemporary understanding of streetwear, which is rooted in garments that speak to niche and marginalized communities.