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The Westwood brand: cocky, brazen and resolutely independent



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Image: Vivienne Westwood

Irreverent British designer Vivienne Westwood, who died on Thursday, succeeded in keeping her fashion house financially independent, even as others sought stock market listings or security within major luxury groups.

She weathered the Covid pandemic, inflation and other storms thanks to the support of celebrities such as actor Emma Watson, singer Dua Lupa and British Queen Consort Camilla.

The punk icon's fashion house had just two board members -- Westwood herself and long-time director-general Carlo D'Amario -- until Jeffrey Banks joined them just two weeks ago on December 16.

In 2018, the company went into the red and was restructured. But it stayed afloat.

"Vivienne did have ups and downs because of Covid, as well as inflation, especially in Europe," said Andrew Burnstine, associate professor in marketing at Lynn University in Florida.

"One of the reasons she was able to weather the recent storm was because of the incredible celebrity client base she had," Burnstine told AFP.

"Having a loyal and solid client base, licences, franchises and yearly collections are the best way to continuing your brand name and identity," he added.

"Vivienne was very good at making calls, meeting with clients and, most importantly, marketing her brand and name on social media and the media."

'Buy less. Choose well'

The latest financial results for Westwood's fashion house published on the UK government's Company House website -- covering the 2020 financial year -- showed a pre-tax profit of 3.9 million pounds ($4.7 million) on sales worth 42 million pounds.

The label had around 500 employees.

The trade press made much of a past run-in Westwood had with the UK tax authorities.

She was accused of underestimating the value of her label by means of payments to a Luxembourg-based subsidiary and was forced, about a decade ago, to pay around 500,000 pounds in extra tax.

Westwood was an environmental and anti-capitalist activist, and coined the phrase "Buy less. Choose well. Make it last."

But she was accused of hypocrisy for continuing to produce several collections every year, including men's and women's ready-to-wear, accessories, perfumes and wedding dresses.

The Westwood label nonetheless prides itself on using organic or recycled synthetic materials, has stopped using plastic packaging and regularly publishes its carbon emissions.

While the majority of the label's sales are in the UK, where it owns six boutiques, the brand also has one outlet each in France and Italy, and two in the United States. It is also making inroads in Asia, notably in China, Japan, Thailand and Singapore.

It has production sites in the UK, China, Italy and Kenya, with a "Made in Kenya" line that aims to develop a sustainable supply chain in Africa.

Subverting conventions

Since 2016, the company's artistic direction has been steered by Westwood's husband and long-time business partner Andreas Kronthaler, who has made a significant contribution to the style of the brand since the couple met in 1989.

That style cocks a snook at bourgeois and aristocratic conventions by subverting traditional British clothing habits.

The cuts are sophisticated but asymmetrical.

Westwood uses traditional flowery or tartan prints, along with tweed and romantic tulle fabrics. But the prints and colours clash.

Tucked-up skirts and crumpled crinolines make for a mad princess or wonky ballerina look -- always provocative, always tongue in cheek.

SM apparel combines with the corsets of romantic heroines. Taffeta dresses are worn as mini skirts with fishnet tights -- a look Westwood herself sported when she collected an award at the Florence Biennale in 2021, at the tender age of 80.

Once a punk, always a punk.(AFP)

Vivienne Westwood