For Britain's Vivienne Westwood, the Mother of Punk, It's the Prophet Motive That Counts

updated 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The huge clock over the door to World's End, Vivienne Westwood's slanty-floored shop on London's punk-paved King's Road where David Bowie and Boy George buy, runs backward at top speed. But the designs inside—cashmere cardigans over velvet corsets, tattersall-fitted suits, lamé lace crinolines—are way ahead of their time. One would expect nothing less from Westwood, 46, one of fashion's most keen-sighted visionaries.

In the early '70s, inspired by her then partner, lover and muse, Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, she devised shredded T-shirts and black leather jackets embellished with studs and slogans. The style became the uniform of the disenfranchised young, and she was labeled the mother of punk fashion.

She ushered in the '80s with the Pirate Look—color-splashed romantic, roomy, ruffled shirts and baggy pants, adopted by the likes of rocker Adam Ant. Then, in October 1985, Westwood launched her mini-crini, a short skirt puffed into a bell shape by three bone rings. At her show in Paris, the invention drew such applause spun into a cartwheel on the runway.

One would think that such a prophet could have turned a profit, but Westwood has always been too far-out to cash in. Her 1985 crinoline line, for example, never went into production and wound up being copied worldwide. ("It keeps up my prestige because everybody knows they're my designs," she says.) Critics called her clothes unwearable. Noted one fashion insider recently: "She has to learn that you can be provocative and commercial."

Last month in London, Westwood may have accomplished just that. Her first collection in 18 months is a paean to tradition and royalty—classic British woolens tailored into fitted coats, and suits whose sweetly curving lapels form a heart when buttoned. "I think the Queen is the most fashionably dressed woman in the world," Westwood said, with a straight face, of her inspiration. Her flamboyant twists, though, were everywhere: The "criniscule," a mini and crinoline skirt; plaid schoolgirl dresses topped with short, fake ermine capes; and big silky shirts with giant polka dots—for men. Women's Wear Daily proclaimed her "queen of London." Summed up a New York Times headline: "There's Westwood, and There's the Rest."

Westwood has tried joining the fashion establishment before. Frustrated by her lack of financial backing, she signed a seven-year licensing deal in October 1984 with Italian designer Giorgio Armani. It was an unlikely union—the star of street fashion hitched to the maestro of elegant understatement—but one that excited Armani's business partner, Sergio Galeotti. Armani's company would produce and distribute Westwood's designs and have exclusive rights to her name, giving him a foothold in the avant-garde market. In return Westwood would receive a $3 million fee and have control over her collections.

But the marriage fizzled. In August 1985 Galeotti died. Then, Westwood maintains, "my contract was broken by Mr. Armani." Armani claims that it was Westwood who did not fulfill her obligations. "She has good ideas," he says, "but apparently the collection she designed was more suitable for being made by a dressmaker rather than by a factory." In February Westwood filed a $3 million breach of contract suit against Armani.

Westwood started sewing clothes for herself at 12, while growing up in Tintwistle, a town in the north of England where her parents ran a post office. She taught school for five years and got married, neither of which suited her. In 1966 she began selling her own jewelry designs on London's Portobello Road, and got a divorce.

Three years earlier she had been introduced to McLaren. They began dating in 1967, and her new love gave her a sense of purpose. With money borrowed from her mother, they opened Paradise Garage (on the same site as World's End), selling '50s rock 'n' roll records and radios that McLaren found and clothes that Westwood "customized." Her first original design was Lurex drainpipe trousers, an immediate hit with the young. "Malcolm and I were looking back and trying to pull out all the rebellious motifs," she says. At times they succeeded too well. In 1977 they were arrested for putting pornographic pictures in the transparent pockets of some of Westwood's torn T-shirts.

In 1982, weary of their identity as England's resident revolutionaries, Westwood unveiled her collection in Paris. A short time later the couple broke up. She won't talk about it but admits the split sent her into an economic tailspin. (McLaren, now an aspiring movie producer in L.A., is romantically linked to actress Lauren Hutton.)

Seemingly overnight, Westwood became fashion's invisible woman. Then last November she asked Harris Tweed Co., whose fabrics she used, for financial help. They liked her clothes and pledged $6,000 toward her London show in March, when she made her triumphant comeback.

Things are looking up. Blooming-dale's and Manhattan's trendy Charivari begin selling her clothes this summer. World's End is again flourishing, but Westwood leaves business chores to Benjamin, 23, her son by her first marriage; and Joseph, 19, her son by McLaren. She is where she should be, sketching away in a tiny South London flat. "A really lovely idea I have is to do twin sweater sets for men," she says. "And pearls if they wish." There she goes again.

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