How Vivienne Westwood's Punk Revolution Changed Fashion Forever
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date January 11, 2017
Tartan, zippers, leather, safety pins, a dash of heroin and a general disdain for greater society.
In the mid-seventies, this was the de-facto uniform for a disenfranchised generation of British youth. They mocked the government. They listened to the Sex Pistols. And, if they could afford it, they wore Vivienne Westwood. They were Punks.
In the early seventies, Westwood, along with then partner Malcolm McLaren, orchestrated a stylistic revolution—a backlash against the flared denim and wide lapels that dominated the sixties. Their store, through its many iterations, cemented an unprecedented relationship between music, fashion and counter-culture, shaping generations of fashion designers who followed. Their small shop at 430 Kings Road became the cornerstone of the most monumental shift in youth culture since the advent of Rock ‘N Roll itself. And while Westwood and McLaren certainly did not invent punk, no one commoditized and marketed the movement as successfully.
Situation, location and time period are all crucial to fully grasping the impact of 430 Kings Road. The store began in the back of Paradise Garage, a small outpost in London's Chelsea district. In 1970, Chelsea was experiencing surging growth, quickly transforming into an artist enclave. Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and all four Beatles counted themselves as locals. Boutiques sprouted up everywhere. They sold bohemian ephemera, featuring everything from silk caftans to imported rugs. Uninterested in such hippie fantasies, McLaren, an art school dropout, and Westwood, a schoolteacher, began to hock symbols of '50s kitsch out of Garage. The two were more intrigued by early fifties Rock ‘N Roll, preferring Elvis and Chuck Barry to the glam Rock-Pop taking over the airwaves at the time.
Soon enough, Paradise Garage shut down, and by 1971 the couple took over the space. Expanding on their brand of romanticizing the 1950s, they transformed the space into Let It Rock. With the expansion, Westwood, who was still perfecting her sewing, began to sell reinterpreted renditions of Teddy Boy fashion. The style, which harkened back to post-WWII England, mainly composed of flamboyantly colored zoot suits, drainpipe pants and thick sole creepers.
Around the same time, resentment started to surface. The established super groups of the sixties—The Stones, Beatles, etc.—felt stale. They were all glitz and glamour, no edge. Hardened New York youth felt disconnected, that the established music scene did not accurately portray their economic struggle and turmoil. McLaren, who was living in-between London and New York, saw this emerging dissidence and positioned himself to seize the opportunity. He began to manage The New York Dolls, a key player in the proto-punk movement. Despite their quick demise, The Dolls’ influence was massive. They played fast, hard, loud and aggressive. When they performed, McLaren had them fitted in all red uniforms, reminiscent of Soviets.
A student of the Situationists—the French political group who believe in absurd performances and propaganda to invoke political change—McLaren himself saw something in the anti-capitalist, anti-culture ethos of proto-punks like The Dolls. They rejected the establishment, felt sympathetic to Stalin and outwardly rejected Nixon. More than just resonate with their ideals, Mclaren knew he could package and mass-produce their malcontent.
By they time he returned to London, Let It Rock was no more. McLaren and Westwood had turned their attention to the disgruntled youth directly in front of them. The decaying façade out front was stripped away and the shop took on a new name, Too Fast To Live, To Young To Die. While the new store still looked towards the past—with influences such as Marlon Brando and James Dean—the slick leather jackets and heavy distressing fit in well with the proto-punk movement that was quickly crossing the pond. Too Fast To Live stocked ripped black T-shirts repaired with safety pins and inflammatory words such as
SCUM emblazoned across the chest. Vests had zippers directly over the nipple and pants were adorned with glitter glue. Bleached chicken bones were attached to certain pieces. The goal was to recreate the heroes of youth rebellion in the here and now. Westwood pictured how the Wild Ones dressed in the face of insurmountable debt in the middle of Chelsea, and the results were surprisingly prescient.
The store's name was quite apt—within two years, Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die was scrapped for a new retail experience. As proto-punk evolved from a niche sub-genre to a serious musical movement, Westwood and McLaren delved deeper into the subculture. No longer interested in romanticized icons, they immersed themselves amongst the neon-colored hair and tight spandex that populated their neighborhood. Employee Glen Mattlock—future bassist of the Sex Pistols—would help erect three pink rubberized letters on the shops façade that would change Punk forever: SEX.
Easily the most famous iteration of the store, SEX was a backlash against all things retail. The windows—like those of an actual fetish shop—were opaque, forcing those interested to physically walk inside in order to even know what was for sale. The shop was open sporadically, sometimes for only a few hours in the evening. McLaren famously explained, “Making money was never even a goal." The store interior was covered with a privately sourced material from the Pettonville Rubber Company: a spongy, pink rubber that was pressed against all walls to create the appearance of a womb. Punk icon JORDAN operated as the overseer, clad in full bondage.
SEX was as much about attitude as it was about fashion. While the tight latex and burnt T-shirts were key pieces, the shop’s main commodity was punk itself. As early as 1972—back in the Too Fast To Live days—Mattlock, Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, all future Sex Pistols, were regulars at 430 Kings Road. Other key punk figures such as Mark Prionni, Gene October and Mark Stewart would also make frequent stops to hang with McLaren, buy Westwood's designs and smoke unseemly amounts of cigarettes. By the late '70s, when Punk kicked into high-gear, SEX was no longer a store, but a destination as inextricably linked with the scene as leather and dyed hair.
Even before managing the Dolls, McLaren took interest in Mattlock and his infant group, The Strand. Following his stint in New York working with the Dolls, McLaren became enamored with the scene developing in Lower Manhattan and reshaped The Strand using that proto-punk essence. The result? The Sex Pistols. In 1977, in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, the Sex Pistols released their now seminal counter-culture anthem,
God Save The Queen. The record was outwardly rejected by nearly every radio station and became one of the most censored recordings in British history. While critics protested, fans flocked and sales skyrocketed. The single moved 150,000 units in its first week, a unequivocal, massive success. The group's and only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, would go on to hit number one on the British charts. Punk had officially arrived, and at the Top of the Pops no less.
This shocking commercial boom coincided with the final iteration of 430 Kings Road, Seditionaries. Following the success of SEX, architect David Connor took over the space and remodeled the store to mimic Dresden following World-War II. Trading straight-up sex appeal for hardcore fetishism, Westwood fully embraced BDSM culture and made it central to her fashions. By the late Seventies, McLaren and Westwood—with significant help fromm shop manager JORDAN, credited for creating the punk look—were styling and managing the most successful punk act in the world. Through McLaren’s work with the Sex Pistols, the duo managed to dictate the punk aesthetic, dominate the charts, airwaves and streets simultaneously.
In the midst of their 1978 American tour, Syd Vicious walked off stage and the Sex Pistols called it quits. Shortly after, McLaren and Westwood would do the same. By 1984, the couple separated, with McLaren focusing on music management and Westwood switching lanes from street to high-fashion, where she became an international success following her seminal 1981 collection,
While 430 Kings Road did briefly shut its doors, the shop has since re-opened, now managed by McLaren and Westwood’s son, Joseph Corre and half-brother Ben Westwood. No longer a punk emblem, the shop, now called World’s End, operates as a working museum, selling both mainline Westwood and archival pieces from the Seditionaries hey-day.
For those who have spent any significant time on Grailed, you may have noticed a bit of a pattern. The most sought after items on the site, from vintage Helmut Lang and Raf Simons to ENFANTS RICHES DÉPRIMÉS, share a thematic tie. Whether it's the destroyed tees and bondage straps or inflammatory logos and burn marks, a certain aggressive, counter-culture mentality runs through our favorite finds. To varying degrees, they all embody the punk spirit birthed at SEX. This is no accident. Even Kawakubo and Takahashi are not immune to the running obsession with Westwood. All of the above, and more, have cited her as a major influence. Even following SEX, Westwood was one of the earliest designers to politicize fashion, boldly expressing her often controversial viewpoints.
As with most things, King's Road is not what it once was. The dilapidated melting pot of contempt, colored hair and ill-tempered youth has since become a bustling downtown commercial hub. Yet, 430 Kings Road still remains. You can always find Punk at World’s End.