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Slinky Vagabond on Vivienne Westwood: Why I Love

Award-winning British fashion designer and musician Keanan Duffty has made mixing music and fashion his forte. Alongside Fabio Fabbri and a shedload of high profile musical friends, he’s just released the excellent King Boy Vandals album. However, he’s a man of many talents. Working closely with artists David Bowie and the Sex Pistols, and playing alongside Clem Burke, Patti Smith, Scissor Sisters, Earl Slick, and Moby, he’s not only musically talented but has a deep affinity for the fashion game.

Since moving to New York (from Doncaster…) in 1993 he’s has built a reputation as an inspiring, entrepreneurial artist and designer bringing together his love of music and fashion. He was was approached by the Sex Pistols to style the band for the 2007 American tour and in the same year, he personally collaborated with David Bowie to create a limited-edition fashion collection, which sold out in 1200 stores of the American retailer Target within weeks of its debut.

Being dedicated followers of fashion ourselves…, we go for something a little different as Keanan joins us At The Barrier to declare his passion for designer Vivienne Westwood.

When did you first hear of Vivienne Westwood?

When the Sex Pistols exploded into the public consciousness in late 1976, cursing their way through the Bill Grundy TV show, their manager Malcolm McLaren hogged the spotlight and his and Vivienne Westwood’s ‘Seditionaries’ shop at 430 Kings Road became ground zero for London punks. I interviewed Malcolm McLaren in 2008 and he told me a story about urchins from the suburbs wanting to visit the mecca of the scene hoping to by nipple clamps, muslin t-shirts and to catch sight of the Pistols. I told Malcolm that one of those young ‘mischief mongers’ was actually me who, with my mum and dad in tow visited London in the hope of securing a punk t-shirt from that iconic boutique. McLaren said that he had recently been accosted by a suited Wall Street guy who said that he too was a punk teen who made his pilgrimage to ‘the shop’ and had his life changed by the experience.

But while the agent of chaos that was Malcolm McLaren basked in the glorious failure of the Sex Pistols, it was Vivienne Westwood who was industriously creating the look of punk, albeit behind the scenes. Not just with the clothes, but also with the ‘faces’ involved. Vivienne had recommended a nascent Sid Vicious to McLaren as a potential singer for the Pistols, but in the confusion (there were too many young men named ‘John’, even Sid’s real name was Simon John Beverly) Malcolm selected another ‘John’ entirely. The one who would be Rotten. Sid had to wait until later for a chance to join the band as bass player and ultimately become iconic face of punk rock. But Vivienne had recognized his potential and that’s how I first heard of her as a bit of a magician behind the curtain. The haberdasher of punk minions.

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When was that moment when it all clicked for you with Vivienne Westwood?

Vivienne really caught my attention after she started a fight at venue The Nashville rooms, which involved Sid Vicious and subsequently made a splash in the music press. She looked so stylish and sophisticated but during a television interview you could tell she had a Northern accent. That appealed to me because I grew up in Doncaster, so in a sense Vivienne demystified the punk scene and made it seem attainable for suburban kids from ‘out of town’. You rarely heard people on tv with Northern accents in the 1970s, unless they were figures of fun in Monty Python. Here was one of the ring-leaders of a dangerous new youth cult, and she was from Tintwhistle! Ee-by-gum!

How did she influence and inspire you?

Fundamentally Vivienne developed a design narrative that was tied to British music culture. She Moved seamlessly from the rock & roll inspired designs that permeated the 430 King’s Road shop when it was called “Let It Rock” and then “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die” to the punk paraphernalia of “SEX’ and “Seditionaries” to the piracy of “World’s End”. During this evolution her own design lexicon developed.  She took tradition and disrupted it by making Harris Tweed sexy and by putting the Queen of England on a t-shirt, with a safety pin through her nose. Westwood mashed-up contrasting ideas and nostalgic motifs in order to make something new. I have tried to do that in my own creative process and that influence came directly from Vivienne Westwood.

Favourite items of clothing

I’ve got multiple pairs of vintage bondage trousers which Westwood made famous in the 1970s. They became one of the signature garments of British punk and can still turn heads today.  It’s amazing really. A garment that is almost 45 years old can still surprise passers-by.

I also loved the ‘diddy man’ hats of the “Buffalo” collection which were a combination of the Canadian Mounty hat and the millinery worn by Notty Ash comedian Ken Dodd’s imaginary diminutive friends. Through this hat was designed in the early 80s it still looked striking when Pharrell Williams wore it a few years ago.

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Favourite collections

Aside from the various designs made during the 1976-1979 period I really enjoyed Vivienne Westwood’s truly revolutionary “Pirates” collection, which made its debut in 1980 and segued into the New Romantic Movement.  Obviously, Malcolm McLaren influenced the concept by tying together the idea of piracy in music, the demolition of the work ethic and the importance of looking rich, but this was where Vivienne really came to the fore as a designer. The shapes, patterns and colours are totally different from the previous look of punk and serve as both a reaction against it and a signpost to the next youth subculture. The famous “squiggle” pattern has become one of Westwood’s signatures and one of the most recognized textile patterns in late 20th Century fashion. Vivienne very graciously allowed me to bring a class of fashion students to her studio in Elcho Street, London a few years ago for a “behind the scenes” peek into the world of Westwood.

Favourite slogans

Slogans were a big part of the punk aesthetic. One of my favorites is: “Be reasonable, Demand the Impossible”. I don’t know who came up with it, whether it was McLaren or Westwood, they were really one entity during punk.  Despite the perceived nihilism of this slogan it is actually quite empowering. Basically, commanding the reader to demand the best; the ‘impossible’. Often the positive message of punk is overlooked.  The idea was that with passion, energy and commitment you can overcome a lack of technique and experience. Just go out there and do it. That really makes sense to me. Unless of course you want to be the President of the United States of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, then I think a bit of experience is probably necessary. Otherwise you’ll make a right knut of yourself.

Here’s Prima Donna from the King Boy Vandals album:

Our grateful thanks to Keanan for sharing a fascinating insight.

Slinky Vagabond online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Youtube

Check our Why I Love archive here.

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