Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Why punk icon Vivienne Westwood shaved her head (hint: it's not for fashion)

By Sheena McKenzie, for CNN
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has shaved off her trademark fiery red hair -- not for style, but to draw attention to climate change. British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has shaved off her trademark fiery red hair -- not for style, but to draw attention to climate change.
HIDE CAPTION
Eco warrior?
Westwood's world
Quality vs quantity
Political points
Front row seats
Hair raiser
Star power
Fashion forward
Punk rock
Rebel with a cause
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • British fashion designer, Vivienne Westwood, scales back business for environment
  • 72-year-old 'grandmother of punk fashion' says people should curb consumption
  • Shaves head in a bid to raise climate change awareness, and embrace old age

Editor's note: Leading Women connects you to extraordinary women of our time. Each month, we meet two women at the top of their field, exploring their careers, lives and ideas.

(CNN) -- Vivienne Westwood is as bald as a baby, the faintest hint of downy white hair sprouting across her naked scalp.

Painted pink eyebrows sweep dramatically outwards. Wearing a sparkling, woven brown dress resembling an expensive hessian sack, she totters onto the stage at London's Southbank arts centre.

Straining forward in her chair, the 72-year-old "grandmother of punk fashion" appears both vulnerable and fierce. Fragile and yet fearless.

"The world was so mismanaged and we hated the older generation because they weren't doing anything about it," she says about forging Britain's punk aesthetic with then-boyfriend and Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren in the 1970s.

"I don't hate the older people now -- I'm one of them. But I've been trying to do something to change things all my life."

'God Save the Queen'

Decades after the couple started their radical new clothes shop in an area of London called "World's End" -- displaying ripped t-shirts, rubber curtains, and even a live rat in a cage -- Westwood has become one of Britain's most prestigious fashion designers.

This is the woman who, after receiving an award from Queen Elizabeth II in 1992, famously twirled around for photographers -- without wearing any underwear under her skirt.

I'm concentrating on quality, not quantity
Vivienne Westwood

The provocative lady is still there, though a little more frail-looking these days, speaking at London's annual Women of the World Festival.

"Buy less, choose well, make it last," she tells a crowd of hundreds -- mostly women -- patiently listening to a lecture that meanders into climate change, banks, and social responsibility.

Campaign culture

Westwood appears almost reluctant to talk about the "superficial" fashion industry she has conquered in a career spanning four decades.

"We face mass extinction," she says. "It's being hidden from us because our rulers still pursue their own vested interest, they've been trained to think that the people do not understand what's good for them."

Her trademark head of fiery red hair has been shaved off, not for style -- but to draw attention to climate change.

British band the Sex Pistols became posterboys for the new punk aesthetic.
Getty Images

Westwood says she now plans to downsize her hugely successful clothing empire, in a bid to promote environmental sustainability.

"I've got too much product," she says. "I'm trying to completely reduce the scale of operation. I'm concentrating on quality, not quantity."

What about those people who can't afford her designer clothes?

"It is difficult for people. But I think it's not good to just go to a supermarket and come back with bags and bags of cheap t-shirts."

"All this consumption is not a real choice."

It's not good to just go to a supermarket and come back with bags and bags of cheap t-shirts
Vivienne Westwood

Made in Britain

Born in Derbyshire, in north west England, during World War Two, Westwood's mother was a weaver in a cotton mill, while her father came from a family of shoemakers.

As a teenager in the 1950s, she would alter her school uniform into fashionable pencil skirts. Later, she worked as a teacher.

But it was through meeting Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren in the 1960s -- who became the father of her son Joseph Ferdinand Corré in 1966 -- that she really embraced punk rock.

The couple's south west London shop -- which at various times was named "Let it Rock," "Sex," and "Seditionaries - Clothes for Heroes" -- sold everything from rubber fetish gear to pirate outfits.

Pop singer Lily Allen sports a demure Westwood gown at the BAFTAs.
Getty Images

"The country was a morass of beige and cream Bri-Nylon and their shop was an oasis," said Marco Pirroni of band Adam and the Ants.

"It took great liberalism and bravery to wear rubber in the street. If you shopped there, you didn't go anywhere else."

Noughties Westwood

Cast your eye across the most glamorous red carpet events in the world today and you'll likely to see a Westwood design -- be it Lily Allen's princess dress at the BAFTAs or Pharrell Williams' cowboy hat at the Oscars.

Regardless of her huge success, Westwood still talks of fighting the establishment. "I used my fashion as a platform to talk politics," she says.

"When you're a fashion designer you sort of design in a capsule. This is how you want people to be, like they are at the moment, but better."

Read: Meet the new generation of 'modelpreneurs'

Read: How Angela Ahrendts reinvented Burberry

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
bbf
When Bobbi Brown set out to create her eponymous makeup line in 1991, she had one thing to her mind -- to make a lipstick that looked like lips.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0914 GMT (1714 HKT)
The Cornell educated executive, who is hotly tipped as the successor to magnate Steve Wynn, is about to unveil the latest Wynn Palace in Macau.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
From Coco Chanel to DVF, CNN takes a look at celebrated fashion designers and the iconic pieces which launched their careers.
June 25, 2014 -- Updated 1115 GMT (1915 HKT)
:KNOXVILLE, TN - MAY 28: Dolly Parton performs during a concert to benefit Dolly's Imagination Library & Dr. Robert F. Thomas Foundation at The University of Tennessee's Thompson-boling Arena on May 28, 2014 in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 05: Debbie Harry of Blondie performs onstage at the Amnesty International Concert presented by the CBGB Festival at Barclays Center on February 5, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for CBGB)
When titans of music Dolly Parton and Debbie Harry perform at one of the biggest music festivals on the planet, Glastonbury, who will be crowned queen?
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
2 Caption:Avignon, FRANCE: Serb artist Marina Abramovic performs in 'The Biography Remix' directed by Michael Laub from Netherlands, 10 July 2005 at the Benoix-XII house during the Theater Festival held in Avignon southern France. AFP PHOTO ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)
CNN meets Serbian-born New-York based performance artist Marina Abramovic, as she embarks on the most controversial show of her career.
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 1325 GMT (2125 HKT)
This Mother's Day, we're celebrating the many women in the world who have provided care, love and guidance for children who are not biologically their own.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1506 GMT (2306 HKT)
She turned her bohemian beach style and love of ballet shoes into a billion-dollar brand. This week on Leading Women, fashion designer Tory Burch reveals her ultimate style guru.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1623 GMT (0023 HKT)
Meet Mo Abudu, the talk show host portraying a very different Africa. As a glamorous presenter, she also heads up Ebony Life TV network, based in Nigeria.
May 23, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
A lone blonde woman, wrapped in nothing but a sarong, leads four camels and a little dog across one of the most inhabitable environments on Earth.
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
Their job is capturing the most horrifying images on Earth -- keeping their eyes open, where others must look away. Meet Kate Brooks and Gerda Taro, the war photographers of today and yesterday.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
Gloria Steinem speaks onstage during Equality Now presents 'Make Equality Reality' at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
As Gloria Steinem turns 80, Kathleen McCartney highlights the remarkable life of the feminist so far.
February 26, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
Former U.S. State Deparment Anne-Marie Slaughter says Brad Pitt is 'posterchild for engaged fatherhood'.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 0750 GMT (1550 HKT)
Ahead of the release of her 14th studio album, take a look at the remarkable career of Mariah Carey, who went from curly-haired girl next door to elusive chanteuse.
March 8, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
CNN hosted a Tweetchat on gender equality with special guests including Nobel Peace prize laureate Tawakkol Karman. Here's what you missed.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1059 GMT (1859 HKT)
From shaving her head for climate change to opting for a sustainable business model, Vivienne Westwood is simply unstoppable.
April 2, 2014 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
In what would be a dream come true for her alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw -- Sarah Jessica Parker has turned her love of fashion into a new shoe range with Manolo Blahnik.
ADVERTISEMENT