Opinion | The World According to Vivienne Westwood

For the fashion designer and punk icon, 2020 has been a time for reflection on art, politics and new ways to save the planet.

By Vivienne Westwood

Ms. Westwood is a fashion designer and activist.

This is an article from Turning Points, a special section that explores what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead.

On the pandemic and finding solace in art

The thing I missed the most while in lockdown were the museums, the art galleries and the theater — they are the high point of existence.

Last winter, I went on a special visit to Vienna and saw three art exhibitions, showcasing works by three great masters: Jan van Eyck, Caravaggio and Albrecht Dürer. With each and every painting, I felt the shock that I had never seen anything like it before.

Caravaggio’s 1607 painting of David holding out Goliath’s head: the spontaneity, the life force. From the Dürer exhibition, black ink on green paper: the German painter’s “Self-Portrait in the Nude,” nude as he saw himself in the mirror — the naked truth! Van Eyck’s “Madonna at the Fountain,” the Virgin’s infant son pressed to her cheek, his arms laid out across her collarbone, causing little baby wrinkles in his back. I think of that painting sometimes when I go to sleep; it’s absolute peace on earth.

The pandemic is sending us back to our personal resources. For me, art is timeless; it stops the clock. It really is an imitation of reality. And great art is as relevant in the present as it was when it was created.

On politics and the global economy

I define a politician under capitalism as a person who has the power to ignore suffering. Corruption is global, and capitalism is as corrupt as a rotten apple, years past its sell-by date. There’s only one way out of the destruction: Substitute it with a fair distribution of wealth.

Governments must be custodians of land; land should not be privately owned. And custodianship must be managed by the maxim, “What’s good for the planet is good for the economy.”

The narrative changes only when the world changes.

On activism

Since the early days of punk in the 1970s, I have been an activist against war and for human rights. I want everyone to know that capitalism and cruelty are connected. I’m doing this through my Climate Revolution website. On social media, I’m dressing up every week for my Friday speeches, using my fashion to get people involved in politics. If people aren’t aware, how are we going to save the world from corruption and climate change?

On climate change

We are looking through the lens of a changing world. If the human race does not turn the telescope around, we face mass extinction. Climate change will reach a tipping point.

This is why I formed Climate Revolution: to save the environment through work with nonprofits. Our target is to speak with one voice. As an activist I have created many graphics promoting political and environmental issues, which I reimagined in the design of a pack of playing cards. Lo and behold! In the cards lies the answer — a complete strategy to save the world: Buy less, stop subsidies to industrial fishing, educate children, and so on. We even have a manifesto, detailing our need to move away from capitalism toward what I call “No Man’s Land” — a vision for the world based on the principle that no one should be allowed to own land.

On fashion and sustainability

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Recycling is not enough to slow down climate change, but by reducing and reusing we can have real impact. One of the most important things I have probably ever said is: Buy less, choose well, make it last. It’s all about quality, not quantity.

Popular clothes are now reduced to a quantity of machine-made sportswear and cheap rags constructed in places like Indonesian and Chinese sweatshops. We need to go back to producing high-quality garments instead. Our choices as consumers can have an enormous effect on the fashion industry.

On history’s lessons

My glory is reading. Aristotle defines happiness as living up to one’s potential. In doing so we become who we are — just like an acorn becomes an oak. That is what reading is to me: You find yourself because you forget yourself and put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. It’s the most concentrated way for a person to engage with the world and discover human nature. You get out what you put in.

I formed a book club called Intellectuals Unite to promote reading. It’s one thing to read the newspapers to keep up with the times, but we need the past, too. Great literature is timeless. I recommend the classics because they have stood the test of time, and they give an overview of the age in which they lived. We are the past; we cannot understand the world unless we know what has happened before us.

Dame Vivienne Westwood is a designer and activist. She is the creator of Climate Revolution, a website that raises awareness about environmental and political issues.

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