Dame Vivienne Westwood: How the ‘visionary’ designer put the punk into Scotland’s textile industry

She put a rebel spirit back into tartan and forged a deep connection with Scotland and its craftspeople in a weaver’s shed on Lewis more than 30 years ago.

Vivienne Westwood died on Thursday
Vivienne Westwood died on Thursday

Dame Vivienne Westwood, who died peacefully on Thursday at the age of 81, has been remembered for her impact on the Scottish textile industry, which she pulled into the punk, the modern and the hotly desirable while flying its flag on the worldwide stage.

Lorna Macaulay, chief executive of the Harris Tweed Authority, said Dame Vivienne was a “a visionary and way ahead of her time” who recognised the importance of Scottish textiles long before others.

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Dame Vivienne first visited the Outer Hebrides in the late 1980s at a time when Harris Tweed clothing was favoured by “your dad and mine,” Ms Macaulay said. She met Ian Angus Mackenzie, now chief executive at Harris Tweed Hebrides, at his weaving shed in Vatisker on the Isle of Lewis.

'Harris Tweed' crown hats created by Vivienne Westwood

Ms Macaulay said: “Suddenly, we had this design icon use Harris Tweed when it had previously been reserved for our dad’s jackets , for Sunday best, and always in these neutral tones. Vivienne moved it into these wild colour schemes, particularly for the tartans and checks, She was always push, push, push for these very vibrant colours.

She added: “I can only imagine that these conversations with the mill designers would have been like a breath of fresh air for them. At this time, our business was held up by our three button men’s sports jacket, which is still an incredibly important part of of what we do. But in those days, the designers would have welcomed that edge she brought.”

Ms Macaulay said a number of Vivienne Westwood garments were held in the Harris Tweed Authority archives , including a waistcoat with detachable sleeves that were held together with “nappy pins” and covered with orbs, the consumers’ mark used by Harris Tweed since 1909 to guarantee it’s authenticity.

The designer’s adoption of her own orb logo resulted in a long-running legal wrangle in the 1990s, with it ultimately decided that both designs could co-exist.

Vivienne Westwood tartan suit, mid 1990s.

Ms Macaulay added : “Our industry is small, it is niche and it’s luxury and every season we need the order of such an iconic design house such as Vivienne Westwood, because the rest follow.

“Many design houses chose not to name the textile brands they work with as they see it as diluting their own story. But Vivienne always gave us a name check and that was so powerful for us.”

Ms Macaulay said that the support of Vivienne Westwood had helped Harris Tweed become “hugely well recognised” in Asia.

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Today, a number of her designs sit in National Museum of Scotland and V&A Dundee, where a tweed tartan jacket, checked wool trousers and waistcoat produced by Dame Vivienne around 1995 can be found.

Assistant curator James Wylie said: "Westwood's mark on Scottish textiles is unparalleled and the suit acts as a microcosm of her love of weaving north of Gretna Green.”

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