Vivienne Westwood: Between Criticism and Innovation in the Teaching Role

03.08.2023 | Prof. Martina Weiß

Vivienne Westwood passed away in December 2022. For her husband Andreas Kronthaler, there were - as he explains in the film 'Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist' - three Viviennes: the designer, the activist, and the human being. For a few who studied at Berlin's University of the Arts between 1993 and 2006 - including Martina Weiß, who now teaches fashion management at MDH - Vivienne Westwood was something else: a professor. An article from the current ELLE (8/2023) is devoted to this perspective - and here, too, the circle to the MDH is closed: thanks to Fashion Management graduate Markus Schnieber, now an editor at ELLE, the article was published in ELLE.

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Dr. Gundula Wolter, fashion historian and visiting professor for fashion history during Vivienne's time at the UDK, initiated and wrote the article. And asked former students of the Westwood class to help: what was it like to study with Vivienne? Prof. Martina Weiß recalls:

"'She was not a good pedagogue,' Wolter states in ELLE." Indeed, Vivienne's criticism could be scathing, even if it was formulated in the finest Oxford English. Controversial discussions about the design or the idea behind it, possibly even eye-to-eye, were impossible, and were nipped in the bud by Vivienne: 'It's not a question of taste, it's a question of ugliness' - or: 'That's really housewife. No one would wear that.' No one in the class, and even more so in front of the eyes and ears of all the other fellow students, wanted to receive such comments for their own designs, which they had been working on for weeks. Accordingly, everyone was very tense before the monthly exams with Vivienne, who always flew from London to Berlin for an entire weekend from Friday morning to Sunday evening. Vivienne's lectures - they were actually more like dress rehearsals, where she lectured not only about the students' work, but also about art, culture, politics and her view of the world - were mentally and physically exhausting. All the listeners were highly tense, and all human needs such as eating, drinking and going to the toilet had to be left out. In view of the highly concentrated, monologuing, dissecting the students' nettle protos, smoking Vivienne, who would have dared to admit that one's own ability to concentrate had disappeared for hours? Or that one could barely hold oneself up on the uncomfortable wooden chairs in the room from hunger, thirst, fatigue and stuffiness? Vivienne's guest performances were from another star, her discipline extraterrestrial - for her, after long hours, it was off to the art gallery to recover, for us as students, mostly just to bed. And also having a professor who preached non-conformity but then everyone wanted to please - be it by wrapping up in outfits with as many checks as possible in a bias cut, or a huge cloud of Westwood perfume Boudoir - added to the pressure. You could smell it on students from a great distance and see it when Vivienne was at UdK.

'What's the story behind?' was her most frequently asked question when reviewing a design from her students. And with that, she was way ahead of her time. If today it's all about storytelling and content on all channels, that was her credo decades before. Find a story, an inspiration, filter out the essence - and make it better. 'When you do something, it has to be better than the original.' And if you don't succeed, then better leave it as it was. Curiosity, a genuine interest in things, respect, depth, judgment, and cultural development - these were what she herself exemplified and demanded of her students.

Although her personality, her appearance, and the aura Vivienne built around herself could be intimidating, as a person she was unpretentious, modest, and down-to-earth, living in a simple boarding house on Ku'damm during her guest appearances and taking only a few apple slices during her hour-long lectures. Apart from her astute criticism, she was very concerned about the well-being of her audience - for students freezing in nettle models, she sometimes offered her own cashmere stole as a warming blanket. And in London, in her own studio, she searched for suitable fabrics for many a graduate student. She made contacts with weaving mills and fabric sponsors. And, long before the time when she herself criticized overconsumption and capitalism with high-profile campaigns ('buy less, choose well, make it last') and drew attention to the climate catastrophe, she made sure that no expensive material was wasted as lining or underskirt.

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It would have been so easy to reduce her only to her exaltation and elitist reverie ('I don't see ugly people') - but that would in no way do justice to her person. And I wouldn't have learned anything, because her teaching was to look behind the surface, to recognize connections, to remain inquisitive and open-minded, to question everything critically, to distinguish good from better, to push things forward and to reinterpret them. To look for and tap into sources of inspiration, while having respect for history, analyzing and finally creating something new from it: 'First imitate, then innovate'.

The three, four or five years in her class demanded a lot from her students, taught humility and resilience, discipline and openness. And they formed the starting point for very different careers and careers - as designers for the Westwood studios in London, with their own label or at major fashion houses, as costume designers, photographers, stylists, illustrators, in teaching. Even though she was not a good educator, Prof. Westwood's straightforwardness, radicalism, and courage shaped her students' perspective on things and set themes that are more relevant than ever."

Prof. Martina Weiß - Fashion Management, Mediadesign Hochschule München