OPINION - Christie's London Westwood auction shows why we need the radical creativity of female fashion designers

Dame Vivienne Westwood  (Getty Images)
Dame Vivienne Westwood (Getty Images)

Last week I went on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss the succession drama at Chanel, where Virginie Viard — its creative director of the past five years, since Karl Lagerfeld’s death — has just stepped down from the role. It’s the biggest job in fashion and its vacancy has caused quite the furore over who might step into those two-tone ballet flats. Arguably, they’ll more likely be in a loafer.

Hysteria abounds across the industry and a flurry of names are being touted as contenders, from Hedi Slimane, Pier Paolo Piccioli and Marc Jacobs to former Alexander McQueen head Sarah Burton and fellow Brit Phoebe Philo. The reality is that high-profile gigs in fashion have a tendency to go to men, who also tend to run the upper C-suite echelons of these megabrands.

There were more women leading Parisian fashion houses in the 1920s than there are now

I was joined on the show by Justine Picardie, Coco Chanel’s biographer, who pointed out that there were more women leading Parisian fashion houses in the 1920s than there are now. That is depressing. But perhaps in the scope of what these labels have become over the past 100 years, that original conceit of a woman creating solutions for what she wants to wear seems almost quaint. These are now billion-pound operations in which the core concern is not driven by how women want to feel or present themselves to the world, but how they can make sure Q1 tops last year’s Q4.

That’s not to say — of course! — that women can’t lead these ships, but more that this brings in the usual glass-ceiling issues which drown most other industries, too. Heading up a luxury house is a 24/7 gig, unmalleable to the mundane demands of life, especially family life. Both Philo (ex-Celine, now running her own brand) and Clare Waight Keller (previous head at Chloé and Givenchy) stepped back from their respective French houses when their children were young. It may not be a stretch to understand why these places have tilted to be run by men for whom school pick-ups are a foreign country. As most mothers know, the concept of “having it all” has morphed into mere gaslighting.

As most mothers know, the concept of “having it all” has morphed into mere gaslighting

What we, as women, lose when fashion houses become merch shops rather than led by craft and brilliant ideas is currently being underscored at Christie’s. The auction house is hosting a sale of Dame Vivienne Westwood’s personal archive, as per her wishes, with all funds raised going to charities including The Vivienne Foundation, Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières and Greenpeace.

It is an emotional collection — featuring a silk bag of her tights, worn platforms and her favourite dress, lovingly darned to extend its life. There’s her deft tailoring, perfectly shaped around hips and bosoms, a soft jersey corset which zipped up, dramatic taffeta evening gowns and a simple polo shirt dress.

Chanel and Westwood were both punks when it came to upending what women could be coaxed into wearing, breaking down barriers to establish themselves as designers without compromise.

Westwood was a woman radically without artifice. In death, her message — often woven front of place in her collections — calling for a climate revolution and advocating for peace feels more poignant than towards the end of her life, when her voice was muted by a predictable sheen of ageism and sexism.

But we all benefit when conviction, function and creativity flourish together. Westwood honed a singular vision that still vastly appeals. The exhibition is open to the public until June 24 — do go and see it, queues be damned. Which reminds me — the V&A’s exhibition on Chanel had to be extended. No surprises: the appeal of women designing for women.