On 21 March 2020, days before Britain’s initial lockdown, Vivienne Westwood shared her first isolation address to the nation. Royalty, of sorts, she delivered it in her trademark fashion: she spoke of saving the planet and her new manifesto, while donning couture – and surrounded by curiosities – in her south London home.
These impassioned speeches became a year-long weekly occurrence. Westwood offered anti-racism, anti-capitalism, and a stern rebuke of the arms trade; in wig, blue dress and floral-print platforms, she spoke of the need to rescue the oceans, while standing in her tiled bathtub.
For Andreas Kronthaler, behind the camera, these recordings provided a much more personal salvation. Westwood’s devoted husband and creative partner of over three decades, he found crafting these videos – designing outfits, holding fittings, dressing sets and line-learning – created structure and purpose in a time with little else to focus on.
An unconventional pandemic pastime, sure, but that’s unsurprising. Westwood has spent decades proudly preaching her unapologetic punk gospel, and it’s Kronthaler, 55, who has – for much of that time – been simultaneously in the background and very much by her side.
Today, though, Westwood is at home, while in Battersea Park’s Old English Garden, Kronthaler has just finished posing for photos. We’re sitting on a bench surrounded by flowers and a fountain, just a stone’s throw from Westwood’s London HQ.
“I’m sorry,” he says, in a soft Austrian accent, charmingly flirtatious. “A couple of weeks ago it was even more ravishing with all the roses. This is my oasis. If I need to think of something, I walk over here. I’ve been doing it for 30 years.”
Birkenstocks aside, today he’s dressed only in his own collections. A striped baseball cap is the only splash of colour, alongside white kung fu pants, T-shirt and socks emblazoned with a Westwood logo. “I never wear white,” he says. “I don’t know why I did today. I look a bit like a guru, it’s cleansing.”
Maybe it’s the clothes, because he dives right into reflection. Off the bat, we talk about the destruction of England’s textile industry; how he yearns for the electricity of a fashion show: I must come to Paris. Compared to its European equivalents in Milan and Paris, Kronthaler says, London fashion week feels small, unbecoming for a city of its size and energy.
Did I know that rather than carry things down the stairs, Westwood just throws them?
“I don’t know what stimulates me,” he adds, floating back. “What is it all for? We live in such precarious times. It’s not just Covid, it highlighted the environmental crisis we are heading towards.”
“Sorry,” he says, looking up. “I’m drifting like the waterlilies in the fountain.”
Raised in rural Austria, Kronthaler spent his childhood creating. A blacksmith father taught him the value of craftsmanship; mum’s wardrobe provided fabric to “repurpose” for his Barbies’ fancy-dress.
At 13, he found an experimental boarding school which taught artistic professions alongside an academic education. He then spent a year studying industrial design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna before re-enrolling for a fashion course on which Westwood taught. “I wasn’t really aware of her before then,” he says. “I’d seen bits of her work but I was still innocent and ignorant.”
Kronthaler remembers their first encounters with clarity. “She looked great, really great. So eccentric. She started to talk, and she was so serious, so genuine.” Despite the slight language barrier, he talks of this deep and instant connection. “She was opening doors as she spoke,” he recalls. “Everything she said articulated ideas I’d not even had yet. About fashion, yes, but more than that: a way to look at life.”
He’s not sure if she felt the same at first; Westwood was a teacher – 25 years his senior. Still, within weeks there were long dinners and theatre trips in the Austrian capital. Eighteen months later, the pair moved back to London where they’ve been together ever since. “I feel very lucky,” he says. “To this day, I can’t explain what makes us work. We are very much the opposite in character. But maybe that’s why we get on so well.” What one lacks, he says, the other has.
In April this year, Westwood turned 80, and this month marks 40 years since she launched her first label and staged her first Pirate Collection catwalk show. The couple have little time for sentimentality, says Kronthaler. In fact, he’d expected to spend Westwood’s big day in the office, without her. “She never really bothers with birthdays,” he says, “I think maybe it’s because she’s northern?”
So many bouquets kept arriving at the door that Kronthaler simply couldn’t leave the house. “She just had to really give in,” he says. “It was a beautiful day because for once she let herself enjoy it.” The evening was spent outside at Piccadilly Circus with a bottle of champagne: the LED wall beaming out an anti-war video she’d created specially for CIRCA, a public art project which also commissioned Patti Smith and Ai Weiwei, curated by Josef O’Connor.
To this day, Westwood remains the fashion house’s visionary, its figurehead. To mark its first 40 years, this month a new photo book has been published: Vivienne Westwood: Catwalk. It catalogues collections and shows through the years: the corsetry and androgyny; Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. It’s a full-colour celebration of her successes. It’s also very much a retrospective, at a time when the designer is stepping back a little. After 25 years as a silent partner and creative director, in 2016 the house’s Gold Label collection was renamed Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood – a nod to his role’s increasing significance.
As of now, says Kronthaler, they’ve found a new work rhythm. “I get on with the fashion side,” he says, “while she is focused on creating a collection of pictures. She comes in once a week to the office or I bring things home to show her.”
Maybe this is why Kronthaler seems so pensive. When it comes to artistic output, Westwood and he share their taste, but their characters couldn’t be more different. She’s an outspoken supporter of the CND, Peta and Julian Assange, an activist who’ll speak all day about civil liberties, media propaganda and the environment. “She likes telling people what to do and think,” he says. “She’s a teacher; I’m the opposite.” He shares her principles to the core but he’s quieter, introspective and thoughtful.
All this must surely pose difficulties for the man looking to secure not just Westwood’s legacy,but its path into the future.
“Fashion in general is a huge polluter,” Kronthaler says, unprompted. “The more you get to a labour-intensive product or output, the more righteous you are about the impact, but no one is a saint, even at the high end.” To make even the most simple cotton, he says, you need huge amounts of resources: “Why would we ever need to buy new T-shirts when there are so many in charity shops?”
That’s a lot to grapple with, for a fashion house’s leader. He certainly has thoughts: do we need sales? A different approach to seasons? Maybe clothes could be rented out, not purchased. He sees the contradictions.
“I normally don’t really talk about this much,” he says. “Vivienne is the big campaigner.” But Kronthaler knows that all this comes with stepping up into Westwood territory.
The way he sees it, this is part of a transition. What’s next he doesn’t quite want to say, but there’s definitely something. “The House needs tidying up,” he says, “and I have an idea, so does Vivienne. We’ll be launching something new in the company, hopefully quite soon.” He smiles, with a sense of real excitement.
“Vivienne still has the same bite and energy,” he stresses, “although just a little slower. But I still rely on her totally: she’s the only person I trust to say when something is good, the only adviser and guide I can follow.”
‘She’s a genius’: Westwood at 80
I first photographed Vivienne in 1993 and loved the way she was, and looked. What she said and wore made a deep impression on me. We have worked together ever since; it’s always interesting, fruitful, challenging, peaceful, natural and beautiful.
I met Vivienne in their shop on the Kings Rd in the early 1970s. I’d never met anyone like Viv before, and come to think of it, never have since. She is what I would call an English eccentric in the term’s best possible definition. An academic, former school teacher, who invented the look of punk.
She’s a genius. When I got paid for my first modelling job, I went straight to the World’s End shop and bought a floor-length sheepskin coat. I still have it, and am saving all of my Westwood for Lila!
We’ve been friends for over 20 years. We hit it off the moment we met. I love that she is a maverick, she’s spent her whole life sticking her head above the parapet and standing by her beliefs and what’s truly important to her.
One of my classic Westwood moments was when Vivienne and Andreas persuaded me to do the Paris catwalk. I just remember Andreas pushing me on my back, like I was about to jump out of an airplane. Instead of walking down the middle of the catwalk, I walked all the way around the outside in the dark! My next excursion down the catwalk was between Jerry Hall and Alek Wek. I thought I looked like a small troll but Vivienne and Andreas loved it. We had a real camaraderie spirit and did a number of small projects together. I really love my association with Vivienne and I’m very proud to call her my friend.
She is an influence to everyone she meets. It’s unbelievably special, real, raw- no filter. Viv and Andreas came with Jurgen Teller to my tiny trailer in Malibu for a shoot while I was building my house there. It was when Obama became president and we were so full of hope, sleeping on blow-up mattresses making spaghetti with Queens of the Stone Age. My neighbours just thought I had my crazy relatives over and liked to take family pictures: I was skateboarding in a pink Couture wedding dress. Happy 40th, Westwood, though time is an illusion.
Vivienne Westwood Catwalk by Alexander Fury, with contributions from Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler is published by Thames & Hudson, £55