23-Nov, 17:45

11:30, January 23 398 0

2017-01-23 11:30:10
Critical Shopper: Vivienne Westwood: Punk? Yes. Political? Maybe.

I was staring at the golden bovine hooves that foot the clothing racks in the new Vivienne Westwood store. “They’re deadly, people are tripping,” a saleswoman told me in the same helpful tone as, “I’ll put that in a dressing room.” Out of the warning’s earshot, my partner, Carrie, walked over to me, started to flip through the rack and promptly tripped.

Let’s take a step back.

In the 1970s, Dame Vivienne Westwood defined the aesthetic of the punk movement in London. She dressed the Sex Pistols, then supermodels, translating the rigor and shock value of punk music into reappropriated, dynastic tartan with safety pins, tulle and slogans.

Ms. Westwood is now 75, a vocal environmental and political activist whose collections are always manifestoes and calls to rally. The most recent, for fall 2017 shown in London, implored her audience to convert to green energy, refocus attention on the environment and buy less by sharing clothes. Whether her clothes are eco-friendly depends on your yardstick, but this was her first show in London since 1982, a small step toward localizing her production and presentation.

The Manhattan store opened in December, two months after the opening of her first stand-alone store in Paris and one month after she and her son, Joseph Corré, set fire to 5 million British pounds worth of punk memorabilia on a barge on the Thames to protest the commercialism of the movement. Via a megaphone, she told the crowd: “I never knew what to say before, ever since punk. We never had a strategy then, that’s why we never got anywhere.”

Brands are not activist. A brand cannot empathize, a brand does not yearn, a brand does not hurt. Brands and people are not the same.

Nothing better demonstrates this than the fact that Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, when delivering her 12-point plan for European Union separation on Jan. 17, wore a tartan Vivienne Westwood suit.

Though I give credit to Ms. Westwood for making clothes with urgent messages, the various shirts, blazer and dresses with political slogans in the store — “Loyalty 2 Gaia,” $595; “Politicians R Criminals,” $180; “We are not disposable,” $80 — are not necessarily bought in response to anger or oppression. She would probably agree: The most moving messages are not for sale, and the most impressing outfits are often put together when the wearer does not yet have words for what she is feeling.

That doesn’t mean the other clothes in the store are void of potential emotion. Hardly. At Vivienne Westwood, there were pieces cut thoughtfully enough to confirm that we have form even when we feel invisible, like a snugly tied waistcoat in woven cotton ($860). A checkered blazer’s firm shoulders were mantles, pant legs cut in a banana shape (I bought a pair of banana cropped jeans with blue embroidery for $140), and both lent the appearance of a strong stance even if you were slouching, weak-kneed, underneath. Carefully chosen fabric, as in gray crepe de Chine pants that droop like a deflated lung ($1,135), might let you relax enough to release a scream from your rib cage. Some things just made you laugh (a silver phallus keychain, $325).

The view from the store’s entryway was an illusion. It looked like a tiny shop, tight, with a back room of clothes peeking out from around the register. After looking at pins that said “Climate” and “Revolution” in all capital letters, I noticed the open stairs, with light bursting through that gave me Icarus-level vertigo, leading to the rest of the 15,000-square-foot space. The store is, for now, visited mostly by superfans. (I touched the soft sleeve of a jacket the owner of Trash and Vaudeville has reserved for purchase.) Between two chairs in the women’s dressing area was a hand-assembled photo book of archival dresses, set out like a family album.

Ms. Westwood’s fall 2017 runway show included men’s wear and woman’s wear, swapped and shared. In the store, the spaces for trying them on are on separate floors (and clothes meant to be shared have a unisex label, along with the name of her husband, Andreas Kronthaler, now creative director of the label). Downstairs, in men’s, Carrie, my friend Durga and I took turns trying on a calf hair jacket ($4,460). The pattern was dark clouds gathering, the cut was square and stark. I skipped around the store — we were alone apart from the saleswoman — and, with some forget-it-all glee, yipped: “This! Is! Special!”

I do not know if being excited like this meant I had detached, forgotten the earth or had engaged, remembering my humanity.

On the hoofed racks, matching print suit pieces (a Westwood hallmark) aren’t hung as sets. There are multiple pieces that could, in theory, be worn with those hung in between. The message seems to be: Step back, more goes well together than we assumed.