Major moments of learning in my life have been entwined with Vivienne Westwood. I first worked in her punk shop Seditionaries when I was 17. Every now and then Vivienne would come into the shop with a new t-shirt she had designed. I remember the one with the Open Letter to Derek Jarman on it which was incredibly disparaging and insulting. She had all the rebellious energy of her teenage fans but she was directing it in interesting places.
Wearing Vivienne’s clothes was like being shielded within a suit of armour, they were beautiful, and unlike anything else. They attracted attention but even when people shouted abuse and mockery I never felt I had made a mistake.
I spent time again with Vivienne in the mid 80’s when I was living in Rome studying fashion and Vivienne was working with an Italian manufacturer in Florence. She would come for the weekend and I showed her a coat I was designing for Keith Richards, who was a friend of my boyfriend. I was nervous to show her any of my ideas, my attempts to be a designer. In fact Vivienne was the greatest teacher I have ever known. She was encouraging and kind and made me feel I had something – all this in her usual rigorous way, which made it even more precious.
I moved back to London to work as Vivienne's assistant. At first it was just the two of us working from her flat, I learnt everything about the fashion business from her. I made a lot of mistakes and I was also very annoying, spending ages cooking lunch or chatting on the phone and getting to work late, which naturally drove her mad. But she was endlessly patient with me and we had some wonderfully funny times. I remember modelling some hats and when the photos came back they were so hilarious that we had to go into separate rooms eventually in order to stop crying with laughter.
A moment I will treasure was when Vivienne was working on the Harris Tweed collection, influenced by clothes the Queen had worn as a child. She called me to say she was sending something over in a taxi. ‘I’m not sure if it’s any good so tell me what you think and I’ll see whether to continue with it or not,’ or words to that effect. The taxi delivered a plastic carrier bag containing a Harris Tweed crown with the jewels in green and blue velvet and the arches in fake Ermine. It was the loveliest thing I have ever seen and my eyes filled with tears. The idea that Vivienne could have had any doubt in her mind was humbling to me. Vivienne has never taken the easy path. Sometimes she would describe an idea and I would think it couldn’t possibly work – but it always did and I would feel ashamed that I ever doubted her.
When I went on to start my own business, my time with her was a source of strength and insight. She never tried to please. Often her ideas would be misunderstood at first, only later recognised as groundbreaking and pioneering. In my many moments of feeling under enormous pressure, her example reminded me of Alexander the Great slicing through the knot. She was always fearless and never lost her eccentric and outlandish sense of humour.