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Vivienne Westwood

British Fashion Queen Then & Now

A designer who can understand punk and proper Saville Row suiting deserves a crown. Let that queen of fashion be Vivienne Westwood. Through June 10th, the de Young Museum presents a 30-plus-year retrospective of Ms. Westwood’s iconic looks that start with bondage latex suits and anarchy themed shirts in the 70s to 21st century tailored gowns cut in intriguing proportions and mixed materials.

San Francisco is the exhibit’s only U.S. stop. For a real Vivienne Westwood keepsake, I am disappointed to find few options, which are showcased at the de Young’s gift store. For $100, I can purchase her world tour tee with a pair of wet red lips blown on the front. Or there is the red tartan tie ($48) and matching umbrella ($30). The orb earrings ($195) look tempting. In the end I settle on a book ($35) by Claire Wilcox that provides enough commentary and imagery for me to study and copy her looks for years to come.

Ms. Westwood approves of copycats: “I am a great believer in copying -- there has never been an age in which people have so little respect for the past.”

So respectfully I start my Westwood cloning at two ends: Haight Ashbury and South Park. Ms. Westwood’s 1985 Mini-Crini collection was well received. It featured curvy silhouettes using corsets and mini crinolines. I head to New York Apparel where I choose a white mini crinoline ($22-$30) and a lacey black bustier ($179) by Elie Tahari at Jeremy’s. At Held Over, I snag a red tartan kilt ($22) to shorten and to wear over my crini for respect to Ms. Westwood’s Anglo ties.

The crinoline creates much movement and Ms. Westwood continues this theme with footwear that would do the same. She introduced Rocking Horse shoes, which rocked back and forth on platform soles. Isabel Shoes had a clone -- black boots perched on a circular metal band ($398). Rocking on them would take practice to get my moving-mini-crini look right.

As an alternative to the crinoline skirt, I find a pair of tweed shorts ($139) by Catherine Malandrino to wear with the black bustier. There’s also a strapless pumpkin plaid wool dress by Manoush that catches my eye. Both items feature either the fabric or pattern that Ms. Westwood loves to use. To top either look, I go the vintage route at Millesime for one of those 40s hats with a veil netting -- or maybe a tiara would do. Westwood always enjoyed comic references to royalty.

This exercise of mixing modern and vintage is the inspiration I draw from Westwood, though what is really important is carrying her spirit to study and reinterpret the past for a new look in the present. That is why Westwood is so magical. She studies old techniques and styles to challenge today’s status quo through reconstruction of silhouettes, mixed materials, graffiti prints and unusual seams. As she once said, “You have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes.”

To that I say, “Long live the queen.”