‘Who runs the world? I’ll tell you...’
Vivienne Westwood on fashion and fracking, she's a fashion guru with a conscience
With a surname like mine I’m used to people getting it wrong. I’ve had Blackshaw, Blackman, Blacksmith, even Whitehurst. But never Blacklist. “This is Chris Blacklist,” says Vivienne Westwood to a colleague. I have two goes at telling her that’s not so, then give up.
Perhaps it’s the background noise – we’re sitting on the deck of HMS President moored on the Thames in the centre of London. More likely it’s because Westwood has already moved on. It’s a detail that gets in the way of what she really wants to talk about.
And that’s climate change and fracking.
“It’s terribly important we all speak with one voice,” she says, as she sits down. “I’m in a terrible panic. We’re supposed to be calm and not in a panic, but the western half of the Antarctic is in irreversible meltdown. The ice is melting; the sea level will rise by four metres, 70 metres if all the ice caps melt. The immediate cause of that melting is now happening. It’s enough to screw London.”
At 73, Westwood has lost none of her energy and anger. Sure, she’s now a Dame, who has been in the fashion industry for 43 years, ever since she and Malcolm McLaren opened the “Let It Rock” boutique in the King’s Road in London (in 1974 it changed its name to “Sex”), and these days wears a hearing aid. But beneath a cardigan she’s also wearing a global warming T-shirt, showing the section of the world most at risk from climate change. Her much-younger husband, Andreas Kronthaler, once her fashion student, now part of her design team, and 25 years her junior, is standing nearby.
We’re here to mark the launch of Talk Fracking, the campaign to raise awareness of the issues around fracking (www.talkfracking.org). It’s backed by a host of celebrities – including Sir Paul McCartney, Helena Bonham-Carter, Mariella Frostrup, Bianca Jagger and Russell Brand – some of whom are with her today.
Westwood, too, has stayed faithful to her working-class origins. She may have lived in London since she was 17, when she and her family moved to Harrow, but her voice remains recognisably northern, from Derbyshire.
“We have to inform people about what is happening,” she intones. “The situation is urgent. We need governments on board. They need to be telling us that things are going to be very, very bad for the future of the human race and that we must do something about it.”
She’s opposed to fracking on environmental grounds: damage the drilling will do locally and the risks involved. But her main worry is how fracking will lead to the production of yet more oil which will hasten climate change.
“If we carry on like this, we’re looking at the mass extinction of the human race within a short time.”
She points to her chest.
“I don’t know when the human race will disappear, but right now I know it’s inevitable. Look, this T-shirt says ‘+5%’. If temperatures go up 5 per cent, as they’re predicted to, everything below this line, the world below Paris, will be uninhabitable. The heat will be unimaginable. No one will help each other, there will be war.”
But where’s the proof? What about climate-change sceptics? She shakes her head furiously.
“Don’t believe them. I don’t think they believe what they’re saying. They’ve got a vested interest. For 200 years we’ve had the status quo; it’s a status quo of the minority who want to keep on making a profit.”
She’s on a roll. “Who are the people who run the world? I’ll tell you, they’re the central banks like the Fed in America, the Bank for International Settlements in Basle. They hand out debt and they must be paid back the interest. How often do you hear of a Third World country where the people are forced to borrow money and then pay back the interest in the form of raw materials? The central banks control this.”
Westwood can see a conspiracy at work with fracking.
“They know they’re not going to get anything to help us with our energy needs, that’s why they’re doing fracking. They’ve got to be seen to be doing something, they have to be seen to be drilling. But they know it won’t work.”
Bianca Jagger walks by. They exchange waves.
Groans Westwood: “Why is it only me and Bianca who are so desperate? There could be loads of us, but the government and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are very good at misinforming.”
On fracking, says Westwood, “there’s no democratic mandate to do it. David Cameron said he was going to create the greenest government ever – then look at what he does.”
It’s significant, she maintains, that major oil corporations have stayed away.
“Why are they on the side-lines? Because they know it’s expensive and won’t work. The fact the very businesses involved in the oil industry are not investing in this technology tells you everything.”
She can see what’s going on, alright. If only others saw the same.
“What’s so depressing is the inability of nations to work together. We could co-operate with Europe, instead of all this arguing and fighting.”
Instead, “there’s no co-operation, and what is occurring is irreversible. The scientific evidence for global warming is unarguable, yet the climate-change disbelievers keep wanting a debate. There shouldn’t be a debate, there’s nothing to debate.”
What she’d like to see is a commitment towards a green economy. “What’s good for the planet is good for people; what’s good for people is good for the planet.”
But we seem to be moving further away from that idea.
“Look at what’s happening in London. I read the other day they’re pulling down flats at Elephant & Castle and replacing them with luxury apartments,” she says.
“Where do the people who live there go? Where are they going to live? We could have more nurses, more teachers, but they won’t be able to afford to live there.”
Hang on, does she not work in an industry that is all about coveting a label and luxury, where ordinary people are excluded? She nods.
“There are signs in my shops that say ‘buy less, choose well, make it last’. I agree, fashion is a terrible thing, it’s all about tempting to buy. But they should buy less.”
Meanwhile, she says, “fashion gives me a voice, it gives me prestige”. She laughs. “It’s another reason why I don’t retire, don’t close the company and give up.”
She’s been raging pretty much all her life.
“I first became interested in anarchy because the world was so wrong, and I thought the kids should do something, that they shouldn’t believe what the government told them. I was with the hippies first, then punk. Today’s kids have the same attitude, but they’re lazy – they don’t know what is wrong. They think they do but they don’t want to find out.”
“If people bothered to find out about fracking they would be against it.”
She’s not entirely despairing, however. “Naomi Klein is saying that the environmental crisis can force us to have the world we want, if only we had the true aim of combating it.”
She comes in close, putting a hand to her head and lowering her voice.
“I had a bang the other day, I banged my head, and I had a lump. My man,” she says, gesturing towards Andreas, “he’s a witch, he got rid of it.”
He’s a what? “A witch.”
How did he do that? “I don’t know, he just did it.”
She leans back. “You know, people think we’re better informed and therefore better off, but we’re the least-informed people who have ever lived. Hopefully, there’s still time…”
The past has always been an influence on her, never more than now.
“Do you know what the greatest civilisation that ever existed was?”
Before I can answer, she says: “The Chinese until 1911, the last dynasty. Chinese art is the high point of existence. Their culture and politics sustained, unchanged, for a thousand years. The people who ran the country had to pass exams to show they were cultured.”
She laughs. “I wish our politicians had to pass an exam to show they were cultured.”
At present, she says, “business is good”. (Latest accounts disclose annual profits of £5m.) “If anything, I want to reduce my product range, to concentrate on quality rather than quantity.
“I might have to put up prices and see what happens.”
Even so, she must be thinking of retirement?
“No. But what I am doing is trying to stay calm. I’m not very optimistic about the future of the human race. I wish I was, but I’m not.”
Bianca Jagger comes to join her. We’re done. As I leave, they’re already in a huddle, planning the next stage of their attempt to save us from ourselves.