Author Q&A with Ian Kelly

VW book coverLitro: How did you come to work with Vivienne Westwood on her new biography? How much did you know about her before you started?

Ian: The simplest answer to how and why Vivienne and I are in bed together co-writing her autobiography is that I wrote a few years back a biography of Beau Brummell, the Regency dandy and begetter of modern men’s tailoring. Vivienne and her husband Andreas had read this and I was invited to come and meet her at her studio, and so began a long conversation about fashion, politics, art… and biography. But as it happened I had met her before, briefly, and have long admired her work. And when people used to ask me who was the modern ‘Beau Brummell’ I would sometimes refer to Vivienne. So we joke that we met in the 18th century. But I was fascinated also by punk.

Litro: How did your preparation and your working method differ from your other books, since you were working alongside a living subject?

Ian: I’ve before this only written historical biography, but the process was not so very different in that I spent a lot of time reading around the subject – the fashions of the late 20th century, the social history around the punk movement, this is all ‘history’ now but wonderfully so many of the people who shaped the periods I have been writing about, and who worked with Vivienne or knew her, are alive and kicking and were very welcoming and helpful with my questions. But yes, I learned to use a tape recorder, and I have had to have discussions with lawyers and that’s all new to someone used to 18th century archives. But more than the colourful insights into Vivienne and her world from her eclectic coterie of friends (everyone from Pamela Anderson to Prince Charles to Shami Chakrabarti to Debbie Harry) it was humbling to sit with Vivienne for weeks together re-drafting the book with her added comments and corrections. I found myself wishing I had been able to do that with previous biographical subjects. It was very exposing for her in some ways: that taught me a lot about the arrogance of biographers and the vulnerability of the biographical subject.

Litro: The fashion industry can be a cutthroat, and secretive, business. How much was she willing to share with you, and how much did you have to dig out yourself?

Ian: Vivienne is remarkably candid and unconcerned about opinion around her, and this is reflected in the openness of those around her, those she has chosen over the years to head her company and design with her. There was suspicion about me and about the project to being with because those many folks around Vivienne who rightly love her are also quite protective of her. And at first the project was a bit hush-hush. But once I was outted as part of the family as it were, it became very straightforward. Gene Krell, head of Vogue Japan, and a long-time friend of Vivienne’s, gave me a great deal of sage advice at Paris Fashion Week: that in fashion there is always more to admire than to despise, it’s just easy to fall into the negative. That Vivienne is without guile or malice and if you approach her, and those around her, with the good intent she espouses, you’ll get on fine. So I did. Mind you, they were pretty cutthroat sometimes about what I was wearing…

Litro: Her connection to the punk movement is well documented, but to what extent did you find that she still embodies the punk ethos? Or has she mellowed with age?

Ian: There’s no mellowing with Vivienne. As her son Joe Corre said to me as I was leaving one day, “she’s just gearing up.” Some of the intent behind punk – the nihilism, the ethos of the Situationist movement, the violence – Vivienne would probably distance herself from now, but that’s far from apostasy or ‘mellowing’. Vivienne is rightly proud of punk – not just in design terms, where it was indisputably a revolution, a ‘look’ of unparalleled impact – but also in political terms insofar as it asked and asks people to question government, to be suspicious of big business and the concerns of the Establishment – and to that extent what Vivienne does now – as an activist campaigning for the natural environment and human rights – is a direct through-line from punk. She writes in the book that her ‘Climate Revolution’ campaign is punk, so too was her appearance at the Paralympics closing ceremony – and she also wrote that if she’s been made a Dame just for creating punk, she would have thought she deserved it! So yes, she’s a punk dame, a punk grandmother. She is all of that while espousing the highest standards in art and fashion in quite an old fashioned way. It can appear oxymoronic, but that’s Vivienne; dancing on paradoxes.

Litro: You must have studied many of Vivienne’s past collections for the book. Which of her fashions/periods did you most enjoy personally? And which did you find most striking?

Ian: I love her work in the late Eighties and Nineties – her collections like Harris Tweed and Portrait, her Anglomania line: I deeply admire her tailoring and her attention to historical reference in what she does. But I also like her graphics and her T-shirts and I have been keen to point out in the book, and to illustrate lavishly, that Vivienne is one of the most important and influential graphic artists of the age, which tends to get eclipsed because her canvas is usually a T-shirt or a scarf, and because she has done so much else besides. I find her current work with Andreas very striking, the way they are blurring gender lines. I wouldn’t wear some of the MAN collection to the school gates, but you see with both of them their enormous talent as fashion artists and, to steal McLaren’s phrase, agents provocateurs.

Litro: What’s the most recent book that you’ve read? And, in keeping with our fashion-themed issue – what’s the most recent item of clothing that you’ve bought?

Ian: I’m reading Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist which is a work of wonder, and finally reading Wolf Hall because of my next book. I am working at the Huntington Library in Pasadena which explains that the most recent piece of clothing I bought was swim trunks – you can’t have too many in California

Litro: What can we expect to see from you next? Will you stick with writing about the living, or will you return to historical memoir?

Ian: My last book, Mr Foote’s Other Leg, I have adapted for the stage and it’s due to open next year (2015)… so I am back to the 18th century with that, but meanwhile I have a longstanding commitment to a work titled William Shakespeare, The Actor, about Shakespeare’s acting career and the business of being a writer and actor in the early 17th century. Hence the Shakespeare archive here in Pasadena… and hence Wolf Hall.

Ian KellyIan Kelly is an award winning actor and writer whose works include Casanova (Sunday Times Biography of the Year) and most recently Mr Foote’s Other Leg, (Winner, Theatre Book of the Year 2012). He is the author of this autumn’s much anticipated Vivienne Westwood memoir, working with and on the subject of the international fashion icon. As an actor, Ian is perhaps best known from the NT/Broadway hit The Pitmen Painters and the Harry Potter films as Hermione’s father.

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