Last year, British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood set the political tone of her Spring/Summer 2017 runway show with a short video urging for the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. The Australian hacker, now into his fifth year of diplomatic asylum at the Embassy of Ecuador in London, recently spoke with AnOther Magazine on his relationship with the queen of punk fashion. Assange touched on Westwood’s consistency of character, breadth of intellect and her “epic trolling of the state.”
Assange also attests to the importance of fashion as protest, the punk movement and his surprise upon finding out about Westwood’s political and Assange-centric runway show. Read below for a few excerpts from the interview and catch the full spread at AnOther Magazine.
AM: I believe she comes to visit often, and you’ve worked together a lot. What are those visits like?
JA: Well I see her every few weeks, she’s very bright and tough, one of the toughest women that I have met in the United Kingdom. […] Over time, as I’ve seen consistency of character, my admiration has increased. Also, her breadth intellectually comes out just like anyone who has breadth or depth that comes out as a result of increased contact.
Has it been impactful for you? That exchange?
It’s good to have tough people around me. I need someone to push back and call out my bullshit, that’s a really important thing to have. In terms of her support, for me in my situation, that’s also been quite important. Her connections and people who appreciate her are different, broadly speaking, a different group to the people who are interested in what WikiLeaks publishes. It’s quite important to be able to bridge from your usual support base into another support base.
I was wondering, about that contrast, what you made of that? Obviously she combines her championing of you and your cause with her fashion shows. Her Spring/Summer 2017 collection was dedicated to you…
She is very modest. She doesn’t try and talk up her fashion as having a political or moral dimension. But I think that’s not true. If you look closely at some of her writing and perhaps if you listen closely to her, going back to her punk days, now she has a view that the fashion she produces should make the people who wear it feel bold. For another fashion designer that statement could be just an empty marketing phrase, for Vivienne Westwood it’s not because of how she’s lived her life and how she chooses to live her life now. I encouraged her also to see the value in her work, that it is something that can bridge a gap and, I think, educate people, or make them feel bold within the society that we have to deal with and that’s quite an important function.
It’s interesting that you find that message very important. Do you feel that she is unique in her use of the medium?
It’s completely unique, I’ve met a lot of people, we have a lot of different types of supporters but yeah, it is completely unique in that she has been so successful in what she does. She also owns what she does, she doesn’t work for someone else: she really can do anything with her life. She’s not supporting me for the likes or the increased exposure, she’s choosing to do it because she has a vision for what she believes is right.
And what did you make of her collection that she dedicated to you, did you know that was going to happen? Or did you talk to her about it before?
I don’t think I knew that it was going to happen. I was surprised and excited but I’m not in the fashion business [laughs] so I can’t comment on that collection itself other than it seems to do well. She’s done that type of thing a number of times with me, with Chelsea Manning, with some other causes. Actually my favourite one is when she did a runway and she had rented the space out inside the Foreign & Commonwealth office. In the big interior courtyard where occasionally performances are done – of course formally, my dispute with the British government is really with the Foreign & Commonwealth office because they are responsible for public affairs, embassies, MI6, and GCHQ – and so she had her models wearing Julian Assange T-shirts. I think she might have even had one on herself, inside the Foreign & Commonwealth office – that’s a kind of epic trolling of the state and richly deserved in that case.
It’s a very direct, sort of literal way of using fashion to make that protest. Do you think that’s important?
I mean, I like indirect approaches as well, but I think you have got to set the tonic with the direct approach, set the key, otherwise people don’t understand what the indirect approach is actually getting at. You might have a dual register where some people like the indirect elements but just for aesthetic reasons, but they are unlikely to have any idea of what it’s about unless you, also somewhere in your life, act indirectly.