Print’s charming – the World’s End Squiggle (Financial Times Weekend)

This week marks 30 years since Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s Pirate collection stormed the runway in London a blaze of sunshine colours and ethnic prints. The show was Westwood’s first swagger on to the catwalk, forging a sophisticated post-punk aesthetic with a billowing new romantic silhouette. It was also the debut of the Squiggle, the print that would become as recognisably, perennially, evocatively ‘Westwood’ as her orb logo.

Today, this looping, jagged-edged visual palindrome still appears on the skew-fitting Pirates shirts that continue to sell at the original World’s End store at 430 Kings Road, but it’s also on bags, wellington boots, notebooks, Lee jeans, sofas, wallpaper, rugs and carpets. When the Italian interiors company Molteni & C Dada opened a flagship store in London several years ago, it was with a window full of Squiggle-patterned furniture in navy, grey and black. As Christopher Sharp, co-founder of the Rug Company, which produces a variety of Squiggle products, says, ‘It translates brilliantly and effortlessly; it’s iconic and sits triumphantly in spaces from classical to contemporary.’

The longevity of the Squiggle, and its ongoing journey from subversive, counter-culture beginnings to the upper echelons of luxurious interiors is nothing short of astounding, mirroring the ascendancy of Westwood (who turns 70 on 8th April) from Chelsea anarchist to British national treasure. Similarly, there are few – if any – prints in fashion that are so inextricably linked to one single fashion label.

While Murray Blewett of the Westwood design studio points out that the print ‘developed from trying to symbolize rope’ (which it obviously does), its journey to World’s End started in Paris in the hands of another designer. Paul Gorman, author of the rock and pop fashion book and blog The Look, interviewed Malcolm McLaren many times between the mid-1970s and his death last year, and recalls that Squiggle began life ‘as an African print on a scarf given to him [McLaren] by Jean Charles de Castelbajac while they were living together in the French capital.’

When McLaren’s Sex Pistols broke up in 1978, his and Westwood’s Seditionaries boutique at 430 Kings Road remained open only periodically as he roamed from London to LA to Paris. In 1979, with McLaren still away, it was boarded up, pulling the curtain down on the pairs involvement with punk, without encore. While the shop was being refitted for its 1980 (and ongoing) World’s End incarnation, Westwood remained in London honing her technical skills and studying the costume of 18th century dandies, while the magpie-like McLaren continued to look abroad to bring new elements to her cutting room table. ‘He brought ethnicity and exoticism to the Pirate collection; sun, sea, sex and sand,’ says Gorman. It was a swashbuckling reboot of the confrontational, cliquey street fashion they’d invented in the mid-70s. ‘Just as the punk had picked up rubbish out of the gutter, pinned it on his jacket, collected safety pins and tore his clothes,’ says Westwood, ‘Malcolm and I decided to go romantic and plunder the world.’

Michael Costiff, of the ethnically eclectic fashion and interiors retail space WORLD at I.T Beijing Market and Dover Street Market in London, was in the audience at the Pirate show at the Olympia exhibiton centre in 1981 and was blown away by it. ‘It was such a grey time in London, and the show had so much colour, with the orange Squiggle prints, gold lipstick and multi-racial models appearing through the smoke to a Burundi soundtrack. It was all so unexpected after punk. We couldn’t wait to go shopping.’

The Pirate collection, and Squiggle, had profound counter-culture resonance. The late Australian performance artist and postmodern clotheshorse Leigh Bowery – who arrived in London just as McLaren and Westwood changed their label and the name of their boutique from Seditionaries to World’s End – said at the time: ‘I’d seen those clothes in magazines, but it was shocking to see them actually on sale.’ As V&A curator Sonnet Stanfill points out, ‘As distinctive as the print was, you could only buy the Pirate collection at World’s End, so when one travelled outside of London wearing it, it was like belonging to a sort of club.’ Long after Westwood went solo, Squiggle garments retained their currency. Today the Pirate shirt is worn as fashion shorthand within the middle-aged avant-garde as insider style shorthand: been there, seen that, bought the T-shirt from World’s End. Vintage tassle scarves cause a bidding frenzy at auction, and the Squiggle reappears time and time again in Westwood’s ongoing Anglomania collections.

Squiggle’s boldest transition into the mainstream was with the launch of a range of Cole & Son Westwood-print wallpapers in 2009. They’ve become a favourite purchase amongst those more au fait with Dorothy Draper than the ‘filth and fury’ back story of World’s End. As Westwood’s husband and design partner Andreas Kronthaler says, ‘You can connect Squiggle with new romanticism and Pirate, but it’s also just a very attractive and simple print. It has a pure energy.’  Michael Costiff – who has known Kronthaler and Westwood for many years – bumped into him at a bus stop in Chelsea recently. ‘I told him how I amused I was to have just seen the Squiggle print on rolls of wallpaper in the window of Peter Jones on the Kings Road; it’s taken 30 years for it to get from World’s End to Sloane Square.’

 

 

 

 

 

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