V&A Dundee

Scottish Design Icons: Vivienne Westwood Harris Tweed suit

For Faiza Djilani, fashion runs in the family; one particular object in the Scottish Design Galleries made her think of ancestral connections, as well as a newfound sense of identity.

Written by: Faiza Djilani

Read this story in French ( Lisez cette histoire en français ) or Arabic ( اقرأ هذه القصة باللغة العربية )

Walking through the artfully illuminated glow of the gallery, I felt like a starving woman who had stumbled across a hedonistic banquet. No matter where I turned, a kaleidoscope of colours, designs, patterns, and details captivated my eye. The displays were a gourmet feast created by fashion icons the way a patisserie chef creates the most delectable desserts, only these were confections of fabric and thread.

I surrendered to my appetite and gorged myself. Surely I was sated, or so I thought, until my palate was tempted by a bold and audacious four-piece suit from the '90s. It accosted me like a loud and impatient commuter shouldering through a crowded subway platform.

Faiza in the V&A Dundee Scottish Design Galleries
Faiza in the Scottish Design Galleries

A study in contrasts, the suit is comprised of a white cotton shirt, loose grey trousers, fitted grey waistcoat with round, finely detailed buttons, and a striking jacket woven from virgin wool woven into Harris Tweed, a traditional Scottish textile made only in the Outer Hebrides. The suit was designed and handmade by influential British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

Westwood initially intended to become a jeweller and in 1958 she enrolled in a jewellery and silversmith course at the University of Westminster. However, she left after one term because she felt that - as a working-class woman - she would never succeed in the art world. Instead, she decided to retrain as a primary school teacher, but continued to make jewellery and clothes in her spare time that she sold at a small stall in London.

It accosted me like a loud and impatient commuter shouldering through a crowded subway platform.

Faiza Djilani on Vivenne Westwood's Harris Tweed suit

Several years later, she returned to fashion design and became one of the most recognized names in the world. Her early work was inspired by the era of punk, with collections featuring biker jackets, zips and leather. Yet as this style became more commonplace, Westwood lost interest and started experimenting with other ideas.

The eccentric and imaginative style of Westwood's collection particularly reminded me of my great aunt, who was a seamstress from the 1980s until 2000. She start working in Lyon, France, in 1980 but she travelled to Algeria in 1985 to create her proper business. A few years later she returned to France and – through her own means – developed a sewing workshop. Tenacious and determined, she endured great hardship to accomplish her dream of becoming a fashion designer, especially during an era when men dominated the industry.

Archive picture of Faiza's great aunt sewing in her studio
Faiza's great aunt at work in her studio

Sewing has always been a tradition and passion in my family. As well as my great aunt, it also conjures warm memories of my grandmother who made suits for my grandfather and passed her considerable skills and talents to my mum, aunts and little sister. When I was younger, my mum was always making clothes for my sister and me, both for everyday wear and special occasions. While we’re both grown up now, she continues to make baby clothes for friends and family in her spare time.

My little sister studied at the famous Parisian fashion school, ESMOD (École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode) and I often used to model the skirts and dresses that she created. She also had the opportunity to work in a large design office for fashion brand Redskins, where she developed the 2013-2014 summer-winter collection. My two aunts also studied fashion and often created their own clothes; for example my aunt Sabah made her own evening dress for her wedding in 1995, just as Vivienne Westwood did.

It reminds me of my own family’s creativity, and also symbolizes the freedom of expression designers convey through their extraordinary work.

Archive images of Faiza's mother knitting, and her aunt wearing a red evening dress
Creativity runs in the family - Faiza's mother making baby clothes, and her aunt wearing the evening dress she created for her wedding

For me, the Harris Tweed suit looks undeniably Scottish, but is also a tribute to the creativity of fashion and reminds me of my own family’s creativity. It also symbolizes the freedom of expression designers convey through their extraordinary work and makes me think how I expressed my own creative freedom in choosing to travel to Scotland, to discover other cultures and new horizons – this open-mindedness has been an excellent way to meet people and to find inspiration for my own personal projects.

By learning the language and overcoming the fear of the unknown, I left my comfort zone and developed new skills through the amazing opportunity to be a tour guide at V&A Dundee. Like anyone who chooses to express themselves through fashion, travel, art, or any other media, the experience to travel to Scotland was more than a journey - it was an exploration of myself.

‌Faiza Djilani was born in Algeria and is fascinated by the world of art, design, culture and foreign languages. She has a degree in literature, language and foreign civilization from the University of Paris and currently works at the Arc de Triomphe.

This article is part of a collaborative project with Amina MWRC to train local Muslim, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women as freelancers to deliver guided tours of our Scottish Design Galleries in both English and their native language.