Vivienne Westwood’s Battersea offices are hushed, efficient and pink. The reception is pink, the walls are pink, the girls are pink, like an erotic version of the UN. The way up to her studio is entirely pink, a long Fallopian tube which opens onto a high, light room facing an empty roof terrace. 

[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]t first, she is nowhere to be seen, but then there’s a flush of the lav and she slips quietly into view, tiny and starling-like in socks, brown sandals and a voluminous dress that makes her look like a girl trapped by a giant tartan kite. Her hair, an electric shade of crab, is scraped off her face; her eyes are lined with red crayon, a look inspired by “paintings. If you look at paintings, they’ve all got little bits of vermillion in the eyes”.

She has drawn it all over her forehead because “I’ve got deep-set eyes, and a line too close makes them look smaller”. She sits softly at her desk, mannered, inquisitive and delicately coloured: a dream in a jar.

She puts on a pair of large white goggles and waits for a question, so I ask her about her latest project, a collaboration with the International Trade Centre, in which she employs Kenyans to make a line of accessories from recycled materials. She has just come back from Nairobi where she met the workers and did a fashion shoot in a rubbish tip.

“You want to know why I went to Africa, is that it?” she says. She looks baffled.

“Well, let’s see. We did three things there. We…” She breaks off. “If I am invited somewhere, I wouldn’t necessarily go. For two reasons. One, because I don’t like flying.” She breaks off again. “Oh, but then it’s different once I’m there. It’s not pleasant flying, but. When I’m there…” She stops. “Oh, why am I rambling…”

Westwood now devotes a lot of her time to “saving the world through fashion”. She spent nine days in Nairobi meeting the bag-makers with her husband, Andreas, and the German photographer Juergen Teller, who snapped her in the dump for her autumn/winter collection. Teller always does her campaigns; Vivienne Westwood and Andreas always star: “Cheaper,” says Vivienne Westwood.

I often find Teller’s pictures quite disturbing, especially the ones in which Andreas appears to have put on all Vivienne Westwood’s underwear and stuffed both his hands down his pants, while Vivienne Westwood rolls around on all fours in a sack, or on a lead, hair wild, as if she’s just been Tasered. The Nairobi shots are no exception: provocative, extraordinary and raw, Vivienne Westwood rising up out of the African filth in pencil skirts, diamante and smocks, white-faced and gore-mouthed, like a voodoo killer tapeworm in unexpectedly good eveningwear.

She knew the shoot would be “a bit controversial, attention-grabbing”, but she doesn’t usually care about this sort of thing: she’s been confronting the world for well over 30 years now. When she opened the King’s Road boutique Sex with her second husband, Malcolm McLaren, in the early 1970s, the bondage trousers and “rubberwear for the office” displayed in its windows appalled passers by.

As a designer in Paris in the 1980s, and later back in London, she produced look after outrageous look: bustiers and bustles, peekaboo bum flaps, fake breasts for men, penises attached to shoes. In 1992, she famously turned up to accept her OBE minus knickers, twirling her skirt and giving the paparazzi “a more glamorous view than I had intended”.

She claimed that forgetting her pants had been a genuine oversight, but curiously forgot them again when she went for her DBE 14 years later.

“I don’t wear them with dresses,” she tittered. “When I’m wearing trousers I might. My husband’s silk boxers.”

Andreas Kronthaler, a 6ft Austrian cuckoo clock with a keen interest in sequins and headgear, has been one of her greatest stunts. They met in the early 1990s when she taught him at the Vienna College of Applied Arts. He is 25 years her junior and now her creative director; she is always very complimentary about his physical appearance, comparing him with Arnold Schwarzenegger “before the body building” and talking openly about their sex life.

Andreas helped manage the trip to Nairobi and “loffed” every minute of it. Vivienne Westwood, by contrast, found it rather hot and inconvenient, styling herself and Andreas and Elsie, the model, in the back of a van with no mirror. She was also a bit worried that the locals might find her “patronising”, lording it around the slums, but someone told her they were “amazed” someone her age would behave like that, “and I was glad I heard that; that they hadn’t disliked me for invading their space”.

Westwood doesn’t normally pay attention to magazines or fashion, TV or films, only books, mostly non-fiction, dry non-fiction, Bertrand Russell, John Pilger, “surveys, anything on Libya”.

She spends hours reading and thinking about global dilemmas: about five years ago she organised her thoughts into a “Manifesto”, an unfathomable political drama narrated by an assortment of characters, including Hitler, Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland. (Sample quote: “Pinocchio, don’t be an arsehole.”) She wrote it to persuade people to stop shopping, a cause she passionately believes in as part of saving the planet, even though she owns a global fashion empire and travels widely promoting it.

“Well, it is a problem,” she says. “Do I just close the business and say, ‘I’m closing the business because we should not be producing these things? And, um, that there’s too much rubbish in the world, too much stuff in the world?” She pauses. Realises I will say “yes”. Says: “Okay. Now you’ve put me on the defensive, and I don’t like to be on the defensive. I do say whoever makes these clothes is getting a decent wage.” She breaks off. “Oh, I don’t know whether I should be doing it, really. I really don’t. Hmmm.”

What she would really like is for people to buy one quality T-shirt, and “not 12 T-shirts for £5. Buy less, choose well, make it last. Wear it and wear it, don’t wash it so much.”…Read more in Quintessentially Asia