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Near the end of the enormous, jam-packed exhibit of her fashion designs at the de Young Museum, there is a puzzling, meaningful quote from Vivienne Westwood: “You have a much better life if you wear impressive clothes.”

Skipping the debatable point whether clothes make the man — or, rather, the woman in this case — why “impressive,” rather than “beautiful”? If you read on and, more importantly, if you go to see the exhibit, you will have some tentative answers.

Westwood, 66, has spent 36 years in design, spanning the time from being a queen of the London punk scene to her current status as Dame Vivienne, DBE. She has had more phases than Picasso and Michael Jackson put together. The de Young lower-level show (where Queen Hatshepsut reigned for the new building’s opening) will lead you through wildly divergent styles, although with one common thread: everything is colorful and interesting, even … “impressive.”

She both helped to instigate and rode the wave of wild British pop in the early ’70s, then the proto-punk stuff coming out of her “SEX” store (alleged to be “a haven for the disenfranchised”), then came the Pirate Period (alternating with the ragamuffin look, if you can process that), to the geometric patterns of the Savage-Indian phase in the ’80s, complete with sheepskin jackets, fall-down socks, fabric-covered boots.

Then came Witches (no description necessary), Cave People, Voyage to Cythera, Portrait (fake fur, lace, velvet, knits …), and by the new century, a firm Establishment position, with awards and honors.

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Just as it’s difficult-to-impossible to put her work in a category (which is not a bad thing, not at all), Dame Vivienne herself is hard to read. At the Friday show preview, for example, she spoke of her Cave People period, and said — and I only hope I got the notes right — that Wilma (of the Flintstones) was her inspiration: “The cavemen of 20,000 years ago represented humans opening their eyes, so I gave my models long eyelashes, with silver.” Stone Age people, she averred, “had a choice whether to cultivate themselves or remain savages.” How that is reflected in Westwood’s fashions you’ve got to see for yourself.

Interspersed with the wild-and-wacky stuff are some elegant and — dare we say it? — beautiful designs, such as the exhibit-signature black gown. Dede Wilsey, founding mother of the new de Young, looked sensational at the preview, although admitting that she has had a hard time deciding what to wear, eventually settling on a “simple old Chanel.” Although she looked a bit out of place among all the “Blade Runner”-inspired, falling-down, bare tummy, little-cropped top fashions, Wilsey still easily came in as best in show.

Vivienne Westwood: 36 Years in Fashion

Where: De Young, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; closes June 10

Tickets: $15 general; $12 seniors; $11 youths 13–17; free for children 12 and under

Contact: (866) 912-6326 or www.famsf.org

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