Surprisingly Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, the debut documentary for director Lorna Tucker, is the first feature length film to be made about one of the most iconic and notorious British fashion designers of the last 40 years. Vivienne Westwood herself has publicly called this documentary mediocre, apparently feeling it did not focus enough on her activism. In the film she is shown constantly complaining about the process saying, “do we have to cover every bit of it, you know? It’s so boring to say all this”. Despite her complaints she obviously knows how to use the spotlight to promote the causes she is interested in. There is an intriguing tension between the subject and the director, but Tucker doesn’t meet her spikiness with spite or venom, instead creating an entranced portrait of the 77-year-old designer. This is a reverential portrayal by Tucker, and talking heads including supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell speak of her in awe.
Archival footage gives incite into the difficulty Westwood has had in being taken seriously by the British fashion industry, including the notorious interview on the Terry Wogan show in the 1980s where she was belittled by the interviewers and laughed at by the audience. What clearly comes through is that her strength, determination and “I don’t give a fuck” attitude has helped her get through these tough moments and rise to the heights of the industry.
Tucker does not shy away from showing Vivienne Westwood as a prickly subject reluctant to talk about parts of her life that the audience are most interested in like the punk movement and former partner Malcolm McLaren. Vivienne and her two sons Joseph Corre and Ben Westwood only talk briefly about this. We do get an insight into some of her early punk fashion and see the evolution of her aesthetic and brand through archival footage and interviews with colleagues and family. Highlights include the infamous swastika bondage shirt from the V&A archive, and her pirate collection from the 1980s. While maintaining a counter-culture edge her designs have evolved significantly and we don’t get a real sense of how this occurred. We also see the downside of Westwood’s success with her clearly losing some control of the business.
The interviews with and footage of her eccentric and charismatic husband Andreas Kronthaler give us a fleeting glimpse of the woman behind the legend, but only fleeting. We also see that he is very much her partner and co-designer and see them collaborating in the studio.
In spite of Vivienne’s protestations to the contrary a significant amount of time is devoted to her campaigning on climate change including stopping fracking and her part in a Greenpeace mission to the Arctic.
With a run time of just over 80 minutes Westwood doesn’t feel quite long enough to do the subject justice. It also feels a bit disjointed skipping back and forwards chronologically without a clear sense of structure and narrative. It hits on many aspects of her life and fashion without exploring any of it in enough depth to give us more than a superficial glimpse into her life. The film is at least partially saved by the fact Westwood is such a charismatic, arresting figure that there are some very entertaining moments that make this a watchable piece. In spite of its pedestrian, the youthful, irreverent, energetic attitude of this punk icon now in her 70s is contagious.