Film Review: Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

A great fashion designer who also happens to be one of the most fascinating personalities of our time is given her due in this incisive doc (although the subject herself hates it).
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With her trademark witty irreverence, imperial command of fashion history, piquant political statements, technical savvy about clothes construction and line, and innate, aristocratic British elegance, Vivienne Westwood has been one of the world’s foremost fashion designers for the last 30 years, forever assured of a place in the all-time pantheon of premier couturiers. This writer, a longtime fan and customer, can attest that her garments, while pricey, are absolutely worth it, for they inevitably elicit gasps of admiration, are eminently wearable and never go out of style.  She has also led a vividly interesting personal life, much of which is caught in Lorna Tucker‘s blazingly intelligent and quite fascinating documentary, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist.

Besides being a genius dressmaker, Westwood is a compellingly charismatic and smart personality, half schoolmarm, half agelessly hip icon. From the film’s very first shot of her, chic to die for in an asymmetrical black sheath she herself audibly admires, grousing about the burden of having to be filmed while recalling her long and exhausting past, she commands your attention, a true original with the febrile curiosity of a child, which all true artists possess. Born Vivienne Swire to a working-class family in Tintwistle, Cheshire, England, in 1941, she realized the improbability of a girl of her station becoming an artist, but there was truly no other route for her. She worked as a schoolteacher while selling jewelry she’d designed on Portobello Road, and met two important men in her life: Derek Westwood, a factory worker she married and had a son by, Benjamin, and the difficult genius media visionary Malcolm McLaren, who would become her design partner. McLaren broke up her marriage, and together they had a son, Joseph Corre (who, like his half-brother, works for the Westwood empire), while becoming two of the architects of the punk movement. It was McLaren who managed The Sex Pistols, who wore iconic duds designed by the couple. (Johnny Rotten receives a witheringly disdainful comment from the designer.)

Westwood’s punk garb launched her and led to more fruitful collaborations with McLaren, with critically acclaimed and commercially successful, fondly recalled themes (Pirates, Buffalo Gals, Witches, etc.) that defined the era of New Romantic, which immediately followed Punk. Sadly, McLaren’s egomania and jealousy eventually dissolved their partnership, painfully, and Westwood has been on her own ever since, going from strength to strength and even becoming Dame of the British Empire in 2006, quite an accomplishment for a woman long snubbed by the fashion establishment for her uncompromising individualism in every aspect of her life and career. (While posing for the press after being awarded an Order of the British Empire by the Queen in Buckingham Palace, it became apparent that she wasn’t wearing any underwear.)

This is truly one of the best, most incisive fashion films ever made, as more than any other it exposes the eternal conflict between artistic sensibility and commercial reality, with scenes of Westwood railing against her various harried assistants and business partners of her many international licensees about her unwillingness to be represented by inferior product, no matter what the financial cost. Her cantankerousness turns to downright fury when thwarted and, here, once more, you become aware of the soul-crunching difficulty underlying the glamour of the fashion business, no matter how high you’ve risen.

She shares life today with husband Andreas Konthraler, who originally came to her as a student and stayed on as her indispensable collaborator and lover, although one of her sons refers to him as the “gay uncle” in Westwood’s sometimes cartoonish-seeming family setup. There’s a lot of footage revealing his integral involvement in her company, and plenty of amusing scenes of fashionistas being snarky to satisfy all your lowest desires for some backstage bitchery.

Also covered is Westwood’s activism, which has included taking on Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing agenda and her involvement in the Green movement and anti-fracking. She really puts her money where her mouth is here, but, curmudgeonly to the end, she has denounced the film as insufficiently expressive of her activism, and—horrors!—not a proper presentation of her fashion. I do think Tucker rather dropped the ball in terms of capturing the designer’s evolution from the punk DIY school of the 1970s to the heights she’s scaled today, when stars such as Renée Fleming and Joyce DiDonato of the opera, Marion Cotillard and Sarah Jessica Parker demand that she dress them for the red carpet.

Click here for cast and crew information.