Westwood: Punk Icon Activist

Vivienne Westwood is a brilliant fashion designer but a reluctant interviewee. At least, in this film –  and with this director – she is.

She spends most of it looking away from the camera and trying not to answer the film maker’s questions. “Punk? G’ah, you don’t want me to talk about that, it’s so booooring. Can’t you just use a bit of archive?”

Respect, of sorts, is due, then, to director Lorna Tucker who set about attempting a filmed portrait of Dame Vivienne, a subject who has rarely sat still in her 50 years of creativity and wasn’t about to be tied down by documentary portrait she didn’t seem to agree to sit for. 

Interestingly, Westwood agreed to the project thinking it would focus on her current activism for a greener planet. And while that does feature in the latter stages of the film – and in the film’s title – it is hardly the main thrust of the piece.

One suspects Tucker could never have entirely pleased her subject. What we see of Westwood in action offers a fascinating glimpse of an artist at work, although she’s also one running a huge international fashion label and is often reduced to shouting at some hapless assistant about hems being too small.

There is much about her unusual working and personal relationship with an Austrian designer half her age, Andreas Kronthaler, to whom she seems to have, totally willingly, ceded a lot of creativity and power. He does have some inspirational ideas and often gets the best out of his wife – they married in 1992 (Vivienne’s second, after marring Derek Westwood at the age of 21). I couldn’t be certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Andreas was actually an inspiration himself: for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno.

Tucker does get Westwood to trawl back over her time with Malcolm McLaren on the Kings Road. “We invented punk,” she says, flatly, in her still blunt northern accent. “But really, if I’ve got to talk about the Sex Pistols…”

Although the film doesn’t quite say it, punk was a form of activism for Westwood, a way of confronting the system. Important as that movement was to many, it’s in her subsequent iconoclastic approach to fashion that I think she’s had the more subtle effects. Her clothes are, simply, extraordinary and even 30 years later, many pieces remain witty, daring and cool.

There’s a great clip of her on Wogan, the TV chat show which was often presented by Sue Lawley, and Vivienne’s getting a bit upset because the prime time BBC studio audience is laughing at her latest fashion collection. Lawley appears a bit nervous about it but keeps goading in her head girl sort of a way. Just when you think Westwood might storm off, she realises that, actually. having her clothes laughed at is probably the biggest compliment she could ever get from BBC 1.

I liked the way the film uses the V&A museum archivists who, in white gloves like snooker referees, are shown carefully unwrapping some key Westwood items from their collection, scenes that show Westwood taking her rightful place in British history and art.

Talking heads include Bella Freud, Pamela Anderson (“she’s on the planet to stir things up a bit,” says the former Baywatch babe and fellow activist) and Kate Moss, who reveals the heterosexual Vivienne admitted she rather fancied her once. Didn’t we all, though?

Try as it may, this film can’t match the vivacity and intellect of its subject and a definitive portrait remains frustratingly out of reach. I suspect that’s because Westwood doesn’t want to be defined, at least not by a film that doesn’t push boundaries anywhere near the way in which she herself has pushed them, challenged them and reset them for two generations.

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