Remember Phantom Thread? A fictional story about a prickly, supposedly genius designer in the world of 1950s haute couture, the movie committed a crime against fashion by presenting a line of clothing that was gimmicky, but not interesting.
If you want interesting, take a peek at the life and career of real-life fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Truth is way more intriguing than fiction in the frisky documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, directed by former model-turned-filmmaker Lorna Tucker. The movie not only celebrates Westwood’s revolutionary clothes, but her rebel spirit as well—along with her fascinating career. While she started out making confrontational stage clothes for the Sex Pistols, Westwood nurtured her craft and her fashion identity over the next four-plus decades, going on to win Britain’s prestigious Designer of the Year award for two years in a row.
Westwood may not have invented punk (as one interviewee claims), but she certainly dressed it. A working-class English girl who couldn’t afford to go to art school, she ditched an early marriage that was too confining, and, with two young sons to support, starting selling handmade clothing out of the back of a record shop on King’s Road in London. Her partner (business and otherwise) in this venture was provocateur Malcolm McLaren, who would go on to manage the New York Dolls and the Sex Pistols.
They believed in outrageous clothing and behavior, “confronting society” to initiate social change. (In one ironic clip, we see a Westwood stage outfit from this era, a torn and grimy T-shirt with a graphic political message, handled with great delicacy by a curator in white gloves from the Victoria and Albert Museum.) As Westwood says, “Everything I design has to have a story.”
When Westwood saw her impudent designs and spiky haircuts being copied on the runways in Milan and New York, she realized that punk was over as a cultural moment. No longer a means of “attacking the establishment,” Westwood says punk became “part of the distraction.” When she became “intellectually bored” with McLaren, but still full of her own ideas, Westwood decided that if anyone was going to succeed with her distinctive clothing style it was going to be herself, and entered the fashion business on her own terms.
Her relationship with current husband and partner Andreas Kronthaler, a former student from Austria, takes a lot of screen time. But it’s interesting how closely they work on designs together, and to see how meticulously Westwood oversees every aspect of the brand that bears her name.
Westwood’s many faces (and outrageous hairstyles) as a designer give the movie an extra kick as it prowls back and forth in time throughout her long career. An Italian adventure, when she was to be sponsored by Armani, was scuppered by McLaren insisting their partnership from King’s Road was still valid and binding. Guesting on a BBC chat show, Westwood keeps her cool while the host invites the audience to laugh at her clothes.
But Westwood has the last laugh, becoming one of the most respected names in fashion, while staying true to her rowdy, anti-establishment roots. Her runway shows are a lot more fun than the usual haughty march-of-the-zombies approach. Her giggling models nudge each other down the runway. When supermodel Naomi Campbell falls off her blue sequined platform high heels, she cracks up, and everybody else joins in.
When Dame Vivienne joins a Greenpeace mission to the Arctic to watch polar ice caps literally melting before her eyes, she cries “Kill the machine!” (of corporate greed), and advocates for a Green economy. Meanwhile, her smart mix of fabrics, textures and patterns, and her androgynous line to be worn by any and all genders, are right on point with the times. Westwood is proof that fashion and political audacity have no age limit.
WESTWOOD: PUNK, ICON, ACTIVIST
*** (out of four)
With Vivienne Westwood. A documentary by Lorna Tucker. A Greenwich Entertainment release. Not rated. 83 minutes.