Helen Tope reviews Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist – now showing in the PAC cinema for a limited run of just four screenings.
A couturier with a punk sensibility, Vivienne Westwood’s vision is sumptuous and provocative. The head of a global brand worth an estimated $185 million, Vivienne Westwood has crafted an image as identifiable as Gucci or Chanel.
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, initially undertaken with the family’s blessing, is a documentary that explores Westwood’s time in fashion, alongside her interest in environmental activism. The film, directed by Lorna Tucker, looks at how Westwood manages to balance these elements.
Told in one-to-one interviews, Westwood makes for a (predictably) difficult subject. Prickly and restless, Westwood declines to go into detail on her punk past, and her life with Malcolm McLaren. The film-makers have no option but to use archive footage, and interviews with her sons Ben and Joseph. Their first-hand accounts of life with McLaren make for uncomfortable viewing.
What becomes clear is Westwood’s ability to recognise when something isn’t working. Distancing herself from McLaren, Westwood’s creativity soared. Her first designs, cheap logo t-shirts now handled with white gloves in the V&A, evolved into a fashion point of view that is completely individual.
Influenced by history; baroque, medieval and older, Westwood took a myriad of references – the pirate, the 18th century Parisian belle – and mashed them together, creating a new fashion language. Enhanced by beautifully-cut fabrics, Westwood’s brand grew from back streets to glossy shop fronts.
We meet her now, her position in the fashion world firmly established. Made a Dame in 2006, Vivienne should be slowing down, but her brand is growing at an exponential rate. Artistic control is threatening to slip from her fingers, and the Westwood name risks being associated with inferior products and shoddy design.
This thought terrifies Vivienne, as she is still – literally and figuratively – the name above the door. The decision she faces, alongside husband and creative director Andreas Kronthaler, is whether to downsize or close altogether. Westwood is presented as a woman with too much to do, and aged 77, aware that time is running out.
The tensions in their workroom before a show, run to fever pitch. The whole collection is shit, declares Westwood. She berates herself for having let her standards slip so badly. The camera does not pause for comment, but instead lingers on a rail of beautiful clothes, enriched with swathes of colour and pattern.
Westwood is her own worst critic. Exhausted and slumped in a velvet chair, Westwood’s reluctance to be interviewed pulls into focus. Westwood’s pursuit of perfection not only keeps the brand afloat, it threatens to blow it apart. The documentary at this point finds its groove, taking us to the heart of the Westwood operation, and what Tucker finds is remarkable.
The tone of the documentary is one of candour. Not afraid to show Vivienne and Andreas at their worst; we see them bickering with staff and each other. Many fashion documentaries claim to be fly-on-the-wall – The First Monday in May, The September Issue – but here you really get a feel for what it must be like working in the fashion industry.
Almost bowed under by responsibility, Westwood during the film takes the decision to hold her company back from further expansion. In a fashion landscape where many brands now shelter under the protection of huge conglomerates, Westwood dares to remain independent. Avoiding the buy-out, Vivienne is still the head of the house, and her determination to keep a firm hand on quality control has to be lauded.
There are hints in the film that Westwood is looking towards retirement, but the question for her is the same as with any empire – who will inherit? Vivienne is fortunate to be surrounded by people looking out for her best interests. Sons Ben and Joseph clearly love and respect her, and her husband Andreas is not only a creative tour de force, he understands his role in looking after Vivienne, day-to-day. You get the impression that whatever decision she makes, she can make it, unhurried and unpressed.
The documentary is especially good at tracking how Westwood makes ‘Westwood’. Working side by side with Andreas, Vivienne fits clothes on a live model. She moulds the fabric to the body, rather than getting the model to squeeze into a pre-made sample size. The undulation of the fabric, especially in the evening gowns, is filmed in extreme close-up and the unforgiving scrutiny of the lens finds nothing to fault. Like a couture house, attention is paid to every inch of the garment. Vivienne’s attention to quality is immense, not because she enjoys the control, but because she understands how great clothes can be when every element is right. Vivienne’s understanding of the body- what looks good, what looks even better – is unparalleled. To offer couturier-level detail at ready-to-wear prices is no mean achievement.
Archive footage pulled from the 1980’s – Westwood’s break-though point – is painful to watch. Invited onto a chat-show with examples from her latest collection, Westwood is mocked by both the host and the audience. As a nation, our fashion literacy has improved in recent years, but here Westwood is a joke – there is no attempt made to understand the clothes, and no desire to learn either. It is this lack of imagination that meant London didn’t become a fashion capital until New York, Paris and Milan were long-established. We understand better now that ideas can be just that – ideas. Where we have also woken up is to the financial power of the brand. Vivienne’s boldness and eccentricity translates easily and readily to a global customer base.
While Westwood’s brand development threatens to spin out of control, the documentary also shows us a women with divided loyalties. Vivienne herself acknowledges that as a designer she creates stuff – plastic sunglasses, leather handbags – to be bought and consumed, and at the same time, she wants to stop the planet’s deterioration. We are asked to consider how far Westwood can protest, when she is materially adding to the problem. The documentary does not present Vivienne as a hypocrite, but merely a woman caught between contradictory states.
Since its release, the documentary has been subject to controversy. Speaking for the family, Vivienne’s son Ben has voiced concerns about the film. They were expecting the film to concentrate on Westwood’s activism, whereas the end result is a more in-depth look at the woman behind the brand. It is in the footage of the workroom where the documentary really comes to life. While Westwood as activist is interesting, the camera demands more. In choosing to develop the fashion side of the footage, Lorna Tucker has undoubtedly made the right decision.
Tucker approaches her subject with absolute clarity. There is no sugar-coating the creative process. Making beautiful clothes is the result of long hours and frayed tempers. But in making ‘Vivienne Westwood’ a team effort, Vivienne has ensured the brand’s longevity while other names have gone to the wall.
What Westwood offers is a line back through our heritage retold in a modern way. Vivienne’s clothes are at once familiar and confrontational. Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is a fashion film that takes us beyond the creative process to what lies beneath. Fear and contradiction underpin the Westwood brand, and it is the label’s ability to harness this energy that makes it so unique. Britishness, in all its guts and glory, is never more vivid than in Westwood’s work. The honesty of this film makes it an entirely appropriate fit for a woman who has never shied away from the truth. This film has succeeded in getting under Vivienne Westwood’s skin, but in what it shows, it reveals perhaps more than even Westwood herself is willing to admit.