Review: Westwood Provides a Compelling Portrait of the Godmother of Punk

Westwood

Showcasing her career from punk provocateur to a mainstay of English culture, Westwood is a love letter to one of fashion’s most iconic personalities

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist details the creative passions of Vivienne Westwood, the English designer who helped catapult London’s punk aesthetic into the mainstream. While Westwood started as an agent provocateur, she has since become part of the English mainstream with her Anglophilic designs and contributions to pop culture (most notably helping to form the Sex Pistols with then partner Malcolm McLaren).

It feels inaccurate to call Westwood a documentary. With a focus on Westwood herself and her trajectory as an artist, it would be more apt to describe the film as a portrait of an iconoclast. The movie eschews dates and specific timelines, and rather focuses on vague periods in Westwood’s career. There is, of course, the “punk” phase that she is most famous for, but for those hoping for an in-depth look at the 70’s London scene, you will be disappointed. More than anything, the film details the creation of a fashion empire.

Directed by first-time documentarian (and former model) Lorna Tucker, the documentary is primarily driven by personal interviews with Westwood, as well as interviews with her husband and creative partner, Andreas Kronthaler; children, Joseph Corré and Ben Westwood; CEO of her company, Carlo D’Amario; and a smattering of other collaborators. The filmmakers take an extremely hands-off attitude to presentation and don’t vocalize their own thoughts or opinions. Since Westwood’s interviews are what drive the documentary forward, the film is dictated by the topics she decides to speak on. While the Sex Pistols is definitely her most (in)famous venture, she specifically states she doesn’t want to talk about them. The documentarians do touch on the band, but it is extremely short. There is discussion around the 70’s punk scene, but almost exclusively in relation to the various incarnations of stores Westwood ran at the time (most famously as SEX and World’s End) and the fashions they sold.

The bulk of the film is devoted to how Westwood runs her empire, interspersed with flashbacks to the trials and triumphs of her past. There is little to the personal side of Westwood, she barely mentions her childhood save to say she made her own clothes from an early age. What is mentioned about her youth shows her driving forces – specifically her need to question authority. While her children are interview subjects, they don’t speak about what Westwood was like as a mother: we learn more about Malcom McLaren’s behavior at home than Westwood’s. The closest we get to the personal side of Westwood is with the interviews with her husband, Andreas. Even then, since Andreas is Westwood’s creative partner, we are shown more her artistic than personal side. The largest non-artistic side of Westwood we see is her passion towards environmental activism; however, this feels more like a side note than a serious examination of her involvement in environmentalism.

That said, Westwood the artist is a fascinating personality to watch, with vivacity and passion for her work and projects that is invigorating. We see an immaculate artist, singular but collaborative. Shots of fashion shows and modeling sessions are featured frequently, and the clothes are gorgeous. The interviews with a Victoria & Albert Museum curator discussing the importance of specific pieces is a highlight of the broader impact Westwood’s collections have made on fashion. Not only is the clothing beautiful, but many of the runway shows are jovial, showing off more than the stoic faces of models walking down a runway. Overall, Tucker does an excellent job maneuvering between past and present,  switching up interview subjects as needed to keep the doc balanced.

One thing missing, however, are some conflicting viewpoints, especially for a documentary focusing on such a controversial figure. Most of Westwood’s detractors are portrayed as figures of the past: her tumultuous relationship with McLaren, being laughed at by an older crowd on a talk show, being snubbed by the British fashion industry, etc. The doc shows her overcoming each obstacle with aplomb, and the interview subjects are almost universally positive in their appraisal of Westwood. It barely touches on the inherent contradictions of Westwood: critiques of capitalism while selling obscenely expensive clothes, environmentalism while working in an industry that is driven by continuous consumption, and her transition from pushing an anti-monarchial lifestyle to becoming a Dame. Westwood does touch on how punk has started to destroy “the system” but ended up becoming part of it, but doesn’t go much further. It doesn’t appear this is the point of Westwood, but it does seem like a missed opportunity.

Overall, Westwood is a fascinating portrayal of a consummate artist, working to provide a gestalt overview of her work rather than a detailed timeline. It comes highly recommended for Westwood devotees, fashion fanatics, or anyone interested in the day-to-day life of an artist.

Westwood opens at the Music Box in Chicago on Friday July 13th.

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About Theo Estes

Theo Estes is a Chicago based film critic who makes periodic appearances on the Alcohollywood podcast. He is also one half of the creative team behind the now defunct YouTube series Twin Cinema.

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