The first of two fashion films for this year’s Design Film Festival, Vivienne Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is not a compelling exploration of the designer’s three colourful personae
Reluctance is no indication of reticence. In the 2018 documentary Vivienne Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, the designer may appear unwilling to open up—“just let me talk, just get it over with,” she told director Lorna Tucker—but she does eventual speak out, the urgency in her voice, although somewhat measured, carries through the film with the same creative consistency of her designs. This is “a woman with a mission”, as she identifies herself, but the documentary does not necessarily state it so expressively.
When it appeared on the big screen last year, VW was announced by the media as a film “Vivienne Westwood doesn’t want you to see”. In a no-nonsense post on the brand’s Twitter account, it was stated that “Lorna Tucker asked to film Vivienne’s activism and followed her around for a couple of years (the film took three to make), but there’s not even 5 minutes of activism in the film”. We didn’t bring a stopwatch into the cinema with us, but the work Ms Westwood has done outside the scope of fashion was captured only in short snatches and provided little that showed her true passion in those causes—environmental was touched on, but political, nary a squeak—that she believes in.
You see, activism does not a compelling movie make. Who wants to see a by-now aged (78), although still-feisty, woman—and a Dame no less, call attention to a controversial issue such as the environmentally problematic practice of fracking (it is doubtful that many in the audience in the Capitol theatre yesterday afternoon knows what that is). Rather, hearing her get all annoyed about a small seam that she claimed she did not ask for and disliked intensely makes for watchable anecdote, one that the audience found so funny that not a small number laughed out, from-the-belly loud.
It is, of course, likely that the curious come to watch a documentary about a fashion designer to witness foibles and flare-ups and the fussing over what to many are probably of no consequence, such as the width of a hem. To pander to the audience seeking clichés to confirm and to remind us that the subject is, foremost, a fashion designer with exacting standards, Ms Tucker resorted to those “inside” takes that offer a wink-wink affirmation that the Dame is no different from those who approach their craft with hawk-eye obsession and near-couture habits.
Throw in found footage of past fashion shows (including recognisable models) and a couple of interviews with members of the family and authoritative voices such as Victoria & Albert Museum’s fashion curator, Claire Wilcox, as well as the ’80s TV appearance with host Sue Lawley, who prodded the audience to laugh at Ms Westwood’s tricky-to-grasp clothes (“You design not because they’re witty but because you believe they’re attractive and that they make people more attractive?”) and you have a heady brew of a designer’s dismay and the derision levelled at her.
Ms Tucker seems quite unconcerned about the punk, the icon, nor the activist of her subject, with the three probably coming together at post-production. The spotlight is on Ms Westwood as designer of (outrageous) clothes. To make it an absorbing fashion story, she was sure to throw in the juicy bits already noted in even the scrappiest biography of Ms Westwood: her heels are designed to be so towering that even Naomi Campbell fell walking in them, the hands on the clock fronting her shop Worlds End ticks backwards, and that she went to collect the OBE awarded to her by Queen Elizabeth without wearing panties.
Lorna Tucker reportedly knew Vivienne Westwood for five years and spent three making the documentary. Despite all that time, the film was unable to show us what Vivienne Westwood is like as a punk, which, in the guise of a musical movement, shocking attitude, and a social anomaly, Ms Westwood did not originate nor spearhead, as suggested (she and her then-partner Malcom McClaren were active members of the sub-culture, especially through the clothes they sold in the shop Sex). Or, what makes her an icon (Ms Wilcox was filmed showing a piece from ‘Pirate’, but no further elaboration on how this first collection would influence the punk off-shoot, the New Romantics, and that it identified with ’80s artistes such as Duran Duran and Adam Ant). Or, where her activism took her, if it made light of serious issues, or how it influenced her designs (apart from the slogan tees, which, admittedly, were sometimes messy and hackneyed).
Something got in the way of our watching the film. It dawned on us that Ms Tucker, the filmmaker, is a millennial (she’s thirtysomething), who, although was once a model, is not necessarily equipped with the knowledge or depth to go beyond the obvious and the titillating. VW reflects the ethos of Ms Tucker’s generation: the influencer culture and approach to fashion that prefers surface and ‘looks’ than complexity and meaning. Bickering, to her, is artistic temperament that stokes creativity and losing one’s total calm in the presence of international buyers is having a grip on one’s business. All designers, too, are creatures of the heart and considerable reel time is given to failed affairs and inexplicable marriages. There is no attempt at penetrating the layers that make Ms Westwood, just getting under her skin.
One thing has to be said of Vivienne Westwood: few designers (excluding John Galliano) dress as though they are in the business of fashion and the selling of dreams. Or, believe in what they design and peddle. In all her appearances—specifically shot or on video clips, Ms Westwood, even in activism mode, does not dress down, appearing to enjoy the clothes she wears as much as designing then. It’s certainly not the same with the current crop of taste-makers: not Virginie Viard, not Maria Grazia Chiuri.