My older sister introduced me to Vivienne Westwood, who quickly became one of my designer heroes. By existing, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist gives me joy. Lorna Tucker’s documentary exposes, but in a nice way, the contradictions within her. These contradictions reflect similar ones within the society in which she lives. It’s strange to see museum curators handling her early work with gloves. Polite British society turned their nose at her during her punk days. Even some of her work is indefensible in this age.
The movie shares the curators’ astute observation of the themes and tones of Westwood’s collections. Her clothes were a joyful presence in the London fashion scene that preferred the dominance of Thatcher’s morose neutrals. She wasn’t just a punk, using old British references in collections like one with a pirate theme. It’s as if she’s showing that something becomes the part of an establishment because of age. At the same time, she shows that everything old is new, a new that we can enjoy.
The film does take some unfortunate turns, like making Westwood discuss things she would rather not talk about. Tucker seems to want to press the Sex Pistols thing on her. She also wants to focus on Westwood’s abusive relationship with Malcolm McLaren. The latter, by the way, tried to blacklist her from important financiers. A documentary filmmaker should yes, be weary of a subject trying to direct the movie. However, this time, I’m on Westwood’s side, a woman who deserves to define herself.
Westwood’s ascent into respectability was a difficult one. If anything, Tucker excellently uses archive footage to show those steps, giving insight into the woman during her younger years. There she shows the same intelligence as she does now. She won the British fashion Designer of the Year Award twice in a row. And she only won because everybody else won before her. The audience can feel her and Tucker’s frustration of how the establishment dragged their feet to recognize her. However, they finally did.
The doc finally focuses on another of Westwood’s worries – over expansion. It takes us to the few London stores that she started out with. It also shows us the ones opening up outside her country and out of her reach. Tucker exposes the inherent ridiculousness of these new stores, dressing up models in wacky outfits that don’t capture Westwood’s essence. Glass doors open to a world shinier than Westwood ever wanted. It’s not the best ending but Tucker shows how Westwood’s story isn’t over.