Back in 1971, Malcolm McLaren's partner Vivienne began designing ripped shirts adorned with swastikas and provocative words to poke the establishment in the eye. John Lydon was an early customer. Tour video and music promo director Lorna Tucker makes her feature documentary debut charting the rise of one of couture's brightest originals in "Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist."
Here is a case of a fascinating subject paired with a filmmaker who doesn't have a firm grasp on what she is trying to impart. The film contains many fascinating moments, but once the artist's (much younger) husband is introduced, the documentary loses its flow, the film oddly structured. We come away from "Westwood" with only a partial portrait of its subject.
Opening with a sit down interview, Westwood proves an amusingly irritable subject. Clearly sick to death about talking about her famous association with the Sex Pistols, she moans about having to talk about her early years. Isn't there old footage of all that? she asks, hoping for an out before recalling that, no, there really isn't, at least involving her. Tucker skirts the issue, cutting to a shot of a punk rolling her eyes.
The director then plunges us into Westwood at work, perusing her new collection. 'I don't like this at all!' she says of one piece, pardoning herself by declaring she doesn't remember making it. We learn about her Creative Director, husband Andreas Kronthaler, a former Austrian student of Vivienne's who codesigns with her. He's on her wavelength, clearly devoted to her, yet we never see them at home, a sequence of Vivienne getting up to start her day depicting a woman who sleeps alone. (Her son with McLaren, Joe Corré, expresses his initial distrust of the man who 'looks kind of gay,' before confirming their partnership as the real deal.)
After the lengthy sequence on the Westwood/Kronthaler partnership, Tucker whips back to early days, Vivienne telling us she always had a spatial sense for fit and made her own clothes from the age of 11. It is surprising to hear her talk of her first marriage at 21 to Derek Westwood, buying into the typical housewife routine (and having a son, Ben), then eventually feeling stifled, moving to New York and briefly managing the New York Dolls. We see iterations of McLaren's King's Road shop, SEX perhaps the most well known, Vivienne viewing bondage gear as 'rubberware for the office.' She outgrew McLaren, but he didn't let her go quietly, sabotaging her first million dollar contract with Armani long after she'd 'forgotten' him. On the brink of success, Vivienne found herself struggling again, sewing clothes for The World's End shop.
She was laughed at presenting her clothes on the BBC, the camera never revealing that the talk show audience was comprised of 70 and 80 year-olds. It took her twenty years in the business to finally win Designer of the Year, which she then won again the following year. Reading an article in The Guardian about climate change terrified her and she began protesting for change, her activism reflecting in her fashion, just as her rebellious anti-establishment politics affected her punk styles.
But the film really only comes alive sporadically. There is a fascinating sequence with a curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, looking like a prim librarian wearing cloth gloves, reverently showing us a piece of their archive, an original muslin Westwood Destroy shirt bearing the lyrics of 'Anarchy in the U.K.' She later shows an outfit from Westwood's Pirates collection, reflecting the designer's incorporation of historical fashion. The contrast between interviewee and the fashion at hand is as hilarious as it is enlightening. The film goes out on a high note, a montage of Westwood's fashion shows including her notoriously offbeat walks down the runway, all set to Ravel's 'Bolero.'
Robin also gives "Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist" a C+.
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