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Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

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Brisk, if uncritical portrait of a rebellious fashion icon.

Image of Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

Lorna Tucker/ UK/ 2018/ 83 mins

Available on DVD Mon Jun 18 2018

There are a few people that have transcended the hermetic, arcane world of fashion design to strut down the catwalk of mainstream renown, but few can be as inextricably linked to a particular time and moment as Dame Vivienne Westwood.  Punk was a brief, colourful blot on the grey, drab landscape of 70’s Britain, and its style was as riotous and crass as the music.  Westwood and collaborator Malcolm McLaren became synonymous with it.  Lorna Tucker’s celebratory documentary charts Westwood’s journey from outsider provocateur to establishment royalty.

Westwood, as you would expect, is a spiky, sometimes recalcitrant subject.  She prefers to gloss over various aspects of her life, especially her time with McLaren and the punk movement, as “it’s so boring to say all of this.”  As such, many of the threads of her life are picked up by family and collaborators, and our picture of her is expanded by how she has been an explosive charge in each of their lives.  Chief among these is her business partner and second husband Andreas Kronthaler, sons Joseph Corré and Ben Westwood, and fellow designer Bella Freud.

Westwood is a largely uncritical depiction of its subject, but her own mercurial nature stops it approaching a hagiography.  She’s depicted as being fabulously offhand with some of her employees while being admirably and energetically hands-on with her product.  Interestingly, much of her frustration stems from her brand expanding too quickly, beyond limits she can comfortably control, and which would threaten to rip the true independence of her work from her grasp.

Westwood herself seems to personify the delicate balance between art and commerce.  Those who would claim that she was in anyway a sellout would do well to remember punk was always a product, and the sheer slog involved in her achieving anything like acceptance in the snooty world of fashion.  An old clip from Wogan in which a parade of her designs garners shrieks of laughter rather than murmurs of appreciation from its conservative audience is curiously heartbreaking.  Tellingly though, there’s a hint of triumph in her eye, as the reception merely confirms that she’s still doing something right.

The success of any doc can be measured in how invested neophytes to a subject become, and Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist achieves this.  The fashion industry seems frequently ridiculous and strange to the outsider, but the documentary is brisk and engaging; if a cursory glance at the fascinating life of a fascinating person.  It will likely do very well when it appears on streaming services.