Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood proves a spiky and evasive presence in this entertaining docu-portrait.
The prospect of creating a feature-length tribute to a wild, larger-than-life personality is always enticing. Yet while filmmakers will never want for drama or salacious stories, there is always the threat that such a figure won’t be contained by a mere documentary. This is especially true if that famous face has opinions on how they should be portrayed as the hero of their own story.
In Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood offers both of these blessings and curses. The free-spirited stylist has plenty of stories from her early days working in the back of a record shop, to creating high and low fashion collections. Yet for all her brash attitude, she’s sometimes makes for a tricky subject, refusing questions and playing coy about certain aspects of her past. Her friends and family are better suited to fill in the blanks of her present, but as for her storied career? It leaves the viewers at the mercy of her obstinate secrecy.
Westwood’s story is a rags to riches tale set in a country not known for its upward mobility. She escaped poverty and an abusive marriage to pursue her creative interests, dressing notable bands like The Sex Pistols along the way to creating a fashion empire with several boutiques. Throughout her career Westwood has skirted controversy and ridicule, as one cringeworthy TV interview shows. In her early years, Westwood experimented with ripped-up sleeves held together by safety pins or ties, and she emblazoned her shirts with controversial words and graphics. Some of her later outfits mixed platform shoes with short skirts, misshapen blouses, funky hairdos and gaudy makeup for runway-ready couture looks.
It took years for Westwood to earn the admiration of the high society her early anti-establishment aesthetic lampooned. The documentary effectively frames that uphill battle through a talking heads-style collage of her annoyed testimony and the memories of her friends and admirers. Now in her later years, the designer is taking a step back and allowing her protégée turned husband, Andreas Kronthaler, exert more control in her company without losing its connection to her earlier work. When Westwood isn’t supervising the latest clothes from her company, she’s taken up activist causes for the environment.
The life of this visionary entrepreneur is far bigger than a single film, but director Lorna Tucker does a decent job of compacting Westwood’s iconoclastic legacy. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s much more to this fashion icon than meets the screen. And while the film successfully incorporates music and a handful of stylised interstitials for creative effect, these flourishes barely standout against the flame-haired punk.
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