Along with the documentary Advanced Style about women of a certain age with enviable, age-resistant personal style, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist joins the ranks of films about badass oldies, in this case 77-year-old punk rock British designer Vivienne Westwood, the woman who famously dressed the Sex Pistols, collaborated with Situationist provocateur Malcom McLaren on turning upper-crust fetish gear into fashion statement, and perched supermodel Naomi Campbell in high heels so vertiginous, she took a runway tumble into infamy.
With her sassy ever-changing hair: from platinum to carrot to grenadine, and a fashion sense equal parts bondage gear, formalist Japanese design and high-granny, Westwood, as her Italian CEO Carlo D’Amario notes, has now achieved icon status “like Lady Di, like Big Ben, like ‘Mind the Gap.’” Rising from a working class wife with few prospects to a cultural force of nature, Westwood played a definitive role in channeling the punk rock movement of the ’70s into a fashion megabrand with stores around the world and an identity inextricably linked to its owner.
The film opens with Westwood dressed in asymmetrical black in a luxurious teal room—punk meets posh—laying out the terms of the film—a hostile takeover documentary with an especially recalcitrant central player. “So boring” she snips in punk rock fashion at the idea of laying bare her life for fashion model-turned-director Lorna Tucker. Westwood may be intriguing for fashion types, punk-rockers and fans of septuagenarian women with potty mouths and trophy husbands, but it may be a harder sell for cinephiles who like their docs with a little more revelation. Because despite her badassery (she famously didn’t wear panties when she collected her Order of the British Empire from the queen), Westwood at times can appear more toothless and frustrated in this doc than fierce and off-leash. Candor or handing over the reins is not exactly Westwood’s forte, so viewers will have to settle for a surface glimpse into some of the vagaries and neuroses of the fashion world and not expect much more.
Tucker‘s documentary is at its most revealing when offering a peek into the true wages of creativity, a state of existence equal parts anxiety, frustration, doubt and, from all appearances, about 10% satisfaction. Mistress of her own destiny, the rare independent fashion designer who owns her own company, Westwood appears to toil under the yoke of that responsibility more than enjoy the ride. Fleeting moments of pure joy occasion a montage of Westwood’s final bow at the end of her fashion shows, where she struts, cartwheels and rides a hulking man; those antics alone may be worth the price of admission.
But the most painful interlude in the film may be the one where the designer appears on a cloyingly middlebrow British talk show and her designs are almost laughed off the stage by the vicious, geriatric audience. Westwood, despite keeping her cool, looks genuinely stricken and hurt. Though we tend to measure success in things like longevity and bank, such moments are a reminder of how painful the climb can be. Westwood hints that public scorn and self-doubt impact one’s creative life as much as triumphs.
There are revelations of sorts. Not surprisingly, punk was a lad’s game and McLaren the ultimate Peter Pan prick who even after their divorce, sabotaged Westwood’s fashion career. Even his own son disses Dad. But Westwood was utterly resilient, a scrappy dame who in her words “got intellectually bored with Malcolm” and with punk too. No romanticizing here. “We weren’t attacking the establishment,” she opines of punk, “we were just part of the distraction.”
There are several funny moments in Westwood that unintentionally lampoon this rarefied world, including the Victoria and Albert Museum curator who delicately handles and describes a swastika-embellished “Destroy” Westwood T-shirt as if it were the Shroud of Turin. Westwood’s co-designer and boy-toy husband of 26 years Andreas Kronthaler is her version of Elizabeth Taylor’s mulleted Larry Fortensky. A photo shoot where the two pose in matching outfits, Kronthaler preening like Zoolander, is close to farce.
In terms of superficial thrills, the sight of Westwood kitted out in her avant-garde woolens and statement specs mounting a bike to wind her way through London or marching at an anti-fracking rally may be pleasure enough. Would that we could all be so fierce in our twilight years.
“Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist” opens July 6 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.