Vivienne Westwood is famous for her deconstructions. She was a godmother of England’s punk scene, running the shop where The Sex Pistols were formed. As a fashion designer, she became known for clothes that look torn, ripped, and repurposed into something beautiful. The film Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist tries to deconstruct the documentary form, eschewing chronology and providing meta commentary. These rebellions are minor, since the film is traditional to a fault, without much insight into its subject.
In the past few years, there have been documentaries about Vogue, Manolo Blahnik, Alexander McQueen, Bill Cunningham, and André Leon Talley. This is a crowded field, especially with so few documentaries becoming hits, so the struggle of any filmmaker entering it should be distinguishing themselves. Director Lorna Tucker seems to do exactly that, at least for the first few minutes. We see Westwood in a comfortable chair, flowers smartly arranged nearby, and she wonders the point of such a film in the first place. She worries no one will be interested. From there, Tucker careens from one major episode in her life to another. The major thorough line are her collaborations with Malcolm McLaren, who managed The Sex Pistols, and her husband Andreas Kronthaler.
Sometimes Punk, Icon, Activist is like the antithesis of Phantom Thread. Instead of a brooding male fashion designer whose clothes ooze classic elegance, you have a warm-hearted female fashion designer whose clothes are risky and modern. Moreover, Kronthaler is unambiguously a partner in Westwood’s work. One of the best scenes simply involve the pair regarding a model, making up details in her garment on the spot. Like the best films about professionals at the peak of their craft, this film is fascinating when it simply lets its subject do the work.
Such scenes, unfortunately, are only a fraction of the film’s running time. The rest are the usual collage of interviews, archival footage, and episodes of Westwood’s ordinary life. Some of these subplots are admittedly interesting, such as her transition from a fashion pariah to one of its most celebrated designers. The rest are just surfaces, without enough insight or context. The “activist” portion of the film’s subtitle happens late: on a trip to see the ice caps, Westwood realizes that she must get involved in the climate change movement. Scenes of her activism are perfunctory, and so maybe Tucker would serve the film better with some actual science or statistics about her efforts. Instead, she comes off as a a hobbyist.
The best biographical documentaries give a sense of someone’s personal life, or their legacy. Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist somehow accomplishes neither. Tucker includes some interesting vignettes, like when Kronthaler discusses his unending affection for her, or throws a tantrum at her expense. There is also some sense about Westwood’s admirable ethics: she is one of the few major designers to be wholly independent, even if that means she must work that much harder. Either way, Westwood neophytes will leave with more questions than answers, and her longtime fans may find themselves frustrated. It is daring to include footage where Westwood questions the documentary on an existential level. By the time the film is over, the audience should not feel the same way.