Westwood Punk, Icon, Activist: Documentary Paints Predictable If Persuasive Portrait

By Kim Hughes

Rating: B

The new documentary on Vivienne Westwood doesn’t much challenge long-held perceptions about the iconoclastic British fashion designer who was visionary enough to buoy the brilliant Malcolm McLaren yet street enough to fraternize with the Sex Pistols. Rather, it enshrines them, ensuring Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is catnip for the converted but less revelatory than might be hoped for.

 Try this on for size...

Try this on for size...

From Westwood’s first on-camera snarl, where she decries having to engage in something as boring as talking about herself, through to her public dressing-downs of assistants and multiple activist marches (in heels no less), Westwood makes it clear that years of mixing with fey high-fashion types hasn’t softened her post-war, working-class edge. 

Indeed, the prevailing narrative thrust of the film is Westwood’s stubborn (even subversive) refusal to fit into convenient slots as a designer, businesswoman, mother, wife or any other label society cares to confer.

And while true, it’s a point quickly exhausted, not to mention tough to swallow given Westwood’s global fashion empire created after cementing her status as the godmother of punk rock but before morphing into a key plot point in Sex and the City.

Still, there are some less-structured glimpses of Westwood in director Lorna Tucker’s breezy film, which winningly showcases Westwood’s sometimes gorgeous, sometimes head-scratching designs from across the decades. 

Comments from her two sons hint at a mother who wasn’t exactly greeting her kids at the door with trays of cookies, and her marriage to a much-younger (though equally volatile) former fashion student suggests a woman who, for all her surface bluster, is gripped by the same insecurities as the great unwashed who don’t hobnob with Kate Moss or lay claim to the Order of the British Empire.

Westwood Punk, Icon, Activist. Directed by Lorna Tucker. Opens June 29 at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and TIFF Bell Lightbox and in Vancouver at Vancity.