What a breath of fresh air Vivienne Westwood is! Eccentric barely begins to describe the portrait of the great English designer and godmother of punk in Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, released today. What also becomes clear in the documentary is her single-minded, relentless pursuit of creativity – and various political causes. Westwood makes Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of a difficult fashion designer in the recent Phantom Thread look rather wussy, and his clothes exceptionally dull in comparison.
You have to hand it to Westwood director Lorna Tucker for pursuing her subject for three years against unlikely odds. In the first scene, Dame Vivienne sits, with blonde urchin-cut hair and a shredded black dress, in a velvet chair in London’s Groucho Club, bemoaning the entire project: “Let’s just talk and just get this over with. It’s so boring to cover all this.”
Having grudgingly co-operated, Westwood condemned the well-received documentary when it debuted this year at Sundance: “The film is mediocre, and Vivienne and Andreas are not.” Andreas refers to her domestic and design partner, Andreas Kronthaler, 25 years her junior. Westwood is now 76 years old and what annoyed her most about the film was its failure to give “not even five minutes” to her political activism. In fact, there are plenty of “Frack Off” T-shirt moments, and Westwood is filmed on a Greenpeace boat trip to the Arctic, wearing an orange XXL life jacket and a knitted hat with the word “CHAOS” on it.
For many, Westwood is more celebrated as the carrot-haired collaborator with Malcolm McLaren on the creation of the punk revolution and the band the Sex Pistols than for her designer dresses. But it’s the cornucopia of clothes in this film that confirms Westwood’s genius, again and again, from her invention of the “rubberware for the office” to the Mini-Crini, the famous Sex And The City wedding dress and the riffs on tartan, leather and bondage in the late 70s that spiralled out of her King’s Road boutique (variously called Let it Rock, Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, Sex, and Seditionaries, before its present title, Worlds End.)
On camera, Westwood refused to discuss her ex-partner McLaren and the Sex Pistols, other than to note that the band was made up of “our Saturday boy Glen [Matlock, the bassist] and some of our customers.” Johnny Rotten, she feels, is not ageing gracefully and punk itself was not as radical as portrayed: “We weren’t really attacking the system.” Instead, the tolerance of punk “just meant the English could claim how democratic they were".
There is much joy in watching Westwood not give a flying fuck about the establishment or the fashion world
The McLaren story and its business ramifications overshadowed Westwood for a decade and I kept thinking as I watched that, had she been a male designer, she would have been taken much more seriously earlier on. One agonising scene shows her costumes being paraded on a BBC chat show with Sue Lawley and the audience hooting with laughter. More footage reveals the compere’s horror at the British Fashion Awards when he opens the envelope with Westwood’s name. Princess Michael of Kent presents the award with icy disdain. But the Queen herself seemed not to mind, awarding Westwood an OBE in 1992 (when the designer wore no knickers) and making her a Dame in 2006 (when she wore no knickers and some silver horns.)
Now, of course, Westwood is the subject of museum displays. One of the funnier scenes, played to tasteful classical music, shows a white-gloved curator at the V&A museum carefully opening up an exhibit: Westwood’s early DESTROY-sloganed T-shirt, which featured an inverted cross and a swastika.
There is much joy in watching Westwood not give a flying fuck about the establishment or the fashion world. Her radical attitude exploded during her three-year first marriage to Derek Westwood, father of her son Ben. “We were living the American Dream, [I was] the housewife. I just realised... what a load of old bollocks that is. I had to explore, I wasn’t fulfilling my potential.” She had a second son, Joe, with McLaren, and mostly raised him as a single mum.
Yet Westwood never stopped designing, even when the business was close to bankruptcy. Unlike many designers, she allowed for a woman’s curves and boobs, and cut to the body, not to a two-dimensional, size-0 mannequin. Plus, bedhead hair was often a must. Now, she designs away and leaves the company director to manage her shops worldwide – even an outlet in Bicester Village, as far from anarchy as could be.
There is a moment when we see a young Westwood with a David Bowie-style Aladdin Sane red hairdo and she is, in many ways, the musician’s female equivalent. She constantly reinvented herself, her shops, collections and influence percolating the entire culture. And I speak as someone who arrived at a kids’ disco in a Glasgow church hall in the late 70s, wearing ripped tartan and holey tights held together with safety pins, without even knowing Westwood’s name.