Often makes Westwood’s life and work seem more ordinary than edgy.
What happens when a rebel is embraced by the establishment? Irreverent fashion designer Vivienne Westwood emerged from the shock tactics of ‘70s punk but by 1992 was awarded an OBE from the very queen at whom British youth sneered. Director Lorna Tucker’s profile of the designer is intermittently inspired by its subject’s world-weary attitude, but, hewing close to a familiar fashion doc template, it often makes Westwood’s life and work seem more ordinary than edgy.
Westwood herself is onto this dilemma. Holding her head in her hand, she tells her interlocutor early in the film about her reluctance to participate: “It’s all so boring!” This is where the movie best captures the designer’s style and personality, elegant but skeptical of documentary convention.
But you can’t exactly build a movie around such skepticism. So Tucker uses interviews with friends and family as well as candid photos and vintage film footage to trace Westwood’s life, from childhood to an unsatisfying marriage to a tumultuous relationship with Malcolm McLaren that led up to the punk era that defined her. Westwood’s designs became infamous when they were worn by the band that McLaren managed: the Sex Pistols. Unfortunately, Westwood is reluctant to talk about the band, which cuts short the film’s most intriguing subplot.
The cursory treatment of that volatile, colorful era makes way for something even more routine. Much of the film observes Westwood and her current husband and former fashion student Andreas Kronthaler at work on their line, from supervising seamstresses to preparing for fashion shows. As anyone who’s seen Phantom Thread – or “Project Runway” – might expect, tempers erupt, with Kronthaler’s outbursts more vivid than Westwood’s. The behind-the-scenes material is of some interest to fans and fashionistas, but they don’t provide much insight into Westwood or the creative process.
There’s also the matter of tone. The film’s swooning score is antithetical to the work of an iconoclast, though as her empire expands and she’s named designer of the year two years in a row (after a 20-year snub), it’s clear this one-time punk has become part of the system. Westwood expresses concern that the counterculture quickly became commodified, but despite her environmental activism and ambivalence toward capitalism, she has benefited from the very machine she initially wanted to destroy.
Near the end of the film, Westwood’s son Ben declares, “She’s a punk rocker. She’s the only punk rocker.” This uncritical look at mum reflects a project that doesn’t look at its subject with enough scrutiny—or flair. Westwood is considerably less lively than the 2017 documentary Here to Be Heard: The Story of the Slits, which looked at women in the UK punk scene from the side of the music. But Westwood has the last word: “I can’t be bothered – I mean who wants to listen to all this stuff?” Maybe she should have directed her own profile; she would have made far better and cheekier use of color and line.