Sydney Film Festival Review: Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (UK, 2018) is about a style iconoclast & punk who became one fine dame

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist shares some things in common with David Bowie’s song, “Fashion” and not just for the obvious fact that Vivienne Westwood is a fashion designer. Consider Bowie’s “Listen to me- don’t listen to me/Talk to me- don’t talk to me/Dance with me- don’t dance with me, no” lyrics. It’s a curious dance straddling the lines between do you/don’t you want to and it’s in this same environment that Westwood operates here. She allowed cameras to follow her around but then she’s gone and publicly denounced the final documentary. In the opening scenes she is exasperated and assumes that looking at the past is “boring.” Westwood is quite possibly the world’s most reluctant interviewee even though she speaks well and has strong principles and opinions and it’s this dichotomy that makes this film such an entertaining one.

This film is directed by Lorna Tucker who previously collaborated with Westwood on some fashion films. In lesser hands this would have meant that Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist was pure hagiography but Tucker – like Westwood herself – eschews these trappings. There is conflict here- we see Westwood being prickly and cantankerous at times and celebratory and successful at others. This is all part of the story and proof of her strong and formidable character.

Westwood’s back-story is dealt with swiftly here. As a child from a working class family, she began making her own clothes at the age of 11. She also studied and worked as a teacher. Her early life was a rather conservative one. She played housewife to her first husband and took care of her son. But there was always a healthy amount of cynicism brewing here and she eventually decided to reject this safe life and better herself.

You get the sense that Westwood is on a constant quest for improvement. It means she doesn’t enjoy dwelling on the past (even her successes are casually dismissed) because that is last season or old hat, darling. For Westwood it’s all about getting better and this is something that caused the rift between herself and her former partner and the Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McLaren. She believes she outgrew him intellectually and she felt that McLaren and his protégé, Johnny Rotten rested on their laurels after they became famous.

It is fascinating to think about how Westwood blossomed from a DIY-punk who was rejected by the fashion establishment to her rise into the world of haute couture. She is a woman of many contradictions. As a youngster she rallied against the establishment, yet these days she has the last laugh because she’s earned the title, “Dame.” While Westwood is guarded in her interviews here, the fly-on-the-wall style means she is most illuminating in her natural habitat. Also enlightening are the interviews with her two sons, Ben Westwood and Joseph Corré (founder of label, Agent Provocateur) and Westwood’s husband and trusted collaborator, Andreas Kronthaler.

This film is a short one at 83 minutes. It crams a lot in (including brief cameos by Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell) but you also get the sense that there is a lot more to the story here. Westwood’s history is described rather swiftly. Her work as an environmental activist is only briefly alluded to. The environmental work is especially intriguing because while it’s commendable of Westwood to try and raise awareness of climate change, there is no denying that the industry she operates in contributes at least in part to some of this, especially the waste involved in fast fashion.

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is an excellent film that manages to capture some of the enigma that is Vivienne Westwood. It could have been a tad more probing but as it is it’s still a rollicking and fascinating look at a strong, independent woman and one stylish iconoclast. This fine dame has really earned her stripes as a punk, icon and activist and with no signs of slowing, she proves that one can never wear too many hats. How is that for a new style trend?

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is screening as part of Sydney Film Festival. Head HERE for more details.