From its opening frames, it’s clear that Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist will be an intimate, warts-and-all portrait of British fashion’s grand dame. The film begins with Vivienne Westwood theatrically berating director Lorna Tucker for asking her ‘boring’ questions about her past. Her reluctance remains comically palpable as she reflects on her early design career in 1970s London, and the pivotal role she played in defining the aesthetic of punk, together with her former partner Malcolm McLaren.
Tucker, a visual artist turned filmmaker, recalls “when I started showing the film to people, they’d ask why I was emphasising this difficult side of her, but I thought it was important for the viewer to see that she’s a complex character. It’s also a really admirable trait in many ways – she’s adamant that she doesn’t want to be defined by her past, she wants to keep moving forward towards the future”.
Indeed, Westwood only consented to make the film on the condition that it focused on her current work as an environmental and political activist. “At this stage of her life there’s a very particular message she wants to put across, so she was constantly trying to get me to make the film she wanted to be made. She didn’t want me to show her fashion collections, or the inner workings of the company, but I eventually managed to convince her that I needed to film all the elements of her life. For me, the film shows that she’s always been an activist and an instigator, through every stage of her career.”
Westwood may be Tucker’s debut feature film, but she brings a wealth of extraordinary life experience to the project. Homeless and a heroin addict by the age of 15, she was scouted by a modelling agency while begging outside Charing Cross station, and used a lucrative stint in fashion to fund herself through art school, while also raising a child. “When I was scouted it really did open up the world to me. It was the first time I realised you can make a living as an artist or a photographer,” explains Tucker. After spending time with photographers as a model, she realised that she wanted “to tell stories and work with images”. Although Tucker’s modelling career didn’t last very long by her own admission — “There was pressure to look and act a certain way, and to not put on weight, and I found that quite degrading” — she believes that it changed her life, and when she decided to make this documentary, she “already knew how to navigate the industry”.
The pair first met back in 2008, when Tucker was hired to shoot a video with Josh Homme and Unkle to accompany a rap song Westwood had written to raise awareness for UK advocacy group Liberty. After agreeing to make a film together in 2014, Tucker soon discerned that to capture the real Vivienne would simply take time and patience: “It was just about hanging around for a long period, becoming friends with her and her whole team, in order to gain their trust so that I could film them in more intimate situations. I was constantly trying to blend in so that people would forget I was there.”
Her approach paid off handsomely. Over the course of the film, we see Westwood at her most crotchety, throwing tantrums at staff members and vowing to shut down her entire company on account of their minor misdemeanours. But at other times she comes across as sweet and humble, particularly when singing the praises of Andreas Kronthaler, her design partner, and husband of 26 years . The Austrian-born Kronthaler is a fascinating, wildly flamboyant character, suspected by many to be the inspiration for Sacha Baron Cohen’s faux fashionista Brüno. Tucker concedes that she was a little unsure about how to handle this larger-than-life figure on screen: “I tried to show that he’s bonkers, but in the most fantastic way! I felt I had to acknowledge the fact that there’s speculation about his sexuality, but I didn’t want to be disrespectful, because whatever the nature of their relationship may be, it works, they’re a great couple. I was worried that he’d be offended, but as it happened, they both really enjoyed the scenes exploring their love story.”
Alas, Westwood wasn’t quite so enamoured with the rest of the film. “When we first showed her a cut, she had a lot of feedback! Some of this I was absolutely respectful of, because she felt that some things weren’t truthful or accurate, so I really worked on those bits – at the end of the day the film is a celebration of her. But then the brand came back with lots of editorial feedback that would’ve turned it into a very different film, and that was when I had to say no.”
And so it came to pass that, shortly before the film’s world premiere at Sundance in January, the Westwood company issued a statement on Twitter distancing themselves from the entire project, haughtily declaring that “the film is mediocre, and Vivienne and Andreas are not”. Their main objection, as Tucker foresaw, was that too little screen time was devoted to Westwood’s activism. “I haven’t spoken to her at all since then. I was a bit sad that she cut all ties. Considering that my path in film is quite similar to her path in fashion — in that we’ve both had to fight to establish a creative voice — I thought she might have been more supportive of me saying no to certain changes. But, at the end of the day, I’ve made an honest film, and a lot of people who’ve worked with her have said that it’s an accurate portrait of her, and were also amazed that I’d got her to open up so much! And I hope, because the film really does hold her up as the genius that she is, that we will find common ground again at some point in the future.”
When not engaged in a battle of attrition with Westwood and her team, Tucker found herself on the receiving end of plenty of unsolicited advice from individuals tangentially associated with the film. The general attitude towards the project paints a somewhat troubling picture of both the fashion and film worlds. “People kept saying “you can’t say no to Vivienne, the fashion industry will blacklist you, they won’t want anything to do with you if you piss her off”. But that mentality is how Harvey Weinstein got away with doing the awful things he did. If people are seriously going to blacklist me, that says a lot about how the industry works, and that makes me even more determined to stick to my guns! I’m not here to please the fashion industry, I’m here to make the best possible film I can make.”
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is out now in select US cinemas, and is available on DVD and VOD in the UK.