Film

Punk, Icon, Activist: Never mind the Sex Pistols, here's Vivienne

There’s little room for nostalgia in a fascinating account of Vivienne Westwood’s ascent to the upper echelons of fashion. Even if it does get a bit Zoolander at times

Vivienne Westwood, seated in the imperial comfort of a throne-like armchair, is being asked about the Sex Pistols. You’d think the English fashion designer would have plenty to say about the band and the London punk scene of which she, and they, were such a formative part. But in the documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist she isn’t having any of it. “No, no, I can’t be bothered with them either,” she replies in a tone of pained exasperation when prompted to speak of the Pistols.

The Pistols aren’t the only taboo subject: she’s almost equally reluctant about ex-partner Malcolm McLaren. Westwood’s refusal to be drawn on such matters is perversely admirable. As a gesture of defiance to the documentary convention that subjects bare their souls, it has a certain punkish bravado. But you do worry about the impact this attitude will have on director Lorna Tucker’s feature-length portrait. Will Westwood be reticent about everything?

Fortunately not. The focus of this film is Westwood’s emergence as one of the world’s leading fashion designers, and she delivers a canny and forthright commentary. Besides, she’s sceptical about the significance of punk. With typical astuteness, she admits to doubting the movement’s revolutionary impulse from the early days. “We weren’t attacking the establishment,” she notes dryly, “we were part of the distraction.”

Westwood and her husband Andreas Kronthaler pose for pictures in ­increasingly outlandish outfits, with their best Blue Steel looks

In chronicling the growth of Westwood’s international reputation through well-chosen archive footage and following the designer, now 76, as she readies her recent collection, the film pays fascinating tribute to her craft and originality. Being an up-close and admiring view of haute couture, however, the film can teeter on the brink of self-parody. It gets a bit Zoolander at times, such as when Westwood and her husband Andreas Kronthaler pose for pictures in ­increasingly outlandish outfits, with their best Blue Steel looks.

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But mostly the film paints an absorbing picture of Westwood’s artistry, Tucker’s camera capturing the lovingly tactile way Westwood and Kronthaler (her creative partner as well as husband) work on their designs using human models, a stubbornly old-fashioned approach that accounts for the beautifully sculpted fit of Westwood’s designs.

Along the way there are delicious anecdotes, such as Kronthaler’s account of living in the basement of Westwood’s studio before they were married, sleeping under a fur rug among an infestation of fleas and surrounded by items from past collections, which has enough Gothic romance to power a sequel to Phantom Thread. There are telling glimpses too of the grit underpinning Westwood’s creativity: note the stern reprimand she issues an assistant in one of her stores for being insufficiently informed about the wares.

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It’s this combination of flair and business nous that has given Westwood pre-eminence among British designers today, an outcome that wasn’t achieved without a struggle. The film sketches the ­rollercoaster trajectory of her career in bold strokes, returning repeatedly to a shot of the council flat in South London to which Westwood retreated after successive setbacks. But in a stark reversal of fortune, the establishment that punk aspired to topple has welcomed Dame Vivienne into its embrace.

An excruciating clip from chat show Wogan sees her withstand giggles from an incredulous audience as she shows off her latest collection. Look who’s laughing now.

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is out March 23

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