Review: Vivienne Westwood rules over the engaging documentary ‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’

British designer Vivienne Westwood is shown in Paris in 2007 from the documentary "Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist."
(Pierre Verdy / AFP/ Getty Images)
Film Critic

You might think that having a documentary film made about your life was a good thing, that having awed folks calling you a cultural avatar and far-seeing visionary was worth a little trouble. You might think all that, but Vivienne Westwood does not.

The subject of “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist” is introduced dressed in funereal black with an agonized look on her face bemoaning the fact that interviews with her are at all necessary.

“Do we have to have every bit of it, it’s so boring to say all of it,” she complains. “I’m totally bored doing this stuff, but you need it so I’ll tell you.”


It is the charm of Lorna Tucker’s film that, her subject’s reluctance notwithstanding, it provides a fascinating, involving glimpse of both who Westwood was back in the day and who she is at this particular moment in time, so much so that we genuinely miss her once the credits begin to roll.

That’s because Westwood, even at age 77, is a woman of formidable energy and drive whether she is tearing apart one of her own fashion collections the night before her show or passionately advocating for environmental issues.

A perennial rebel who feels she was “put on this planet for a reason, to stir it up a little bit,” Westwood throws herself into everything she does, and that helps make her a compelling documentary subject.

Director Tucker, in her first film, spends equal time on Westwood’s legendary past and her life today, overseeing the ever-expanding fashion house that bears her name while simultaneously trying to save the planet.

Westwood designed her own clothes as a child (“I could have made a pair of shoes when I was 5”) and claims she turned away from conventional behavior after realizing her religious parents had hid Jesus’ crucifixion fate from her.

She moved to London as a young woman, married and had a son but quickly decided that matrimony was “just a load of old rubbish.”


Instead she partnered with impresario Malcolm McLaren in a Kings Row shop whose name kept changing (Let It Rock, World’s End and Sex were some of the monikers) but whose impact on fashion never faltered.

Along the way Westwood and McLaren help create the punk movement and the Sex Pistols, though that is one of the subjects Westwood is not at all keen on talking about.

Helping fill in the gap are other folks, including a curator at the Victoria & Albert museum who treats some of Westwood’s designs with a reverence bordering on awe.

Typically, the designer has mixed feelings about her role in the process. “We wanted to undermine the establishment, we hated it, we wanted to destroy it,” she proclaims.

But she also saw punk as a real marketing opportunity and worries today that the whole movement was “part of the distraction” and not a genuine moment of change.

The current man in Westwood’s life is her considerably younger husband and design partner Andreas Kronthaler, and the film is especially good at delineating the charms of this unusual relationship.

As far as the British fashion industry is concerned, it has never quite been able to make its mind up about her unconventional but influential clothes.

Though newspapers have consistently run stories of the “Viv’s Blown It” variety after her shows, she has been named Designer of the Year twice, so she is presumably doing something right.

Currently, one of Westwood’s major worries is that her company and her brand have gotten too big for her to control, looking askance at her marketing people and grumbling, “they’re wandering around doing damage.”

She knows, as Chief Executive Carlo D’Amario puts it, that for better or worse, “she’s become part of the system, like Lady Diana, Big Ben, ‘mind the gap,’ that sort of thing.” Maybe not what she imagined but a force to be reckoned with, nevertheless.


‘Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles