Part of the function of the world of high fashion is to spin luxurious fantasies, at the same time creating larger-than-life mythologies about those who create the clothes. That inevitably increases people’s desire to pull the curtain back on designers’ private lives. Like anyone living under the microscope of fame, most are resistant to let cameras in behind the scenes, so the documentarians who do succeed (Matt Tyrnauer with “Valentino: The Last Emperor” or Sandy Chronopoulos with “House of Z”) are few and far between.
So British visual artist Lorna Tucker had her work cut out for her when she set out to make a film about Vivienne Westwood, her first feature, titled “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,” which made its debut this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival 2018.
The 77-year-old designer (the words in the film’s title are also apt descriptors) is notorious for going against the grain, and in Tucker’s words, “She doesn’t give a ... if there’s a film that comes out about her, you know? She does not give a ... as long as her message gets across.”
It took years of convincing. Tucker met Westwood in 2008 — she had spent her early career shooting tour videos and live concert footage for Lupe Fiasco, Queens of the Stone Age and The Cult, among others, and created experimental video art projects for Alexander McQueen — when she was asked to shoot a video of Josh Homme (lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age) and Unkle, who had collaborated on a rap song Westwood had written to raise awareness for the human rights organization Liberty.
“I thought I just was going to go film this band recording a rap song with this fashion designer, who I thought would just be a stupid fashion designer, you know? Not ‘stupid,’ but a very vacuous fashion designer, and it blew my mind,” says Tucker, who was curled up on a couch doing press for the film on Main Street in Park City. “I walked away at the end of that one day of meeting her knowing so much more about the world, but also wanting to know really what was going on. She told me books I should read, and things that I should look at, and it just sent me into a spiral of actually wanting to live my life and appreciate life so much more.”
Tucker was about to begin filming another documentary about Native Americans — “AMA,” due out later this summer — and Westwood, interested in the subject matter, kept in touch with her, and invited her to film at various talks, political rallies and protests. The two collaborated on a Dazed and Confused takeover and the 2013 short film “Red Shoes” starring Lily Cole.
It was only after that that Tucker felt comfortable proposing a personal documentary on Westwood. “It’s not that she didn’t want a film being made about her, but she didn’t care, so it was almost like a dance of getting this across, and so I wanted it to have this fun feel and people to see that she may be really tough, and she may be quite hard, but it’s only because she really cares and, at her age, her one drive is to save the world, right?”
Tucker felt that of the existing Westwood footage, “nothing scratched beneath the surface and was really showing how inspiring she is. With the current political state, kids need a bit of inspiring, need to be able to learn about somebody that really did come from nothing and carved her own path. She didn’t understand how inspiring she was, so I was like, ‘Why don’t we make a film about you and we get your political message across?’ She was only interested if it was going to be just about her environmentalism, but I said, ‘No, it has to be about everything because people will only be interested in the activism side if they see your journey to becoming an activist.’”
It took Tucker from 2014 to just last week to capture the many sides of Westwood’s story, beginning with her humble beginnings to her start as a school teacher to her relationship with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, their fashion business and its influence on punk culture. She sat down not only with Westwood but her two sons, her partner Andreas Kronthaler, the company’s chief executive officer Carlo D’Amario and Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.
Beyond the candid interviews, archival footage, filming both boat rides in Antarctica with Greenpeace and behind the scenes glimpses of a collection coming together — and almost falling apart in the process — Tucker also captures the realities and challenges of running a fashion brand today. Westwood’s up-and-down business struggles and the difficulties of staying independent are laid bare. In one scene, she scolds a buyer for knowing nothing of a collection, and in another, she wonders aloud about the purpose of the marketing department. She also expresses her dislike — at the opening party — of her Paris boutique, and chose to scrap plans on retail expansion in China.
This is all seen through Tucker’s nonjudgmental lens, though she knows more about fashion than most filmmakers. Her own story is the stuff movies are made of: a runaway living on the streets of London at age 14, addicted to heroin, she was discovered by modeling scouts at 17, when she was also a single mother. Working as a model allowed her to pay for art school and pursue her passion of filmmaking. She credits Westwood with opening her eyes to environmentalism and human rights.
“To be really, brutally honest, it was when I first met Vivienne in 2008, doing that little rap video, that I really, truly started finding out about the environment. So, for all her rights and wrongs, or what people might say about her, she has been one of the most inspiring people because at that point, I’d just got into making short films, and I was a bit rock ‘n’ roll, and a bit crazy, and wasn’t really thinking about the impact that my life was having on the environment, and from the minute I met her, she was questioning me on what I was doing, and why I was doing it, and she was educating me.”
Soon she is set to direct her own story in a feature film produced by Colin Firth’s production company.
“I wrote a script based on a year of my life when I was 14 and living on the streets of London. Something with the homeless situation in England, and all around the world, not improving, and people’s perception of homelessness driving me nuts, I decided I was going to then write a script about a coming-of-age story about this girl, and how I overcame that.”
Tucker, who is now in her early 30s and a mother of three, also has two more feature projects in development, and it’s safe to say that she takes none of it for granted. “I’ve met people from all walks of life, I’ve sat next to princes, and then I’ve sat on the streets and drank beer with a homeless person. I’m affected by people’s hearts and how they relate to people. And, for me, it’s about really owning that. I can finally use all the negative stuff in my life in a positive way, and pour that into characters and bring them into life because I know human beings. I may not have gone to school, I may not be educated in that way, but I know human nature,” she says.
That is why she also showed Westwood at her most vulnerable. “I want everyone out there who doubts themselves on a daily basis to relate to her from the beginning of the film, and realize, ‘Well, if she still does this at 77, and doubts herself, and wants to give up, it’s OK.’”