The endless documentation of British punk has assured its permanent place in the great pantheon of modern cultural phenomena – and rightly so, considering that it literally laid down a definitive dividing line, seeing to it that all music, fashion, even politics that followed would be judged within a new postmodern context. But sometimes lost is the essential role that a 30-something single mother played in it all.
A new film, Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, seeks to emphasize to what degree the now legendary fashion designer and provocateur Vivienne Westwood, together with co-conspirator Malcolm McLaren, changed literally everything. From a little shop on the King’s Road, London, they invented punk style and ideology, cultivated the Sex Pistols, and, as she puts it in the film, “…undermine(d) the establishment,” and set out, “to destroy it – it was youth against age.”
Yet it’s not so much the story of punk, but rather a colorful, fun, riveting, thought-provoking, but loose documentation of the life of she who is arguably contemporary fashion’s most iconoclastic designer, and her struggle – along with husband/partner Andreas Kronthaler and two sons Ben Westwood and Joe Corré – to carry out her incomparable vision, despite the constant setbacks. It is the result of two years of effort by former model turned videographer, turned filmmaker Lorna Tucker (she’s worked with the likes of Queens of the Stone Age and Alexander McQueen), and actually ended in a bit of controversy – when Westwood proclaimed that the final product did not focus enough on her environmental activism.
As the film opens this weekend to glowing reviews, we chat with Tucker about her exalted, inimitable subject.
What inspired you to document the life of Vivienne Westwood?
I had met Vivienne a few times when I was younger and thought she was pretty cool, but didn’t know much about her past, and just how many obstacles she constantly had to overcome to get to where she is. It was that relentlessness and drive that inspired me. I guess it’s because most artists from working class backgrounds struggle with financial hardships and live with insecurity – and that is something I could relate to. It was a triumph that she was able to overcome it all to reach the very top of her game; and I felt that others would be inspired by her story too. As a storyteller, I also wanted to have a bit of fun with it.
Vivienne is one of the last true English eccentrics, a forward-thinking revolutionary whose ideas are steeped in a romantic notion of the past. What did you find most compelling about her during the filming?
For someone at her age with the success that she has had, you would think that she would relax and maybe learn Chinese or something; but instead she is driven by a real need to leave the world a better place for the younger generations. It’s really inspiring. Hanging out with Vivienne is like spending time with your Nan; she questions everything, she was always trying to teach me something…even correcting my grammar! There’s a really soft side to her though, she is very loyal and cares about everyone in her company and in her life.
She was apparently upset that the film doesn’t delve more into her activism. Do you feel there was a miscommunication?
No. I completely understand and respect her thoughts on the creative edit of the film; but I really wanted it to encompass subtle layers about her entire life. She has always been an activist and the causes she is passionate about today are woven through the film. I wanted to include so much more though, like her humble beginnings, her time with McLaren, having to fight hard to make her company a success, and then fighting again to stop the company from over expanding. It’s a true portrait of a woman’s life; and Vivienne has done so much that it could never be solely about her activism.
Vivienne Westwood and Andreas Kronthaler on a Greenpeace mission
Did you get on with the Westwood “inner circle”? Did you have good cooperation?
Yes, Team Westwood were so amazing. They are like a huge family and I feel very honored for the level of access they all gave me.
Malcolm McLaren in death still gets some bad press. But in the film Vivienne makes it clear that he genuinely was the catalyst for everything, no?
Absolutely. Vivienne was very loyal and honest about his involvement. It wasn’t my position to judge him and there are always two sides to any story; so I tried to focus on his [time] with Vivienne, rather than looking into Malcolm’s life too much. Plus his life has been documented so well already.
Vivienne enthusiastically recalls wanting to destroy the establishment – which in a lot of ways they came close to doing. Do you think that sort of revolution, that attempt to completely overthrow a society’s values, is just not possible anymore? Has culture as that kind of revolutionary force sort of finished?
I do think it’s absolutely possible. We are living through very similar times, there is distrust of the government, social divide, money is being pulled from mental health, the arts and education…which are the very backbone of what builds a strong and caring society. I think it’s only a matter of time before the youth of today get fed up and fight back.
Andreas describes Vivienne in very loving terms. How did you find their relationship?
They have a very respectful relationship and watching them work together was a fascinating experience – they each bring something different but equally amazing to their designs. They have a very interesting dynamic as a couple and somehow it works.
During the scene where she’s being given the 1990 British Designer of the Year award, her son Joe expresses absolute contempt for the fashion industry. Do you feel as if Vivienne yet takes pride in that recognition, though? Having actually won the award the following year as well?
Yes I feel she did. You can only imagine how awful it must of been for her to be constantly mocked; but that’s one of the problems with being so ahead of your time. Winning the awards was the start of her receiving the praise she quite rightly deserved – but even then she wasn’t getting the financial support that she needed to grow. I love the fact that she never faltered, no matter how hard it was at times, and she was able to build her company by herself, in her own way. She really embodies the true story of the underdog that with plenty of hard graft went on to create her own empire.
In a way there were real parallels between her and climate scientist James Lovelock – in that it took years for both of them to be accepted by the establishment. Do you feel that was why she was drawn to his theories?
Yes, he changed everything for her. The original edit was so long that I could have made a four part series; so I had to tighten it to a watchable length…which meant there are people and moments I had to take out. Ultimately it’s a better film for being more focused on what drove her to her activism…but reading James Lovelock’s work was the thing that really pushed her up a gear; and now she uses her fashion empire as an outlet for the causes she wants to raise awareness of, and to get across the sense of urgency that we must save the planet from destruction.
She describes her activism as an egalitarian need to give back. Did it seem as if a sense of punk’s egalitarianism still guides her life?
You can’t get more ‘punk’ than telling your CEO that he has to stop expanding the business and must cut out all the lines that, despite making money, were of a quality and design that didn’t fit her ethos. I remember filming the scene where she’s telling buyers that she doesn’t want them to buy certain collections and that she doesn’t care if they make money or not… it blew me away that she was being that frank, publicly.
There’s a scene in which Joe talks about making her sign the Japanese licensing deal, so he could be sure she would always be taken care of. Is there a lot of love and respect between her and her sons?
Her sons are very loyal and have so much respect for her. When they were telling me about rallying around to help her save the company and get it back on its feet, it was a quite emotional.
What is Vivienne’s ultimate legacy? Especially where England/Britain is concerned?
Vivienne will be remembered as a punk, icon and activist. There’s nothing we love more in Britain than a crazy, creative eccentric; and Vivienne is all of those things and more!
What do you hope people will take away from the film?
I hope that people come away inspired, appreciating that success doesn’t magically happen overnight – that it’s built on the foundations of hard work and the drive to do what you enjoy and to never give up on something you truly love. It may not bring you fame and fortune, but if you stay true to yourself and don’t care what other people think, you will find your place in the world. Oh…and of course I hope they go home having been thoroughly entertained!