When we were young punks, some of the more working-class—or lower-middle class, anyway—among us would derisively call the kids with the “right” punk clothes—think leather, studs, prefab bondage pants, boots—”fashion punks”. Obviously the differences between Denver, Colorado in the mid-‘90s and London in the late ‘70s are myriad, and when it was novel, that appearance probably seemed more threatening. I know there was consternation about it even at that late date, but not necessarily among those of us who swam in the punk pool. In the documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, Vivienne Westwood, clothing designer and founding British punk tastemaker sees a very similar narrative develop in her experience of the fashion side of the scene.
She even makes explicit how quickly she saw that the British punks—herself included—not “really attacking the system at all; it was being marketed all the time”. She goes on to describe this often-revered movement as being “part of the distraction”, serving the very interests of monarchy and state repression by allowing the ruling class to appear tolerant and permissive, when in reality, they were continually crushing the working class in Britain. Her formative moment as a child was one where distrust spurred her into action and the pursuit of understanding, and her description of her aesthetic as fashion being preparation for “engagement” with the world and as making one “able to face the world” is a philosophy that places her squarely in the punk ideas I admire across the decades.
If a viewer is coming to the film hoping to hear Westwood’s thoughts about British punk and especially the Sex Pistols, they will be disappointed, as she dismisses them—and is also unconvinced about the import of her own life’s events—with contempt, only commenting on John Lydon/Rotten as “a phenomenon”, one that should’ve changed but never has. She is insistent as the film progresses that she is the driver of her narrative, reinforced by the independent, anti-corporate running of her business. The conflict is here, as she is forced to reconcile the old punk trope of personal philosophy and economics, personal and collective.
The film relies on just a few characters speaking to the camera, including Westwood, her by turns spacey and cutting husband Andreas, and her much more ambitious and capitalist business partner Carlo, among others. Really, the only insight provided is from Westwood, which is probably best, as she is the visionary here, and her transition later in life to a more single-issue (climate change) activist comes following a trip to the melting Arctic, where her deep distress about “what can happen to people in the world, and I’ve always been so lucky” is brought into sharpest focus for her. Her thoughts about economics and the planet being in conflict and the revolutionary needs to stem the tide of climate change reveal how her often avant-garde fashion choices have never been solely aesthetic, but rather reflect deep dissatisfaction with the world as currently constructed and functioning.
What could be more punk than taking the ugliness and chaos you see in the world and wearing it as clear-eyed beauty, owning it for everyone to see? I have never been a person particularly drawn to high fashion as a world or a subject, but seeing it filled out with ideas, intention, and hard work by Westwood made it very compelling subject matter, despite the dip into personal drama among subordinates late in the second act. Westwood appears at the start of the film to be a bit of a “difficult artist” type, but as the viewer explores her life and its relation to her art, they see a person balancing a lot of challenges with a desire to make beautiful, confrontational art in a way that she is ethically comfortable with, and to be fairly recognized for it.