Directed by Lorna Tucker (2018)
Featuring Vivienne Westwood, Andreas Kronthaler
Running time 1 hour 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: not rated
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
My mom worked in fashion when I was younger. In New York! In the garment district. But before we moved to New York she was a dress buyer at Carson Pirie Scott, a department store that used to exist in Chicago. Carson's was swanky and classy - it was where nice Chicago moms with their nice money bought nice clothes if they weren't already shopping at upscale Marshall Field's. If truth be told my favorite department store back then was Madigan's, because they had THE coolest window displays around. I was just a lil' thing in the 80's, when department stores were peaking but still arbiters of style. If you asked me at age six what I was going to do with my life I would tell you I was going to be a visual merchandiser at Madigan's. Yes, I grew up in a retail family. I knew what a visual merchandiser was. And not because I'd watched Mannequin too many times. (Oh but I have. That's another story.)
All of this is to explain, in the most long-winded manner, that my mom instilled in me an interest in designer clothing that continues to this day, even though I can afford approximately 2.4% of it and find a lot of it useless in my particular life. To quote The Devil Wears Prada: "But it's prettyyyyy." I knew designer names from an extremely young age and collected magazines like some kids collected Garbage Pail Kids. My mom had subscriptions to Vogue, Bazaar, W, Mirabella (which is sadly no more), Elle. What she didn't subscribe to, we would sometimes buy at the grocery store or at a local bookshop, usually the UK or French versions of Vogue (UK is my fave - French Vogue has the better editorials but I can't read a lick!) The number of back issues at my disposal are what initially inspired my collage making from a young age - I didn't really have much money of my own to buy paint or other crafty art supplies...so I used magazines.
When I was of age, I had subscriptions to Seventeen, YM, and Sassy. Some of you 90's teens like myself may remember that last one...man that was the coolest magazine ever. Sassy was very 90's, very diverse, very feminist, very ahead of its time. It was the antithesis of what Seventeen and YM were spewing...I often felt so out of place after reading the latest Seventeen, gulping through the latest quiz (Is he really into you? Are your friends out to get you? What's your beach style?)...I never felt like the model girls prancing in prom dresses or the "real girls" planning outfits to wear to meet their boyfriend's parents for the first time. Sassy made me feel like it was ok to be me: thrift store clothes, no makeup, still figuring shit out. If you missed out on Sassy in its heyday, this Tumblr has some awesome scans from the past. As an adult, I continued the family magazine subscription line but I only get a few now in the mail - the rest I subscribe to digitally. I'm not embarrassed to admit I've been a Teen Vogue subscriber since its inception in 2003 (don't raise your eyebrows at me - they feature a refreshing mix of high and low-end clothing!)
I can't honestly sit here and tell you that consuming an unfathomable amount of fashion magazines from such a young age was fulfilling in any sort of intelligent, cerebral way. Or gave me a super healthy body posi self-image. Hell to the nah. I can distinctly remember sitting in my bedroom sometime in 1994 staring, no obsessing over the length of Nadja Auermann's ridiculously long legs in a Vogue spread wondering when mine were going to start looking like that. After a while, I stopped reading the articles. The majority of the interviews and exposés felt like fluffy pieces of cotton candy bullshit to sell more clothes or makeup or movies or treatments or books or whatever else they were peddling. And let's be honest - many girls are extremely self-critical from a young age, and I was no different. But it took me a much longer time to ease the self-doubt and self-hatred of my own cheerleader legs and thighs (as my mom called them) and I attribute some of this to the glamazonian representation in 90's fashion mags.
But let's get back to clothes. Vivienne Westwood has long been a designer my mom and I have both admired. Her collaboration and relationship with Malcolm McLaren (total bloody scoundrel if you ask me) and early fashion aesthetic helped usher in the punk movement, at least from a stylistic perspective. As she fought her way up the fashion food chain to become the luxury brand she is today, she battled a fashion establishment who failed to give her the respect due. And in an age when top houses (Dior, Louis Vuitton, Givenchy) are owned by conglomerates (all three are owned by LVMH, for example), Westwood's name and company remain fairly independent. That alone shows the grit of this amazing force in the fashion world, whose historical, sometimes whimsical sartorial twists have consistently made waves on and off the runway.
Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist shrugs the curtain away from the Great and Powerful, offering a glimpse at a very passionate, unique, somewhat craggy, creative soul. It's like if The Filth and the Fury and Unzipped and The September Issue and Phantom Thread all had a little fashionista baby rambling on in a British accent sprinkled with a lotttt of obscenities. What I liked most about this film is its lack of gloss - there's no hiding the fact that Westwood may have a strong personality, and may or may not want to talk about this or that. She also doesn't want much to do with the finished product, which isn't all that uncommon and honestly doesn't surprise me in the slightest. And then there's her husband.
Andreas Kronthaler would appear to be the quintessential man behind the woman. The two met in Italy when she was teaching fashion design - he followed her back to London to work for her and the two fell in love, got married, and have been together for 26 years. But to say Kronthaler is idiosyncratic and unpredictable is like if you said to me that Kim Kardashian has a curvy body. No shit, Sherlock. He's got a big ass reputation for being beyond difficult, intense, and not very straight. I don't think the sexuality of individuals is anyone's fucking business, however, the film pokes at this little fact, but in a way that suggests it doesn't matter. Because Kronthaler and Westwood...make sense. As a couple in business and in life. Her clothes (to some extent their clothes?) are just amazingly glamorous, feminine yet modern, in many cases sigh-worthy. And the way he talks about loving her at one point in the film is highly endearing. Watching them work together made me want to get out the popcorn and do a double feature with Phantom Thread. Did P.T. Anderson have an inside glimpse of these two before he wrote his fashion house of horrors? The world may never know.
Directed by newcomer Lorna Tucker, who's own true-life story of homeless to fashion model to visual artist to filmmaker could support its own doc, the film doesn't quite discover Westwood's coat of many colors and contradictions. As the title suggests, Westwood is an Icon and an Activist. Yet the film only slightly addresses either. It doesn't touch the many celebrities who have been die-hard fans of her clothing, who she's been dressing for galas and premieres and awards shows and videos for years. And the activist part? It's only a small section of the film and supposedly what Westwood wanted the focus on in the first place. In Tucker's defense, you can't really make a movie about a climate change activist without mentioning the part that she also runs a global fashion house, creating garments made of questionable materials by factories employing questionable practices. And you can't make an unbiased movie about a woman who is interested in grass-roots activism, who helped usher in a DIY punk aesthetic without explaining how she now dresses the wildly rich and famous. Sadly the film doesn't just go for it, the way I think Westwood would, hitting at these dichotomies head-on, unapologetically. Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist is a fascinating yet frustrating portrait of artists and their muses that ultimately feels like a cursory glance in someone's direction, not a full-on conversation with or about them. Much like after reading some fashion magazines, I was left feeling empty and wanting.