By Elizabeth Toohey.

Is the designer Vivienne Westwood anti-establishment or is she the establishment? Is she iconoclast or icon? More to the point, has her fashion been subversive, a form of resistance to English politics and culture, or has it been merely a commodification of the youthful punk rebellion of the 1970s through which, as she has said, “English society could claim how democratic and free they were that somehow kids could revolt as much as that”? Westwood seems unsure, and so does Lorna Tucker’s film, Westwood: Punk, Activist, Icon, which while often amusing, is at times a bit frustrating in the way it meanders around points like these, or wants to have it both ways.

Then again, maybe that’s fitting for a documentary about the eccentric Westwood, who is often a reluctant subject, one resistant to reconstructing the past into a neatly packaged narrative. Refusing to respond to questions about the Sex Pistols, Westwood wonders aloud with exasperation who will be interested in these long stories about her life. While she clearly enjoys the spotlight that she’s attracted since her youth, she has an aversion to being marketed or anything that smacks of being controlled. Perhaps, then, she simply reflects a contradiction at the heart of the fashion industry, which attempts to be both art and business, upending culture and immediately commodifying it. Nowhere is Westwood’s ambivalence captured better than near the end of the film, when she punts on a sales pitch to the store managers from London, Paris, Milan and the like, and partners from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Doesn’t her business partner and husband Andreas Kronthaler want to speak? Where are the salespeople? Instead of promoting, then, she asserts her right to pull pieces that aren’t working, in other words, her artistic integrity and control. The reps giggle uncomfortably, and Andreas looks understandably piqued.

Now 77 years old and a Dame, Westwood shows no signs of contenting herself with replicating past successes. The problem with Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, she says, is that he hasn’t changed – “he should’ve changed to something else by now.” She makes the same complaint of her second husband Malcolm McLaren, more or less, whose thinking, she says, had stayed where it was.

From the start, Westwood’s fashion was enmeshed with London’s punk music scene. Best known for creating the punk look with McLaren in a Chelsea shop called SEX, in its best known incarnation, her styles were most famously worn by the band the Sex Pistols, which McLaren managed. Vivian Isabel Swire came from a working-class family and had, at 21, already been married to Derek Westwood, having one son with him, and then a second with McLaren. An art teacher encouraged her to attend art school, but her working-class background made her turn her focus to how to make a living, such that she dropped out of art school after a term, training instead to become a teacher. Her relationship with Malcolm opened the door to designing and selling clothes when he began to rent retail spaces to sell records. Appropriating sacred symbols like the crucifix or verboten like the swastika, Westwood made use of them to confront stodgy British society. Some designs looked like straitjackets. Many centered on sex.

That these now are displayed prominently in the Victoria & Albert Museum by curators who discuss their influence as you might a Michelangelo seems ironic, to say the least, speaking to the way she has become as much a British institution as Lady Diana or “mind the gap,” as Carlo D’Amario, the CEO of Vivian Westwood, notes.

Westwood may have had a promising start, but her path to success was hardly a smooth one. After her relationship with Malcolm deteriorated – he came to bore her intellectually, she says – he sabotaged her, scaring away potential backers as prominent as Georgio Armani, so that Westwood returned from a promising tour of Italy, only to resort to collecting social security back in London. She began making clothes again, using her sewing machine, and working from her flat, lighting her shop with candles when they couldn’t afford electricity.

Around this time, Andreas, now the artistic director of Vivienne Westwood, entered her life – and I’ll admit to having been quite charmed by this part of her story. Andreas was a student at Vienna’s Academy of Applied Arts when then met in 1988. He came to London and never left, camping out in her studio, sleeping on the floor curled up under a desk. She recognized his talent and he was – still is – besotted with her, as her son Joe puts it. That they became a couple is yet another part of her outré image, since Andreas is twenty-five years her junior. Since he’s every bit as innovative and passionate about fashion as Westwood, their marriage may have its friction, but is a collaboration of artists.

As the brand began to succeed commercially, the hurdles Westwood faced remained, though some shifted. She went unrecognized by the fashion establishment for years, before she was acknowledged in 1990 with the fashion industry award for British Designer of the Year, which she won two years in a row, the first designer to do so. Still, no backers came forward. Was this because of her radical styles, or was it her gender or working-class background? Was it her eccentricity that made financial backers skittish? That last was my business strategist husband’s guess, after seeing the film. The documentary doesn’t quite make points like these as clear as it might.

What Tucker emphasizes instead is the nature of the difficulties success brings for Vivienne Westwood, as one of the few independent global fashion companies that exist. The loss of control she and Andreas grapple with is palpable in the last segment of the film, as they open flagship stores in Manhattan and Paris, all the while trying to maintain artistic integrity and a cogent business strategy. It’s a big ship to steer, and it isn’t helped by the way Vivienne launches herself into the role of “activist,” to which the film’s subtitle refers. Her concern over global issues is heartfelt and certainly laudable, but draws attention from the company at a crucial time, resulting in message-driven designs of dubious quality – I’m no fashion expert, but the “Frack Me” boxers did seem facile – and friction with Andreas, who does not share her passion on this front and has to pick up the slack when Westwood runs off to lead rallies and design banners in the lead-up to London’s fashion week. And what do you do when you’re a fashion designer trying to save the planet? The bottom line is that Frack Me boxers will not really help humanity in the face of the threats global warming poses, whereas, one of her assistants muses uneasily, the most sustainable thing Vivienne could actually do would be to shut the company down.

All this comes close to the film’s conclusion, so that then, it’s a bit of a jolt to end with interviews with supermodels like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and Pamela Anderson on their experience of working with Viv. In a way, it’s welcome, since it makes for a much more upbeat ending than watching a glacier melt from a Greenpeace ship, and these women seem so genuinely fond and appreciative of Westwood, but even as a last hurrah, it felt somehow out of place. For better or worse, it left me wondering about gender, and what the dynamics of the fashion industry were on this front, how they’ve changed, whether they did or didn’t affect Westwood earlier on, as well as whether the models who effuse about her were treated by her or responded to her any differently as a woman running her own company, rather than a corporate entity or, simply, a man. While I had no need for the film to add the subtitle, “Feminist,” gender does feel like an elephant in the room whether in the unconventionality of shedding one husband for a smarter, newer model (which would be almost expected were she a successful man, but is kind of amazing in her case) or that one of the laudatory marks from the French fashion editor Carine Roitfeld’s is that “and she’s not so young and she still can wear fashion, and she’s never ridiculous.” She’s never ridiculous? Would anyone pay that compliment to enormously accomplished man, regardless of his age?

Despite its fearlessly in-your-face subject, the film shies away from diving too deep on some key issues of gender, politics, and capitalism. Westwood is a good film, especially for punk or fashion aficionados, but because it often exchanges depth for breadth, it just misses being a great one. Yet there is something inspirational about simply seeing a woman whose creativity is so boundless, and one who has made a success of doing what she wants.

Elizabeth Toohey is a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays have appeared in Film International and Terror in Global Narrative: Representations of 9/11 in the Age of Late-Late Capitalism (Palgrave, 2016). She is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.

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