Review: The Conflicts and Intrigue of Fashion in Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist

Art house theaters of late seem to be swarming with fashion documentaries, but none of them are about someone quite as interesting as Vivienne Westwood, the woman who helped create (with her then-partner Malcolm McLaren) and dress the British punk movement. She has essentially never stopped working in the more than 40 years since, moving against the grain of popular fashion to become both an icon and a keen businesswoman.

Westwood Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Pierre Verdy

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, from director Lorna Tucker, opens with Westwood attempting to set some boundaries about what she will and won’t talk about during one of her many interviews for the film. She doesn’t see the value in rehashing many of her past accomplishments (the birth of the Sex Pistols being one of them), but through some unseen means, Tucker manages to get her to comment on just about everything. Using an extraordinary amount of archival photos and film, along with more recent interviews with those who know her best and work closely with her, the doc traces her life from postwar Derbyshire through the various incarnations of her stores, fashion lines, and degrees of acceptance by the mainstream fashion industry.

Westwood paints a portrait of a person who strove to be so fiercely independent in her business that she gave up stacks of cash by not allowing her company to be purchased by a larger fashion house or chain. She’s so concerned that the company is growing too big and out of her control that she even considers cutting back the number of outlets around the world to make sure she can keep tabs on what they’re selling.

Her personal life is also something worth diving into, especially her relationships with McLaren and her current, longtime husband Andreas Kronthaler, who is an integral part of her work and is one of the few people who speaks in her place. It’s clear that both of them share a somewhat abrasive personality, but neither seem to hold grudges, making for a combustable but energetic workplace, especially as a new line is about to debut. There is endlessly intriguing footage of Westwood backstage putting the final touches on decades worth of fashion shows, and it never seems to be any less chaotic as the years go on.

Some of the most interesting comments from those interviewed come from early supporters who were shocked by how long it took the British fashion industry to catch up to what the public already knew about her philosophy on clothes and ability to just simply know what garments would be shocking, provocative and cool. Some of the detailed discussions about questionable or outright poor business decisions Westwood made along the way aren’t nearly as interesting as the filmmaker thinks they are, but they do speak to her lone-wolf spirit.

Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist reveals a plethora of contradictions in its subject, and that makes the whole piece all the more intriguing and mysterious. It’s almost as if, the more we learn about her, the less we know, and I think Westwood (or Dame Vivienne) would prefer things that way.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Did you enjoy this review? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by becoming a patron. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.