If you had the chance to undertake a project that would grant you an intimate friendship with one of your living heroes, and then ultimately destroy that friendship, would you take it?
While that ended up being the choice filmmaker Lorna Tucker was faced with in the course of making "Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist," she couldn't have foreseen it when she first met designer Vivienne Westwood in 2008. They met on a film set, where Tucker says she was "blown away" by Westwood.
"She was in her '70s and she walked up wearing six-inch high heels and she looked incredible," Tucker says on the phone from London. "I'd always been bothered about how women were expected to disappear into the background as we get older."
Having been a former model herself after an agency scout found her begging for money as a homeless teen, Tucker had some knowledge of the fashion world, though she didn't have much in-depth knowledge of Westwood. But her interaction with the fiery, iconoclastic designer that day shifted something for Tucker, and became the beginning of a "slow-burning friendship" that saw the two connecting over social causes and creative work for years. It was this mutual trust that eventually convinced Westwood to agree — after some prodding — to let Tucker make an all-access-granted documentary about her.
"Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist," which opens on June 8 in New York City and June 15 in Los Angeles, is an intimate film examining the groundbreaking designer and her eponymous brand with a no-holds-barred openness that feels like it couldn't have been made by anyone but a trusted friend. From scenes that depict Westwood just rolling out of bed in the morning to tense dialogues in which she and her partner Andreas Kronthaler bicker with employees to discussions of the brand's internal problems, the film is full of moments that make it clear that it wasn't directed by someone looking to pump a luxury label full of hot air.
"I wanted to make sure it wasn't a branded piece, that it was the real honest truth of how difficult it is to run a company, how difficult it is to retain your integrity as an artist," says Tucker.
But while the film doesn't go out of its way to flatter Westwood, it's clear that personal and artistic integrity is exactly what Tucker thinks the designer possesses. The narrative covers Westwood's massive role in creating the punk look and movement in Britain in the early '70s, her fight to establish herself in the British fashion system even as she was publicly mocked by the press, her relationships with the creative men who have formed the backdrop to her artistic journey, her ability to overcome financial hurdles after her former partner wreaked so much vengeful havoc on the brand that she had to go back on social security and her journey toward becoming an outspoken environmental activist.
Though there's plenty of important ground to cover in a career as industry-shifting as Westwood's, Tucker intentionally avoided creating a project that would feel like a retrospective.
"She doesn't live in the past like a lot of famous people who did something very important a long time ago. You talk to them and they're constantly going back to this same story and this same thing," Tucker says. "Vivienne's not like that — she's done all these amazing things, but she's always like, 'How can I make the world better? What are we gonna do next year?' I really wanted to show that part of her and how refreshing that is."
To Tucker, that meant showcasing the ongoing difficulties Westwood has faced as her increasing awareness of fashion's negative impact on the planet has made her want to downsize her own company, along with all the highs and lows that come with such an initiative. While Tucker was striving to make a film she saw as honest and inspiring in its raw portrayal of an artist that has refused to coast on earlier successes, her unwillingness to cut certain bits that Vivienne Westwood — both the person and the brand — wanted removed ultimately led to a rift between filmmaker and designer that has yet to be mended.
"We were showing them at their most vulnerable, which is what I want to show the world, that we're all vulnerable. It's okay to be vulnerable — it's more about what you do with that," Tucker says. "They wanted us to take out everything that showed that there was any conflict... It was a very tough decision for me to say no to that."
The brand publicly denounced the film earlier this year, as did Westwood's son, and Tucker says she hasn't spoken to or seen Westwood since. Still, Tucker stands by her decision to make a film that portrays the designer's life in all its prickly complexity, even as she speaks admiringly about Westwood with a softness in her voice as she declares, "I miss her."
In one sense, you could say that Tucker's objection to budge from her artistic vision is the best tribute she could possibly pay to a woman whose own relentless commitment to her ideals led her to challenge government authorities, the fashion system itself and capitalistic greed that's endangering the planet. It's the unflinching portrayal of that commitment, even with its difficulties and messiness, that Tucker hopes will inspire young people who watch the film.
"There's something so special about what she's doing today, being this incredible old woman at the top of her game and still doubting herself and still angry and still trying to figure it out," Tucker says. "At the end of the day, I want this film to hold Vivienne up to be the incredible person that I believe she is."