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Two Films, Two Fashion Icons: A Comparison of WESTWOOD: PUNK, ICON, ACTIVIST and McQUEEN
by Rose Finlay

In 2018, high fashion made its mark on the Filmfest Hamburg with two notable films, WESTWOOD, PUNK, ICON, ACTIVIST and McQUEEN. Focusing on two of the most important fashion designers of last fifty years, it is interesting to see how both embody similar ideas and likewise struggled to find a place in the surprisingly rigid and conservative fashion world.

In WESTWOOD, PUNK, ICON, ACTIVIST we are introduced to Vivienne Westwood, the petite fashionista originally from a working class family in North West England. She began her professional career as a primary school teacher and housewife. It wasn’t until she met Malcom McLaren, the future manager of the Sex Pistols that she began to take her hobby for fashion and start to work on it more professionally. She became one of the founders of punk fashion in the 1970s. After her personal and business relationship with McLaren ended in the ‘80s, she started out on her own and made an even bigger impact with her fashion shows. However, despite her popularity, the press was less than kind and it took until the early ‘90s for her to be recognized by the industry when she was voted Designer of the Year in 1990 and 1991. With comprehensive interviews, director Lorna Tucker highlights Westwood’s quirky nature and how her politics play a strong role in the design of her clothes. She doesn’t just design for beauty, but she is looking to combine quality with a political statement. Tucker focuses throughout the documentary mostly on the story of Vivienne Westwood herself and her clothes curiously come in second to her interesting personality and history. Nevertheless, the insight into the woman behind the fashion house and the behind-the-scenes look at her creative process makes this a worthwhile film to check out.

In contrast, Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQUEEN puts clothes at the forefront as the documentary describes Lee McQueen’s life and the development of his fashion as he matured. Lee McQueen similarly came from working class roots and began his fashion career by apprenticing with a tailor on Savile Row. It was his relative poverty at the beginning of his career that led to much of his early experimentation with inexpensive materials. His designs were often the subject of scrutiny by the fashion press, but, as he grew with popularity McQueen was able to experiment more widely with theme as well as design which were directly related to his own history and personal experiences. Extensive interviews with his friends and family unveil a man often uncomfortable with his position in the fashion world who struggled with insecurities and yet was extremely talented beyond his years. Still, his work was often controversial and despite receiving plenty of acclaim in his lifetime, he also struggled to be accepted by the mainstream for much of his career. McQUEEN is a touching tribute to the designer and is a showcase for some of his most beautiful and thought-provoking work.

Lee McQueen and Vivienne Westwood have both made an incalculable impact on modern fashion design with their fresh ideas and experimentation. Both came from backgrounds in the UK which typically do not produce fashion designers, and yet they became some of the most influential designers of the late 20th century. Both films are uniquely suited to their subjects and are highly accessible to even those who are not typically so interested in fashion. Perhaps it is because they both showcase haute-couture fashion more as art than a hobby of the upper classes. Or maybe it is because both designers are fascinating individuals who whose strong personalities and artistic vision made it so their clothes succeed in transcending into a high art form.