They came from humble backgrounds, far from the glamorous fashion world. They rose to the top, with collateral damage along the way.
British designer Vivienne Westwood and American editor Andre Leon Talley are the subjects of new documentaries that offer peepholes into their extraordinary lives and talents. In these films, the subjects at first appear entirely unalike.
Westwood is testy and compelling while continually asserting her lack of interest in discussing her past, which includes a prominent role in punk rock, leaving her husband for Malcolm McLaren and making clothes for the Sex Pistols. She agreed to make the documentary but expressed disappointment with the film after.
Talley, from a modest family in the segregated South, lives up to his reputation.
They are linked by working-class backgrounds, self reinvention and struggles with the duality of a public persona and a private life. The directors talked about the films they made. Here are edited versions of the conversations.
Directed by Lorna Tucker
TUCKER: Wanting to make this documentary had nothing to do with Vivienne being famous or a designer. It was because she blew me away when we met. She was fiery, completely in control of her company, and I really appreciated that she was an artist, trying to do her work. It didn’t happen overnight; it took her ages to make money and be successful. She was growing old really disgracefully — in her mid-70s and so sexy. We women carry our age like a chain around our necks; she owns it. I felt people could find a deep inspiration in her life story. The fashion is almost an aside; the true story is her working as an older woman, trying to change the fashion industry.
I didn’t focus too much on the punk stuff, because there have been about four documentaries that covered that very extensively from McLaren’s perspective. I wanted this to be about Vivienne; the reason she turned her back on punk is the most interesting part. She realized it had become part of the system, a tourist attraction.
I wasn’t expecting the negative reaction I got from Vivienne and her sons. When I showed it to her, she had a lot of feedback, and I worked hard to incorporate that, but I didn’t want to take out the vulnerabilities. She wanted the film to only be about her activism, but I was always clear that I wanted it to be about her.
‘The Gospel According to Andre’
Directed by Kate Novack
NOVACK: I have been watching Andre in films about other people for about 20 years, and I’ve always wondered about his own story.
He is always larger than life and over-the-top — but talking about someone else. Among many other things, for a long time, he has been the only African-American man at his level in the fashion industry and a role model for many people.
As well as his singular story, I felt it was a way to look at one man’s experience of race in America.
At the beginning of the movie, Eboni Marshall Turman [his friend and an assistant professor of theology and African-American religion at Yale Divinity School] says,
“Andre is at once a legend in mainstream culture and he is also a tall big black man in America, and as such there will always be great tension there.”
That was the controlling idea; how can we reveal and slowly unpack that?
As we were filming, it became clear that this was really as much about Durham, where he grew up, as about Paris or New York.
From the beginning he talked about porch culture and the culture of storytelling that he grew up with, and I wanted to place him as our narrator, on his porch telling his story. It’s called “The Gospel According to Andre” because it’s about his life as he sees it.
To me, one of the most interesting parts of Andre's character is the way he deals with, or doesn’t deal with, things that are painful or difficult for him. I think there are parts of him that are very protected.
At its core, fashion is about identity and self-creation, and for someone coming from a world they feel they don’t fit into, or a world that feels too confining for their imagination, it is a world into which they can expand and excel.