He is an icon of street style and street fashion photography. He has inspired thousands of street fashion bloggers such as The Sartorialist’s Scott Schuman. Everyone, absolutely everyone – including Anna Wintour, the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue – wants to be in his weekly “Style” column, and according to Ms. Wintour: “If he is not taking your pictures, then you might as well be dead. We all get dressed for Bill.” And this remains true for those around the world who consider him one of the most influential people in fashion industry; not only for his eye for fashion, but also for his take on fresh fashion that stands out of a crowd of “similarities” and “ordinaries.”
Bill Cunningham, the demure 82-year-old fashion photographer for The New York Times does not only define street fashion, he defines New York. And he does it all while riding his 29th bicycle (28 bicycles have been stolen from him during his 60-year long career of street fashion in New York) around the city. His camera and flash are always in close reach to snap photos even while riding. Several times in the documentary the camera catches Bill on the verge of an accident, but Mr. Cunningham slyly smiles at the camera while managing to avert disaster. Such is the spirit of a legend who has not only introduced the world to street fashion and street trends for decades, but who has been also telling a story of evolution in society, economy, and politics through the lens of his camera. And he does so by featuring the styles of ordinary and extraordinary New Yorkers alike through times of economic prosperity or a national tragedy such as 9/11.
Director Richard Press celebrates Bill’s personal and professional life in “Bill Cunningham New York” – a documentary that takes the audience through the story of Cunningham’s family, famous and infamous friends, daily routine of a $3.99 sandwich and Chinese-takeout, to his shoe-box size apartment containing nothing but metal drawers full of photos and negatives he saved along with fashion books and magazines. “I’ll probably wake up one morning covered by books that fell off the shelves” – jokes Bill as he takes us on a tour of his apartment in the iconic Carnegie Hall building he shares with another New York photographer.
One cannot help but be amazed by the humbleness of a man who refuses to attend the most prestigious events in New York and Paris, where he is often invited as an honoree to shoot the societies’ crème de la crème. Instead, he prefers to nibble on Chinese takeout and a Coke, jump on his bike in a tuxedo, and get lost in a venue that could happen to be Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art or Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. In his own words, Bill is not interested in celebrities – nor is he is interested in names – he only shoots fashion. The word fashion comes up often in Bill’s conversations throughout the film. Bill lives for fashion. His life is about fashion. He has no other life but fashion. He sleeps and breathes fashion.
“He who seeks beauty, always finds it” – declares Cunningham in flawless French while receiving the title Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture for his contribution to the fashion world in 2008 in Paris. “I am not interested in celebrities, and they don’t interest me because they wear borrowed clothes. I’m interested in genuine personal style.” This attitude is never as apparent in the film as during a moment when Bill passes by Michael Kors and Catherine Deneuve, both highly sought by the paparazzi, and leans down to shoot the shoes of a nearby unknown bystander, because THIS IS his fashion, this is what might define tomorrow’s trend. “It’s amazing, we – the editors of the influential fashion magazines – attend all important fashion shows around the world and we still miss what Bill sees” – says the most powerful person in the fashion today, Anna Wintour. “And then his “fashion” becomes the next trend and we missed it.” Bill’s eye is trained to capture something even the most influential and innovative trendsetters fail to notice.
Cunningham’s career orbits around New York – and all of it. It’s hard to imagine how many miles he’s travelled on his bicycle around the city in over six decades. He rides up and down avenues, through Times Square, and across Central Park. He heads to the Times Building to edit the film and his weekly fashion column “On the Street,” and then he rides off to the events he attends nearly every night for his society column “Evening Hours.”
Not inviting Bill Cunningham to a high profile event is a grave mistake – punished by the event’s disappearance into obscurity. But Bill carefully selects which events he attends, and piles of invitations on his desk suggest that he will not appear at just any event, even if it promises to be full of A-list celebrities. He goes where it matters and where he knows he can find a unique and interesting trend.
This cultural anthropologist has been meticulously and inventively chronicling fashion trends of high society charity soirées for decades, yet he himself is the exact opposite of the glamour and self-glorifying fashionistas whose images he has tirelessly captured. “I don’t like expensive places, I don’t need it” – says Bill, who wears the same outfit almost every day with his worn-out $20 parka which has been repaired repeatedly with duct tape. Nothing about this man fits the clichés of those who are tightly connected to the fashion world. His appearance confuses the press at the fashion shows, who shoo him away in favor of paparazzi (saved just in time by a manager who declares him “the most important person in the world”). Fashion week attendees take cues from Bill which ensembles to pay close attention to. If he snaps a photo- take note; if he doesn’t raise his camera – the outfit will not be a worthy trend.
Even at his age Bill is an unstoppable and energetic man, who is everywhere but could be easily missed in an instant. He walks or rides around the streets, patiently waiting for his muse who has no idea that she or he could become the next “it” girl or boy.
This is how Bill glorifies the street fashion that he calls the “real” fashion. “Fashion has always been on the streets” – says Bill, who almost became a hat designer in his late teens, but the army draft changed that path. “They [fashion world and investors] couldn’t understand my decision to give up everything and join the army, but how could you do otherwise? I couldn’t” – says Bill about his army experience – “I wanted to serve my country.” This pretty much sums it all up about Bill Cunningham’s persona – humble, faithful, honest, generous, graceful, talented, open and humorous, who built his life around one great passion.
Bill Cunningham’s work might have done more for fashion than any one magazine, designer or model. He has been able to find beauty where no others have looked. He shoots only that which is interesting to him, and he does not apologize for it. He has projected and elevated the style of ordinary people to the altitude of high fashion. This 90-minute glimpse into the life of an extraordinary New York icon portrays passion, love, and a newfound respect for fashion, and allows the audience to believe in the beauty of the everyday.
Interestingly, it took ten years to make this documentary. According to the filmmaker Richard Press – “It took eight of those to convince Bill to do it. The first time we asked, Bill said ‘Why would you want to make a movie about me? There’s nothing here.'” He couldn’t be more wrong in underestimating his contribution to and influence over the global fashion arena.
Alisa Krutovsky and Irene Sobol for DEPESHA.