Decades before The Sartorialist and Tommy Ton, Bill Cunningham was photographing street fashions. Now an incredible new documentary ‘Bill Cunningham New York’ tells his life story.
Cunningham, 81, has been documenting the fashions found on New York Streets for the last 50 years. With a battered Nikon camera, he goes everywhere on his bicycle, snapping anything that catches his eye.
“The best fashion show is definitely on the street,” he says in the film. “Always has been. Always will be.”
His obsessive love of fashion, he explains thus: “There is no reason to be doom and gloom and think that fashion is finished… The wider world perceives fashion as frivolity that should be done away with. The point is that fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it, it would be like doing away with civilisation.”
Reclusive, and fiercely private about his personal life, it took Richard Press, the film’s director and his producer, Philip Gefter, eight years to convince their subject to appear in the documentary. Once Bill gave the OK, though, it was still an uphill battle. Often they would loiter at the New York Times offices or outside the Carnegie Hall where Cunningham lives in a tiny artist’s studio, hoping he would allow them to switch on their camera. Basically, they say, they wore him down.
The biggest names in fashion and New York society, however, were only too eager to come forward to talk about Cunningham, and share their anecdotes about him.
“I have said many times that we all get dressed for Bill,” says Anna Wintour. “He’s been documenting me ever since I was a kid. And it’s one snap, two snaps or he ignores you, which is death,” she laughs.
Tom Wolfe is interviewed praising Cunningham’s ability to distill a moment or a mood in the city at a time when “New York society becomes harder and harder to define,” he says.
At a screening on Monday night hosted by the CFDA’s Steven Kolb and Calvin Klein Collection’s Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli; Grace Coddington, Hamish Bowles and Carolyn Murphy were amongst the fashion VIPs in attendance. Others who appear in the film include Brooke Astor, Annette de la Renta, Patrick Macdonald, Anna Piaggi, Michael Kors, Carmen Dell’Orefice and Iris Apfel.
“Bill Cunningham has such integrity – his legacy is phenomenal,” Costa tells the Telegraph. “When we saw the film for the first time I was so moved by it. Richard and Philip should receive a lot of acclaim for making such a graceful and worthy documentary.”
From Upper East Side swans, European royalty and aspiring fashionistas; to street gangs, punks, downtown transvestites and even bicycle messengers – if there is something interesting to say about the clothes, Cunningham will snap them.
“Street Style emerged at the same point that Bill got a camera,” in the mid-1960s, says Harold Koda, curator at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Bill was the first to document “ordinary people going about their day dressed in extraordinary ways,” he says.
“He is a true egalitarian, however that doesn’t mean that he isn’t aware of cultural division and hierarchies. He just treats it all the same,” Koda adds.
Cunningham attends the fashion shows in New York and Paris, he also covers the most prestigious social events each night in New York for his page in the Times called “Evening Hours.”
His big break came in 1978, when he was struck by the sight of a beautiful fur coat being worn by a woman – although the woman interested him less than the coat.
“I thought: ‘Look at the cut of that shoulder. It’s so beautiful,'” he later wrote in the Times. “And it was a plain coat, too. You’d look at it and think: ‘Oh, are you crazy? It’s nothing.’ ” It was only after he noticed the wearer was causing a stir, that he realised it was Greta Garbo.
That week, he had also photographed Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Farrah Fawcett, a Kennedy in a fox coat and the King and Queen of Spain, carrying plastic shopping bags. He got his first page in the Times shortly thereafter.
“I am not interested in celebrities with their free dresses. I am interested in clothes,” says Cunningham.
“The main thing I love about street photography is that you find the answers you don’t see at the fashion shows… If you just cover the designers in the shows, that’s only one facet. You also need the street and the evening hours. If you cover the three things, you have the full picture of what people are wearing,” Cunningham has said.
He captures some of the most decadent events on the fashion calendar – the couture shows in Paris, for example – yet Cunningham must be history’s most frugal fashion observer. He sleeps on a camp bed in his studio surrounded by filing cabinets. The bathroom is down the hall and shared with other tenants. He never eats out and owns perhaps four outfits at most – his uniform is a blue workman’s smock (with lots of pockets) which he buys from a DIY store in Paris. The street-sweepers there wear the same shirt. In the rain, he cycles in a plastic poncho full of holes repaired with gaffer tape. He is on his 28th bicycle, having had 27 stolen in New York over the years.
Of his reluctance to accept even a glass of water at any of the events he covers, he tells the cameras: “You see, if you don’t take money they can’t tell you what to do, that’s the key to the whole thing.”
Says Press: “Bill has chronicled the intersection of fashion, society and culture in New York for over fifty years like an anthropologist… Bill’s rigorous work ethic, his joy and passion for his subject matter, and the simplicity with which he lives his life; all of that is an inspiration.”
In 2008, Cunningham was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres , by the French Ministry of Culture. In his speech, he was overcome with emotion. He told the assembled glitterati: “It’s as true today as it ever was. He who seeks beauty, will find it”
(Melissa Whitworth, Telegraph Fashion)
Check out the video “Bill Cunningham: Words Of Wisdom” here:
Beauty is in the eye of the lens holder.