I don’t want to overstate the obvious, but most of you would know that I am neither a New Yorker nor a fashion expert. While I enjoy style and design and I’m somewhat awed by the city, it’s clear to any observer that I’m native to neither. But, there’s something about Bill Cunningham that makes me feel comfortable with both. He lives and roams in the intimidating worlds of fashion and Manhattan, but manages to do so in an unpretentious way.
This weekend I re-watched the feature-length documentary Bill Cunningham New York, which profiles this prolific photographer and wise fashion observer and, once again, this eighty-something gentleman captured all my heart. Sometimes, as a fashion outsider, I imagine that NY style begins and ends on the runway. Bill Cunningham is a firm believer that this notion is not true. “The best fashion show is definitely on the street – always has been, always will be,” he assures us. His “On the Street,” column in the New York Times is a collage of on-trend people, items, movements, and real-time style progressions. In the film, Harold Koda, Curator of the Costume Institute/Metropolitan Museum of Art, explains that Bill attempts to “tease out trends in terms of the reality of how people dress.” Cunningham himself demurs, “I don’t decide anything. I let the street speak to ME.”
“Here we are in an age of the cookie cutter sameness,” he says. “There are a few that are rarities.” Amazingly enough, he looks without negativity; his constant clicking is searching for the singular, the exceptional, not the unfortunate. As Annette de La Renta, Trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art noted, “He’s incredibly kind. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a cruel picture done by Bill. And, certainly, he’s had an opportunity to really have done it. And he’s chosen not to do it.”
Cunningham bicycles around New York on his 29th bicycle (the first 28 have been stolen) in his recognizable blue windbreaker, always scanning the moving mass of people for that one thing that makes an outfit, a pattern, a person special. Anna Wintour, Editor-in-Chief of American Vogue Magazine: “I’ve said many times that we all get dressed for Bill. He’s always doing it because he has a point of view.” Natalie remembers being photographed by Bill a couple of times and still beams at the thought that she managed to catch his eye but never, to her knowledge, made it into the paper. She says, “Just chatting with him at a party is awe inspiring.”
In scenes from the film during Paris fashion week, Bill seems unintimidated by the spectacle and unimpressed with the impractical. “Looking at these collections, I look for what I think a woman could wear, would wear, and whether it would fit a human body, other than the model. I’m very attuned to that. If it isn’t something a woman would wear, I have no interest in it.” What a relief for a woman on the street to hear.
It seems unusual that someone in the business of fashion publishing looks for the realness within the often surreal. He wants to see – and photograph – what will look good on your body, and mine, all the while celebrating the art of design. Cunningham loves fashion and is a seeker of beauty. His approach is comforting and refreshing. He reminds us that we are allowed to love fashion, to love feeling beautiful and that we are allowed to do all of this without being labeled as superficial.
“The wider world that perceives fashion as a frivolity, as something that should be done away with…the point is in fact that fashion, you know, point of fact, it’s the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.”
There’s no doubt that Bill Cunningham is a straight shooter, both literally and figuratively. He has integrity in how he approaches his subjects. His work is his life and he seems to derive immense pleasure from it. His camera is an instrument for transmitting beauty. As he so adeptly summarizes his work, “It’s as true today as it ever was: He who seeks beauty will find it.” Amen.
Watch the trailer for Bill Cunningham New York here and catch the film on DVD or streaming. One of my all-time favorite films; you will walk away with a deeper appreciation for beauty, voice, and, above all, individuality.