If you don’t know who Bill Cunningham is, you’re in for a treat. This whole issue deals with fashion, and nobody knows it better than him.
In the 2010 Zeitgeist Films documentary Bill Cunningham New York by Richard Press, we are lucky enough to follow him around in his busy daily life. An unassuming and humble character, Cunningham is essentially a sweet old man who has his finger on the pulse of fashion better than an army of young, trendy fashionistas.
Cunningham is a long-time New York Times photographer who photographs for two columns of the paper: “Evening Hours,” which chronicles high society galas and the like, and “On the Street,” in which he identifies and captures trends in fashion at street level.
To him, New York City’s streets are a catwalk. He sees movements when others see nothing. When everyone else is tired, he’s exhilarated.
“He sees trends before any of us,” according to Vogue’s indomitable Anna Wintour in the film.
“This isn’t what I think, it’s what I see,” Cunningham explains in the documentary. “There’s no short cuts, believe me.”
Cunningham braves rain, wind, snow, slush, and heat to get the shots he needs each week.
“He’s like a war photographer in that he’ll do anything for the shot,” according to Paper Magazine’s co-editor-in-chief Kim Hastreiter in the film.
The result is a fascinating record of fashion in New York City (and Paris, of course, during “Fashion Week”). One week it might be hats, another it might be shoes or overcoats – whatever is happening on the streets.
He even has a hand in the page-layout process, choosing the final edits from his film (yes, he still uses film, bless him).
“Bill’s fingerprints are all over everything because he has never, ever, ever sold out one inch of anything,” Hastreiter says in the film.
His high ethical standards are truly something to live up to. He’s never so much as accepted a glass of water while working. He works discretely, quietly, almost invisibly.
The first way I saw his work was via The New York Times website (nytimes.com). There, every time he posts his weekly “On the Street” column in the paper, he narrates a video slideshow explaining the theme. He says things like “marvelous,” “delightful,” and “you kids” completely without irony. He is just so honest and straightforward. It’s fair to say I’m obsessed with these short videos.
Another admirable thing is that Cunningham is acutely aware of societal hierarchies, but treats all subjects the same.
“I’m not interested in celebrities,” he says. “I’m interested in clothes.”
His is a story of following one’s passion, working hard, and having a great career because of it.
“The wider world, that sees fashion as a frivolity, that it should be done away with … the point is that fashion is 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. That’s what I think,” he says with a laugh in the film.
His hard work has not gone unrecognized.
Vogue’s Wintour divulges in the film, “We all get dressed for Bill.”
There’s also a great moment in the film where he is trying to enter an event at “Fashion Week” in Paris. At first he is told to go to the press entrance, until someone recognizes him and says, “Please, he’s the most important man on Earth,” ushering him in.
In 2008, he was awarded the Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. In his touching acceptance speech, he said it all: “He who seeks beauty shall find it.”
Bill Cunningham New York is available for streaming on Netflix. Visit nytimes.com and search Bill Cunningham for his “On the Street” videos. And of course, look for the hard copy of The New York Times for his meticulously laid out spreads.
Amanda May is the Communications Manager of The Arts Council. This is her opinion.