From director Richard Press, Bill Cunningham New York is a portrait of man, loved by all but really known by so few.
Bill Cunningham, 84, is a photojournalist for The New York Times, and a unique figure in the global fashion industry. The editor of the NYT’s “Street Scene” pages, Cunningham has spent decades photographing the couture that whizzes along the sidewalks – not the catwalks – of the city he loves. In 2008, he was awarded the title chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture, where he spent the evening taking pictures of his guests.
Richard Press’ documentary is a homage to Cunningham and the contradictions he so effortlessly embraces; the man that everyone wants to know, who lives like a monk, is obsessed with clothing as art but chooses plain clothes for himself. Invited to photograph high-society parties, he refuses to drink even a glass of water on their dime, before cutting through Manhattan traffic on a rickety old Schwinn bike. “If you don’t take their money, they can’t tell you what to do,” he laughs at the camera. When a PR guard at Paris Fashion Week questions his credentials, he’s quickly ushered inside by an insider exclaiming, “He’s the most important man in the world!”
Director Richard Press tells i-D online about this “rare bird,” and the film he made about him, which is out in cinemas today.
When did you first meet Bill Cunningham and how did you gain his trust? I grew up in New York, and I grew up reading his column, but I had no idea who was behind the byline. He really was a mystery. When I first started making short films about 10 years ago, I was supporting myself as a graphic designer and freelancing for The New York Times. I was assigned to work with Bill, and thought he was just such a rare bird. After about two or three weeks I decided I had to make a documentary about him.
How did he respond?We directed him into a conference room and told him and he just laughed. He thought it was absurd. He got up and said, “This is why you took me away from my work?” and he walked out. It took eight years to persuade him, and he finally kind of agreed to let us shoot him during New York fashion week. He tried to stop us many times, but we had our foot in the door at that point. It became a constant negotiation. He had no idea what he was getting himself into, and there was a very gradual reveal as he slowly let us into his life.
What was the breakthrough moment when you felt you finally had his trust? He was always looking at us and saying, “I’m so sick of you guys, when are you going to be done?” It was very incremental, but the moment came when he let us into his apartment in Carnegie Hall and introduced us to his neighbours. We were shocked, because to my knowledge he has never let anyone into his apartment – especially with a camera. That was a turning point for the film.
Were you interested in fashion before making the film? I was only interested in fashion in the most civilian way. I would wear the most minimalist outfit, and I could wear that every day and be happy. I always assumed that fashion was about commerce and status, and I didn’t really appreciate the artistry. Bill really opened my eyes to that.
Did you intend to draw out the contradiction between the excess of the fashion industry and the simplicity of Bill Cunningham? I had no agenda really beyond capturing this rare bird as truthfully as possible, but it was always a revelation to me that he could see beyond all the glitz and the commerce and the glitz and the glamour and see that there are artists seriously at work to create clothes as art.
There’s a line in the film: “Money is the cheapest thing. Liberty and being free are the most expensive…” There are so few people – in the fashion industry and in life – that live their life with such a purity of purpose, and he’s an example of somebody who has lived his life on his own terms and he seems to be doing what he’s doing for the right reasons. He’s not interested in fame, he’s not interested in anything material. He’s not interested in money and there’s no ego gratification. He just does what he loves to do for the pure joy of doing it. It’s an ideal, because I don’t think I’d be able to live like he lives, but it’s something to aspire to. He’s like a priest. He’s taken a vow of fashion.
Bill Cunningham New York is out in selected UK cinemas today.
Text: Tom Seymour