It Fits the ‘Bill’
Bill Cunningham at Lookonline's video interview
When I initially heard that there was going to be an 88 minute documentary about Bill Cunningham, (“Bill Cunningham New York”, directed by Richard Press and produced by Phillip Gefter, which is to open the New Directors/New Films series on Wednesday at the Museum of Modern Art, www.newdirectors.org) my first thought was, “it’s about time’. And my second thought was that it was almost hard to believe that Bill would have said yes to such a project (knowing how private a person he is and how much he guards his privacy). But I suppose he has mellowed through the years and perhaps things that he would not have given his approval to decades ago, he would now be amenable to.
So much has been said and written about this true original, especially in the past few weeks, it has made me think about my own personal experiences with him, the amusing stories, and encounters from the past. I have known Bill Cunningham for about 40 years (yikes!) The first time he took my picture, it was the early 70’s and I was a young fashion assistant at Harper’s Bazaar. It was the middle of winter and I was walking past Henri Bendel (it was THE place to shop and be seen, and it was then on 57th Street right off 5th Avenue). I was wearing a fabulous tapestry maxi coat by Anne Klein - the real Anne Klein - which I still have, still fit into, and still adore), Gucci suede loafers, carrying a Louis Vuitton speedy bag, and sporting oversized sunglasses. A wiry man with a camera took my picture and I did not know who he was and I didn’t know where the picture would wind up. Not too long afterwards, as I walked into the Bazaar offices, all the senior fashion editors greeted me with the news that my picture was in WWD. There I was, one of those whose images appeared in an ‘On the Street’ kind of black and white montage photographed by Bill, featuring New Yorkers in their chic maxi coats. It was the beginning of a long photo relationship I would share with this iconic man.
Bill Cunningham devoted an entire column to Marilyn Kirschner during New York Fashion Week - February 11, 2001
One of the joys of being photographed by Bill is not the end product (the photo), but the entire encounter (his engaging optimism and pleasure, his sincere appreciation of individual style, his knowledge of fashion, etc.). It was obvious to me early on, that this man truly enjoys nothing more than fulfilling his senses, spotting great style (or finding a noteworthy trend), recording it for posterity, and sharing it with the world. He was the first of his kind and a forerunner of so much that would follow. With his amazing eye, he could tell stories and capture the essence of the moment. He always ‘got it’ and he still ‘gets it’. I could never believe his true age because he always had (and has) the spirit, curiosity and stamina of someone half his age if not much younger.
I am even prouder now that he agreed to let me interview him as part of the Lookonline’s American Masters of Fashion Interview series (click here for video). I was very flattered because he was not known for partaking in those sorts of things. Even though it was many years ago and admittedly, if I had it to do over now, I would ask different questions, phrase them differently, or change certain things, I feel the interview captured his essence and spirit and it still holds up. And what better time to share this than now?
By the way, there was a recent blog about Bill posted on ‘Lens’, the photography blog on www.nytimes.com, written by David W. Dunlap. I had to chuckle knowingly when he put in parenthesis, (Full disclosure as a Times employee: I adore Bill Cunningham, not only because of his work but because he calls me “young fellow.” I’m 57.) I always delighted in being referred to as “kiddo” or especially, “child”, one of his favorite endearing names. I found it sweet that he always referred to all of us as ‘kids’ emphasizing that we were so much younger than he was. Though on second thought, I can’t remember him calling me “child” in awhile. I guess that’s when you know you’ve officially grown up (or have officially gotten older.)
And for all those interested parties who have blogged about the movie, and stated they were attending the premier, expressing hopes that they might be ‘snapped’ by the man of the hour --they might want to rethink. In fact, they might have a better chance just being out on ‘the street’. According to Mr. Dunlap, “he’s not especially curious about his own bio-pic, though he respects Mr. Press and Mr. Gefter for having gone to the trouble of making it. When I asked him last week whether he planned to see it, Mr. Cunningham answered: “Run for the hills! Up into the mountains with a bag of lentils!” With that, he was off — not to the hills but back to the street.”