The late Bill Cunningham was not a divisive person in the fashion world. Commonly regarded as the grandfather of street style photography, he was not mired in controversy like so many of his industry peers, nor was he publicly political. He could be called fashion’s Mr. Rogers, although his time was spent largely behind a camera rather than in front of it.
It’s for this reason that watching Cunningham choke back tears during a 1994 interview is so striking. His emotion is prompted by a discussion of the AIDS crisis that cut short the lives of many of his friends and contemporaries in New York City, and it’s clear that Cunningham was consumed by grief, like so many around him at the time. The clip, which appears in a new documentary about his life, serves as a rare moment of darkness in what is otherwise a bright retelling of a man’s life and career, much in his own words.
The film, “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” follows another Cunningham documentary released in 2010, while he was still alive, as well as a number of other projects which commemorated the longtime New Yorker (including a memoir discovered posthumously.) The new film is the first Cunningham-related project from Mark Bozek, the director who also conducted the 1994 interview with Cunningham which comprises much of the film and features previously unreleased photographs from Cunningham’s vast archive.
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“What stuck out to me the most about Bill… was his incredible passion and humility, something that isn’t always apparent in the world of fashion,” Bozek says. “There’s nobody that exists who lived in a cave and slept on a foam mattress atop his pictures and shared a bathroom… but then [would] go out and shoot pictures of Jackie Kennedy and Randolph Hearst on the same night,” Bozek adds.
He’s referring to the small studio inside Carnegie Hall where Cunningham lived among other bohemian tenants (a remnant of old New York, much like the artist apartments inside the Chelsea Hotel, you’d be hard pressed to find in the city today.)
The documentary chronicles Cunningham’s start as a milliner in France during the Korean War, his proximity to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and his four decades spent working for the New York Times.
Most of those details are already known to those who know anything about Cunningham — they were recounted in the 2011 documentary, as well as an exhibit at the New York Historical Society in 2018.
The finer memories of Cunningham’s entry into fashion and New York society, however, are what give the film its meat. While he served in the army, he would attend fashion shows in Paris during his “leave,” and send Balenciaga dresses through the army mail to dressmakers in New York who were keen on copying the trend-setting French designs while bypassing U.S. Customs. He worked with two women at Chez Ninon to help outfit New York socialites and Hollywood actresses, Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford among them.
“They were wonderful and charming, but… they didn’t mean anything to me because they didn’t have style,” Cunningham says in the film.
Another Cunningham trivia nugget: he reveals how he purchased a piece of art from friend Antonio Lopez for $130,000 so Lopez could use the money to pay for his medical treatment. Cunningham then returned the painting to Lopez, without taking the money back, so Lopez could sell it again.
While the fact of his monk-like existence is well known, his assumed wealth is not oft discussed after his death — this is despite his friends in New York society gifting him countless pieces of artwork and clothing which would be considered highly valuable today.
Perhaps most striking about this latest Cunningham documentary is that there is nothing evidently dark or complicated about his story (save the grief he expressed over his friends lost to AIDS.) The idea that a good man can live modestly and devote himself to his work, with little expectation for recognition or praise, seems so strange in today’s world. Yet Cunningham remains as relevant as ever, having influenced some of the most well-known street style photographers like Tommy Ton and The Sartorialist and inspiring an altogether new crop of talent.
“The Times of Bill Cunningham” premieres Friday, Feb. 14 in New York City and will be distributed nationally in theaters after that.