Wednesday, September 10, 2014

9 Surprising Things About Bill Cunningham

Photo credit: 92 Street Y

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the “Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis: Bill Cunningham” at the 92 Street Y in New York City. I entered the the auditorium with several expectations. For example, I expected the presentation would be sold out. Check. Secondly, I assumed the audience would be largely women--partly because Bill Cunningham (above left) is a fashion photographer and partly because he has a very appealing personality. Check. Next, I expected the audience would be in either in the fashion business or interested in it, and consequently, stylishly dressed. Check. After all, it's Fashion Week in New York City. In fact, the presences of fashion people--including Norma Kamali and Carolina Herrera--were acknowledged by Ms. Mallis throughout the evening. And finally, I expected Bill to walk on stage with a camera slung around his neck and snapping photos of the audience. Check and check.

What I hadn’t expected was the standing ovation Mr. Cunningham would receive before he’d even opened his mouth. The audience was on its feet the minute he walked on stage. That was the first surprise in an evening of many surprises.

If you’re new to the Bill Cunningham phenomenon, I highly recommend seeing the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, released in 2011. In it, you’ll find a hard-working, passionate, talented, yet humble and down-to-earth fashion photographer who has been photographing fashion on the runway and and on the NYC streets for over 30 years. Even if you have no interest in fashion, you can’t help but envy and respect this wise and wonderful chronicler of our times.

After the applause died down, Fern Mallis (above right), who was the creator of New York Fashion Week, told Bill she had a few questions to ask him. “Okay, shoot, kid,” he said. From there, Bill regaled the audience with tales from his 50 years in fashion-related work. His memory for dates, events and people's names was absolutely amazing. At 85, Bill shows no signs of slowing down. “Age doesn’t mean a thing,” he said. “I enjoy what I do.”

I, like so many others, had fallen in love with Bill's sweet personality and fierce devotion to his work while watching the documentary. It was lovely to see the same honest, thoughtful, caring artist in person as I’d seen on film. Several times during the 90-minute conversation, Bill got a little chocked up as he spoke about a wonderful person or a great fashion moment from his past. His sensitivity and transparency are particularly heroic in a city where people can be a bit jaded and eager to hide behind status symbols. But without further ado, here are...

Bill Cunningham

  1. He had a camera when he was young, but stopping using it. Said Bill, “I had a box camera, but my mother was extremely shy, so I put it away.” 

  2.  He went to Harvard. “I went to Harvard, but that only lasted 4 months. I told them, ‘I’m the wrong guy.’”

  3. He thinks Diana Vreeland is 'wonderful,' even though she took a pair of scissors to one of his hat designs. “I was asked to bring hats to Harper’s Bazaar,” he explained. “Diana Vreeland asked for scissors and started cutting the brim of one of my hats. Afterwards, she said, ‘I may have cut too much.’" He laughed and added warmly, "She was a piece of work.”

  4. When people think of Bill Cunningham, they picture him riding his bike around the city, taking photos. However, he once owned a 1934 Rolls Royce.

  5. While working at Bonwit Teller, he dyed one of Jackie Kennedy’s suits, so she could wear it to President Kennedy’s funeral. "There wasn’t time to get fabric and make a new suit," he said.

  6.  He has boxes and boxes of photographic prints, but he doesn’t think anyone will want them. “I don’t know who would want to bother with them.” And more importantly, “I’m afraid someone might publish an unflattering photo of someone.”

  7. His favorite fashion show was the Battle of Versailles Fashion Show  in 1973. The 'battle' was between old world designers (such as Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, and Hubert de Givenchy) and  American newcomers (such as Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrow). The Americans introduced ready-to-wear fashion at the show. "At the end, everyone threw up their programs and ran backstage. The women wanted the clothes designed by the Americans!" 

  8.  When asked about the documentary about him, he said, “I’ve never seen it.”

  9.  What would he like to see from fashion in the future? “I’d like to see a return to simple, honest designs.”

Prior to walking out on stage, a reporter asked Bill what he thought his legacy will be. In typical Bill Cunningham fashion, he replied: “I told him, ‘Who has time to think about legacy. I’m too busy working.’” Bravo, Bill!

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