Wednesday, March 24, 2010

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, 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, 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.”

-Marilyn Kirschner


Monday, April 27, 2009

‘Snap’ Judgements

A week has gone by and we (and I mean all of us) still can’t stop talking about Susan Boyle and weighing in (sorry about the pun) on our fascination and obsession with beauty, and the notion of judging a book by its cover. This was even the cover story of the Sunday Style section of The New York Times yesterday, “Yes, Looks Do Matter” by Pam Belluck. As Ms. Belluck observed, “for more than a week now, people on both sides of the Atlantic have been using the story of Susan Boyle as an example of just how shallow we’ve become” and she went on to discuss why our “brains persist in using stereotypes” and we continue to make snap judgments based upon looks (something which has been described as “only natural” and human nature, even by Ms. Boyle herself).

Coincidentally, as I turned the pages to continue the article, I happened upon ‘On the Street’, Bill Cunningham’s weekly column. (click here to go to his video column). For over 30 years, the legendary photographer has defined (or rather, redefined) fashion, style, and beauty through his lens (giving new meaning to ‘snap’ judgment), and as I glanced at the images of the diverse group who made the pages this Sunday, I couldn’t help but think how influential Bill has been, and how large a role his column has played in shaping our collective perceptions or misconceptions on those subjects. While admittedly, this group, like all the others, might seem to have little else in common, what binds them together each Sunday is that they possess an element that is the thread in Bill’s column.

His 'Evening Hours' column is all about chronicling names and faces of those revelers who attended high profile events and soirees around town, the ‘On the Street’ is a true collage (in every imaginable way) representing a cross section of life. Bill has the youthful energy and curiosity belying someone decades younger, and is the furthest thing from a snob: he does not search out or photograph the genetically blessed or socially connected. In fact, it’s quite the opposite it seems. BC puts his encyclopedic knowledge of fashion, innate taste, and great natural instincts to use in the most democratic way, finding the extraordinary within the seemingly ‘ordinary’ and giving equal time to labeled and non labeled items, depending on the thrust of the article.

While he has in the past, devoted his pictorials to say, a certain Chanel jacket, Hermes bag, or Burberry trench, more often than not, he is seeking a democratic cross section of items, at all prices, to more effectively and fairly make his point. Or in many cases, he is zeroing in on the finely tuned details that would elude most of us, but which capture his imagination (the arrestingly interesting back of a coat, the dressmaker/ couture like pleats of a dress, the way a belt is tied, etc.) So too with his subjects: he photographs everyone from babies to octogenarians (and not only the Iris Apfels and Brooke Astors of the world) and everyone in between, as well as dogs, cats, flowers, birds, etc. Anything that he finds beautiful and captivating.

And so, photogenic, young, beautiful, fashionable, tall, thin, social/fashion fixtures and celebrated clothes horses (snapped while attending fashion shows, charity balls, high profile openings), are routinely juxtaposed next to unsuspecting ‘civilians’ (of varying sizes, ages, weights, heights, ethnicities, social classes, sexual preferences), who Bill discovered ‘doing their thing’ at street fairs, city parades, or as they ran errands about town. Very often, there are no ‘glamour pusses’ at all (just ‘average Joes’), and celebrity subjects are not automatically given more space time because of ‘who’ they are. For example, in this week’s ‘In the Air’, the picture of fashion star, French Vogue editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld, is not as large as the one of Marjorie Stern, the designer coat collector who is not a fashion insider, but a woman who works on 5th Avenue, and who has caught Bill’s eye.

I remember several years ago when python and snakeskin were the height of fashion and ubiquitous on all the runways. All the designers, from Miuccia Prada to YSL were showing snakeskin coats, jackets, pants, etc. and in his column spotlighting the trend, Bill not only used photos he had taken of editors at the Spring shows in New York and Paris, many wearing designer duds, but showed a young man, (I believe he was a reveler in that year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade), whose naked torso was wrapped with a real snake. It's not just about celebrating or rewarding the fortunate few who can spend well into the 4 figures for an item, but the ones who are individual, creative, and ingenious. I suppose one call Bill the original 'High/Low' guy: a true precursor of what would come. And how relevant, particuarly in these hard economic times!

And talk about not being a snob and being completely democratic, (Bill is not ‘star struck’ and celebrities are not of specific interest to him). In fact, when I interviewed him for our 'Masters of Fashion Video Series', he said that what interests him are women who dress themselves and who buy their own clothes, not socialites and actresses who are given things to wear by their publicists. To wit, during Fashion Week several years ago, as I made my way to my seat at the Tent in Bryant Park, the photographers were making a mad dash to snap an attendee in the front row. Bill asked me who it was, and because I couldn’t see the person, I didn’t know. Well, he went over but quickly came back. In that time, I realized who the celebrity in question was and told him (she will remain secret). Unimpressed, he shrugged and smiled, saying, “It doesn’t matter…she didn’t have any style anyway.”

-Marilyn Kirschner