Video Interview with American Master of Fashion – Photographer & Historian Bill Cunningham

The ‘American Masters of Fashion Video Series‘, hosted by our Editor-in-Chief Marilyn Kirschner, is an exclusive feature production of This interview with Bill was done in 2003. Other previous ‘Masters’ interviews by Marilyn were with Ruth Finley, Irish Apfel, Elsa Klensch and Ralph Rucci. Also, don’t miss the original video interviews hosted and conducted for us by Grace Mirabella with Arthur Elgort and CEO Rose Marie Bravo.

Summary Notes on Part 1 Video:

William Doyle Galleries ‘Couture Specialist’, Jan Glier Reeder, described Bill Cunningham as “a fashion historian, scholar, trend-spotter, cultural chronicler (fashion’s consummate documentarian with a camera), who holds a unique position in the world of post-war fashion.”

Bill Cunningham designed hats (“they were less costly than clothing to create”), worked as a fashion consultant for Chez Ninon in the 50’s, became a writer for WWD with John Fairchild’s encouragement in the 1960’s, was the New York and Paris fashion correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, and has been a photographer/chronicler for The New York Times – both his ‘Evening Hours’ and ‘On the Street’ columns are must reads -for the past 30 years.

Bill is a rarity in the fashion business: he is a major talent, widely respected, liked by all, and yet remains modest, honest, and outspoken. He has received many awards and words of praise but is fond of downplaying all of it saying “you just go out and do your job”. He prefers to credit his success to his wonderful “subjects”.

Although he can’t remember what triggered his love of fashion, he does recall buying dresses for his mother whose clothes he didn’t like. And despite his elitist’s eye, and a near encyclopedic knowledge of couture and fashion, he is completely democratic in his fashion point of view. Style for him has nothing whatsoever to do with celebrity (quite frankly, he could care less), money, or labels…it’s all about the way in which clothes are worn, the way they are put together. Finding these flashes of creativity are what it is ‘all about’ for him. He strongly believes that “fashion is the most personal thing you do …you get up in the morning and you get dressed … no matter what you have on – good or bad – it reflects your feeling about yourself; there’s no two ways about it!” And he chides, “of course, I Iook like hell.. I’m just a worker in the factory …but I’m crazy to see it on people like yourself.”

Hear what he has to say about the fabulous “museum” worthy clothing on sale at Doyle’s recent Couture and Textile Auction: “if you’re going to buy clothing and invest money, that’s the place to go … Saks and Bergdorf missed the boat completely … this is what should be filling up a department there”. And what does he think about the spectacle the runway shows have become? As he puts it: “we should stop going to them and just go to the pre-show collections”. He feels very strongly about designers returning to small presentations. 

Summary Notes on Part 2 Video:

On the subject of newspapers, and especially fashion magazines, he feels the greatest change in recent years is how the “advertising departments are taking over editorial content”. While Bill admits to reading as many fashion magazines as he can each month, he singled out French Vogue (“dazzling”) under new editor in chief Carinne Roitfeld, who he has been photographing for about ten years (“she has her finger on the raw nerve of fashion….just like Anna Wintour did in the late 80’s and 90’s”).

His relationship with the street is a very special one – he admits to hitting the streets with his camera, as an “Rx” for the blues, and says he “lets the street speak to me” for the ideas that turn up in his ‘On the Street’ column each Sunday. This perfectionist painstakingly works on stories for months, often dropping ideas if they don’t hold up, or redoing them a year later if the trend is still there (“it can’t be faked, it can’t be hype”.) 

He shows up at The New York Times, each morning at 7:30 for their oatmeal (“the best in New York”), and praises the company where he has worked for about 30 years for their “honesty and integrity”. He certainly seems like a very content, happy man (“I just enjoy life and enjoy what I do”), and admits to a very simple life…boasting he doesn’t even own credit cards.

He laughs off a question about retirement, saying he “doesn’t look at what he does as work”, and it’s obvious that he would be doing what he does without the paycheck. What about a ‘successor’? “Who would be crazy enough to stand out in the street for three weeks just to find the perfect woman?”

The three most ‘memorable’ moments of his career? 1 – Dior’s New Look in 1947 “feminine romance” 2 – The “totally pure designs” of Andre Courreges (“something you never saw before…he invented the third sex”) 3 – The birth of French ready-to-wear.

Other Master’s of Fashion Interview with Elsa Klensch & Ruth Finley

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Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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