Bill Cunningham Was There: Spring Flings + Summer Soirées

Photograph by Zack Hyman for BFA / Courtesy Rizzoli New York
More info/purchase

There’s been a steep decline in Covid cases. People are getting vaccinated, masking up, practicing good hygiene, and safely distancing themselves. Every day is getting a little brighter, and there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

As if to echo the sentiment, one big theme that played out in the course of the very abbreviated American Collections (formerly known as New York Fashion Week) is the move away from cozy basics to wear at home and an emphasis on special occasion clothes begging to be worn out. Even the daywear is more about being ‘extra’ than simply basic and boring. Yes, life goes on!

“Bill Cunningham Was There”
Photograph Chris Kahley / Courtesy Rizzoli New York

Over the last few days, we’ve seen a lot of color (especially pink), embellishments, fringes, feathers, exuberant florals, and graphic patterns. But, that is nothing compared to the high-spirited fashions that fill the pages of Bill Cunningham Was There: Spring Flings + Summer Soirées, by John Kurdewan and Steven Stolman, Rizzoli New York, 2021. Photography by Bill Cunningham. The book has a release date of March 9, 2021. It is $40 and available at rizzolusa.com.

“Bill Cunningham Was There”
Photograph by Bill Cunningham / Courtesy Rizzoli New York

It would be hard not to smile when you look through the pages. Cunningham had an infectious joyfulness and optimism that always shown through his images. He was a genius at capturing magical moments with extraordinary style. Even the ordinary became magical through his lens. The book is a remembrance of days past and a reminder that they will come again. Boy, do we need this now!

Bill Cunningham and John Kurdewan
Photograph by Diana DiMenna
/ Courtesy Rizzoli New York

Five years after Bill’s passing, his memory and legacy are being kept alive through films and books. “Bill Cunningham: On the Street: Five Decades of Iconic Photography,” a comprehensive record of Bill’s work, compiled by the editors of The New York Times, was released in September of 2019. Steven and John’s book is a very loving but modest and personal tribute to Bill. As Steven notes, “The Times book is an extraordinary, encyclopedic showcase of Bill’s body of work. Our book is humble by comparison. We could never have done that as we didn’t have that kind of budget or access to the archive. But I think our story comes through”.

“Bill Cunningham Was There”
Photos by John Kurdewan and Chris Kahley
/ Courtesy Rizzoli New York

Theirs is also a much smaller, more intimate story than the Times. It’s the point of view of John Kurdewan, who worked by Bill’s side 24/7. “This is John’s story and John’s book,” says Steven. “I was just the facilitator.” Because of John’s unique relationship with Bill, as a shoulder to shoulder, day in, day out colleague and friend, it has a different perspective that they hope will delight and inform the reader.

“Bill Cunningham Was There”
Photograph by Steven Stolman
/ Courtesy Rizzoli New York

Another key difference is that while the Times book focuses on Bill’s “On the Street” columns, Steven and John’s book concentrates on Bill’s “Evening Hours”. They specifically wanted to tell the story of how an event would be “electrified by the mere presence of Bill” according to Stolman. Bill knew who the people that matter were. Who set up the parties, who donated to the charities, and where the money was going, observes John.

The forward is beautifully written by Ruben Toledo; the Introduction and personal remembrances are written by Steven and John, who also explores what it was like to work with Bill. There are wonderful pictures taken by John and Chris Kahley showing Bill at home in his new apartment, in his office at the Times, and doing his thing out on the street. The 144 page 9 X12 inch all-color tome is divided into 10 chapters. Each chapter is devoted to one or more of Bill’s signature events.

“Bill Cunningham Was There”
Photo by Bill Cunningham
/ Courtesy Rizzoli New York

For example, “By the Sea – Out East” has images from The Hamptons Classic Horse Show, The Southampton Hospital Gala, The Fire Island Dance Festival, The Watermill Center Gala, and more. “Gilded Lives” shows pictures from the Coaching Weekend at Newport and other high-profile gatherings in New England. John and Steven believe this is some of Bill’s best work. “The Rites of Spring and Summer” includes photos taken at The Met Gala, the annual Frick Collection Spring Garden Party, the Couture Council Luncheon given by The Museum at FIT.

“Bill Cunningham Was There”
Photograph by Bill Cunningham
/ Courtesy Rizzoli New York

“All That Jazz” shows Bill’s penchant for turn of the century flapperesque finery and his love of dance through images taken at the Governor’s Island Lawn Party and Lincoln Center Midsummer Night Swing. “Does Anyone Still Wear Hats?” includes many of Bill’s pictures taken at his beloved Frederick Law Olmsted Awards luncheon at the Central Park Conservancy, where hats took center stage and women dressed to the nines. “Florals Petals and Patterns” shows images from the NYBG Conservatory Ball, the ABT Spring Gala, and others.

“Think Pink- A State of Mind” includes a picture of Karen Elson in a spectacular blush pink duchess satin Zac Posen gown, Jean Shafiroff in a gorgeous pale pink pleated babydoll gown, Amanda Ross in a knee length dress with a flurry of shocking pink feathers, men at parties in the Hamptons wearing bright pink blazers and trousers, and a group of men wearing nothing but hot pink briefs, attending the Gay Pride Parade in New York City. Typically, Bill loved to mix different kinds of fashion and all sectors of society into one beautiful mosaic.

“Well, I’m just interested in people who look great. My god that could be the cleaning lady.” – Bill Cunningham

Some of Bill’s more iconic quotes, or passages taken from his articles, are blown up on the side to emphasize his philosophy. One of my favorites is “Well, I’m just interested in people who look great. My god that could be the cleaning lady.”

My treasured spread sent to me by Bill himself
Photographs by Bill Cunningham

I am proud to say that I am also in the book: a double-page spread of me, “The Color of Money (In the Bank)” which originally ran in The New York Times on Sunday, February 11, 2001. It appears in “The Eccentric Aesthete” Chapter 2. John says this is his favorite picture along with one of Broadway producer and philanthropist Diana DiMenna who is wearing a black dress embroidered with a veritable garden of blooms at the 2015 New York Historical Society Gala.

Steven Stolman and John Kurdewan
Photograph by Diana DiMenna
/ Courtesy Rizzoli New York

John also loves the picture of him with Steven taken by Diana DiMenna, when they met for the first time at the Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon. It was Alexandra Lebenthal who put the two together.

Steven says his favorite photo is one taken at the Southampton Hospital Gala. All the “gals” (Somers Farkas, Margo Nederlander, etc.) are ‘nonchalantly’ standing around in their bright dresses, but you know they are hoping to be photographed by Bill. Steven and John are especially pleased with the exuberant cover shot photographed by Zack Hyman for BFA.com. Bill is clad in his trusty blue workman’s jacket and chinos, holding his camera and gleefully pointing it at a subject. You can’t really see who the women are, but you can see the sparkle and twinkle in Bill’s eye. He is clearly doing what he loved to do the most.

“After more than two and a half years of conversations, lectures, and a lot of hard work, our dream has become a reality. We are so excited and grateful!” says John Kurdewan. “This was such a humble, heartfelt project. Seeing it for the first time brought me to tears. Rizzoli exceeded our expectations,” Steven admits. “The paper is so beautiful. I think I can speak for my dearest co-author John Kurdewan, and the true teller of this story, that surely the extraordinary Bill Cunningham is smiling down upon us and saying, “Oh, this is marvelous”.”

More Bill Cunningham: Lookonline’s 57 minutes “Masters of Fashion” video interview of Bill by Marilyn Kirschner.

Marilyn Kirschner
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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