The New York Premiere of “The Times of Bill Cunningham”

The legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who died in 2016, came alive figuratively last month, with the publication of “Fashion Climbing.” If you’ve read it, you can vouch for that fact that you can almost see and hear Bill talk animatedly about his formative early years and his lifelong passions for finding and documenting beauty, personal style, and eccentricity. But with the new documentary  “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” written and directed by Mark Bozek, you actually hear and see him. I guess you could say that it brings the book to life. The New York premiere of the 73-minute film was held on Thursday evening, at Alice Tully Hall’s Starr Theatre in conjunction with the 56th New York Film Festival.

Brendan Fitzgerald, Kathleen  Fitzgerald, Mark Bozek, Susan Rockefeller, Stephane Marsil
Photos: Marilyn Kirschner

On hand, in addition to Mark Bozek, were the executive producers of the film: Brendan and Kathleen Fitzgerald, Susan Rockefeller, Michael Phillips, Stephane Marsil. Among the notables from the worlds of fashion, retail, and the media were Iman, Mary McFadden, Kim Hastreiter, Mickey Boardman, Wendy Goodman, Linda Fargo, Freddie Leiba, Dr. Valerie Steele, Patricia Mears, Bethann Hardisonn, Stephen Burrows, and Pat Cleveland.

One attendee, who obviously ‘Dressed for Bill’ wore a leopard coat and matching pumps accessorized with an elaborate hat which could have been a Bill Cunningham design though it was not. The hat was so tall, it blocked part of my view of the movie (she was seated a few rows in front of me).

Wendy Goodman

Before the start of the film, Mark went onstage to say a few words. The rookie filmmaker thanked everyone who encouraged him to make the movie and those involved in seeing it to fruition and Bill’s niece, Trish Simonson (he left his entire photo archive to her). Mark knew how treasured and beloved Bill was and although it was a damp and nasty evening, he pointed out that it was Rei Kawakubo’s birthday which he took to be a great omen. Mark’s background is in fashion marketing, television production and 20- plus years as a QVC executive. I first met him in the 80’s when I was an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, and he was the public relations director for WilliWear Ltd. Willi Smith, its innovative fashion designer, passed away in 1987 at the age of 39 from AIDS-related pneumonia.

Linda Fargo

This well-edited and fast-paced film is narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker and is much more personal than the 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York. It was born out of an interview Mark conducted with the iconic street photographer in 1994 which was initially intended as a short clip for that year’s CFDA Fashion Awards where Bill was being honored with the Media Award (he rode onstage in his signature bicycle to the glee of the audience). “He called me up and said, ‘I hate to bother you, I have to get this stupid CFDA award, would you mind coming over? I just gotta do a one-minute video’” recalled Bozek. But instead of 10 minutes, it was four hours. He explained that when Kim Hastreiter of Paper Magazine first posted the news of Bill’s passing on Instagram back in 2016, he went into his basement and retrieved the old tapes from that day at Carnegie Hall and watched them for the first time in twenty years.

During the course of the movie, Bill is staring out at you from the big screen wearing a pinstriped oxford shirt and black tie (that he undoubtedly bought for pennies at a thrift store) as he tells his life story to Mark. He touches upon many of the same subjects, themes, and people as his posthumous memoir. With both, you can trace how a wildly imaginative child from a middle-class Irish Catholic family in Boston, who lived and breathed for fashion and glamour, would morph into the most celebrated and iconic photographer and documentarian of our time.

You hear about his life-changing stint at Bonwit Teller in New York, his long association with Diana Vreeland when she lorded over the Met’s Costume Institute and Chez Ninon’s Nona Parks and Sophie Shonnard. You would get a glimpse into his time in the army while stationed in Paris (he used it as a major fashion education), his years as a milliner which came to an end when hats went out of vogue, his meeting with John Fairchild and his work at Women’s Wear Daily. You could sense and see the palpable joy the day he got that Olympus Pen-D, 35mm camera which literally changed his life. But the book, which was written in the 70’s, covers his life from the beginning through the 60’s just prior to his working at the Times. The movie is obviously more up to date (through the mid 90’s) and includes his time at The New York Times along with vast photo archives and documents covering six decades not to mention previously unpublished material from his earlier days.

What you come away with is that the Bill we knew at 87 was the boy we read about at the age of 4 and vice versa. He never lost that unbridled enthusiasm, enormous energy, passion, and childlike wonderment. The life Bill fantasized about in New York, a city he referred to as the most glamorous city in the world, filled with beauty, elegance, chic, and constant visual stimulus, was a dream that came true and he never took any of it for granted. He was never jaded, and he appreciated it all, and that is precisely what came through loud and clear, not only in his memoirs but in the documentary.

It is quite entertaining. At times, he is breaking out in gleeful laughter as he recounts humorous incidents from his past. Yes, it is often laugh out loud funny as when Bill retold how a high-level executive at a perfume company was convinced he was a pickpocket and his camera was a ploy. They laughed when Sarah Jessica Parker told how Bill stumbled upon his signature uniform: a blue workman’s shirt worn by French sanitation men and again, when she talked about Chez Ninon’s Nona Parks and Sophie Shonnard, describing them as wealthy women who were both divorced, and whose parents put them in business so they would not commit suicide. I guess you could credit her perfect diction and her deadpan delivery.

President Kennedy and Jacqueline  Kennedy

And yes, it is joyful, as one would expect it would be, with Bill speaking passionately about his love of fashion and his quest to find great style which was first and foremost his main focus and objective. He said he was not interested in celebrities or Hollywood and dismissed the personal style of many stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Leslie Caron, and Joan Crawford (though he said one exception was Gloria Swanson). For the record, he didn’t think the Duchess of Windsor had an exceptional personal style either though he very much liked the Duke. For him, good taste and great style were exemplified by Babe Paley and Jacqueline Kennedy, both of whom were loyal Chez Ninon customers.

He reiterated many times that fashion was not to be seen as merely superficial but rather, a bonafide way to express oneself with the potential to bring joy and happiness to women. He also knew that it was a reflection of society and politics of the time. Freedom was another constant subject that came up. Bill talked about living in this country and being “free as a bird.” Free to do what he loved to do most. His bicycle allowed him the freedom to wake up each day and explore the city he loved so much and find something wonderful and surprising.  It was all about getting the picture and staying as invisible as possible.

When Mark asked Bill what some of the highlights of his career have been (fashion shows, etc.) he quickly spoke about his first Jacques Fath, and Balenciaga shows in Paris, Andre Courreges, and the famous Battle of Versailles show which pitted five leading American designers against their  French counterparts. He also raved about the brilliant, modern designs of African-American designer Stephen Burrows and the way in which the African-American models (Pat Cleveland and Bethann Hardison among them) took total control of the runway and owned the night. As he put it, it was “pure raw talent pressing on the raw nerve of the time.”

Antonio Lopez and Juan Eugene Ramos photographed by Bill

Like the book, the movie was also quite poignant. While you obviously can’t see tears in the former, Mark had to stop the taping several times while Bill got very emotional and shed tears over loved ones lost to the AIDS epidemic so rampant in the 80’s and 90’s. Included in the death toll was his great friend and illustrator Antonio Lopez. SJP also explained that at one point, when Antonio was dying, and he had no money to pay his medical bills, Bill bought a painting from him and paid him around $150,000 but he returned the painting to Antonio so he could sell it again. While he himself led an ascetic life, Bill quietly gave millions to AIDS charities and to the Catholic Church.

Bill was undoubtedly confident and knew he was good at what he did, but remained famously self-effacing and modest. When Mark asked how he would describe himself to people who never heard of him, he thought for a second and said, “Untalented” but then added the word, “documentarian.” He also  insisted he was not in the same league as famed street photographers Weegee, known for his stark black and white street photographs in the 30’s, 40s, and 50’s, or Harold Chapman, the English photographer who chronicled Paris in the 1950’s and taught him to “be invisible.” They’re “the real deal,” Bill said in his humble way.

Of course, we all know and agree that Bill was truly “the real deal” and someone who can never be duplicated. The film certainly captured his essence.  And for more about Bill, don’t miss Marilyn’s one hour “Masters of Fashion” video interview with Bill conducted back in 2003.

– 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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