Colin’s Column | Bill Cunningham’s Search for Beauty

LONDON, United Kingdom — “Bill Cunningham New York,” the ‘fly on the wall’ documentary devoted to the octogenarian photographer is very gentle. Pleasingly so, as he has gone from being a well-loved eccentric of the international fashion scene to public property. I saw the film in an art house cinema in London’s West End, where the size of the audience can normally be counted on the fingers of two hands. But for Bill, it was packed.

This audience was not a fashion audience, but the regular anorak-wearing London cinema crowd who do not give a fig about style. Yet here they were, loving a documentary about a man whose life mission has been to capture high fashion and style wheresoever he can find it — on the streets, or at smart international fashion bashes — for his New York Times columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” wittier and cleverer precursors to Scott Schuman’s blog The Sartorialist. Few, if any, of the audience at the London showing of the film seemed likely to be familiar with Bill’s columns, or the people it features, and yet they applauded at the end as the credits rolled, something that does not happen very often at the movies in London, I assure you.

And yet, was I alone in finding the documentary as sad as it was entertaining? Or, should I say, what was revealed of this always charming, engaging and outward-seeming man was sad. Apart from his ascetic lifestyle — bunk bed, cheap food, travel by bicycle — there were moments that made clear Cunningham’s complexity behind that ready laugh and simple life: when he was asked about his sex life, his relationship with his family and his devotion to the catholic church (he goes to church every Sunday). Seconds ticked away in an emotionally charged silence whilst, head bowed almost in penance, he struggled to find an answer. But the answer was there to see. And the word is rejection.

Did he reject his family or did they — and the Catholic church — reject him because of his sexuality? Either way, the film was full of sadness lurking just behind the jolly exterior its hero chooses to present to the camera.

However, what interests me the most about Bill Cunningham is his search for beauty — and possibly truth. He chooses Manhattan as his main stamping ground. But as the film shows, he sometimes has trouble finding anything new, original or noteworthy even (or perhaps especially) at the smart bashes for the couture-clad wealthy that he attends, often uncovering nothing but cookie-cutter repetition and banality in clothes that carry hefty price tags and world-famous labels.

Indeed, in these instances, he draws our attention to what fashion has lost and how poor what is left actually is. And he is right. On so many fashion runways — even some of those with the greatest reputations — we see the second rate treated as if it were first rate and the third rate being praised by people whose lack of knowledge and experience, in strong contrast with Bill’s, should disqualify them from making comments at all.

Perhaps alongside the relative vibrancy of street style — “the best fashion show is definitely on the street,” says Bill — what he is also, if inadvertently, chronicling is the creative decay of a fashion system that once produced Chanel, Vionnet, Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.

A world-class designer once told me that about a week after a collection had been presented, a summons had come from the company’s CEO, who ostensibly wanted to hear about the designer’s plans for his next collection. But at the meeting there was only one question: “what is the handbag for next season?” That was the limit of the interest in the designer’s creativity.

Bill Cunningham is a man with vision and culture, whose singular love of beauty makes him special in today’s fashion world. All I can add is: see the film, grieve over how we are allowing fashion to kill itself through our laziness and ignorance, and pray that Bill’s message has not come too late.

Colin McDowell is a contributing editor at The Business of Fashion.

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  1. I love Bof for me the best fashion world news side!!!
    and I love Bill Cunningham becuase he is so authentic and real!I cant wait for the movie to play in Ny…thanks for your great brief about him //movie!

    Karen Cittone from Woodside, NY, United States
  2. I believe this is already on DVD…we watched it with a DVD bought off of Amazon in one of my classes in Paris, so I believe the US already has access to it!

    Dari from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  3. I felt the exact same sadness when I saw the documentary…

  4. Certainly the film depicts Bill C. as a man who has experienced loneliness and rejection. But I found it so uplifting that he finds healing through beauty and fashion. Shame on those who hurt this gentle and kind man, he is a national treasure.

  5. Thanks for an insightful column. The Bill Cunningham film is wonderful and does have a strong undercurrent of sadness. I agree with you, too, about the sad creative decay that has resulted from the corporatization of the fashion industry.

  6. very thoughtful and well written article Colin. When I watched the documentary I did come out of the theater feeling really sad for Mr. C even though he has been a hero for a long time. Then after thinking about the end for a couple of weeks I wasn’t sure that the film makers made the right decision by springing these extremely personal and delicate questions on him. I kinda thought it was unfair and rude. It’s none of anyone else’s business [his personal life] and felt like the film makers , even if they asked the question out of curiosity could have used their ethical discretion to not include that scene in the movie eventually. don’t know…i just feel like Mr. C might have felt slightly violated.

    At the SS 2011 NYFW, when I saw him i told him I loved his documentary and all he said in response to that was, “I haven’t watched it yet and don’t want to”. this was almost a year after the movie premiered i think.

  7. I think Bill Cunningham sums it up best when he says, “If you don’t take the money, they can’t tell you what to do.” Few people have that kind of courage.

  8. “what he is also, if inadvertently, chronicling is the creative decay of a fashion system that once produced Chanel…and Alexander McQueen.”

    Many major labels these days seem to be stuck in their niche and unable to expand into new ideas and silhouettes. Instead of designers, they have become decorators.

    Roxanne from Tacoma, WA, United States
  9. I also found Mister Cunningham deeply moving and it makes me think how hard it must be for people who cannot live freely their sexuality and must repress it for their entire lives.

    Also, thank you Mister McDowell for putting it straight : despite their lack of creativity, many shows are praised by the fashion crowd due to the latter’s poor knowledge, curiosity…and independance.

    I don’t have a problem with big corporations stifling creativity (their priority resides in the conglomerate’s quaterly results) but I have an issue with the lack of press visibility, market space & financial support left for NEW emerging names.

    How can we solve this? Through the online press, which may still have more freedom (see the difference between Vogue printed and online)? By governmental help (see the examples of CFDA or BFC)? Please share your suggestions!

    Florence from Terni, Umbria, Italy
  10. you are right – I found it very sad but also had a very strong feeling that there should be no pity.

    Miss Zoe from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  11. I saw the film and it took my breath away. I’m a NYC exile by coice wo lives in Texas, and I watced it with a sense of bittersweetness. I think it is a tribute to tis remarkable man and a love letter to NYC. I cried along wit im wen tey tried to make im out imself. In AIDS influenced America the Gay community has become radicalized and it seems that the lack of gentility it takesd to not bully those who keep their sexuality to themselves has become the order of the day. Assuming arguendo that this wonderful old wizard is gay or is not gay, who cares? Does it make his work any less intruiging? At long last, have we no shame? What was accomplised in that scene? Why embarass a dear, ethical old gentleman by prying into an area of is life which in the end is no ones business? Even so, his vitality, joy, and love of beauty makes this a magical movie.

    Tony B from Dallas, TX, United States