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.